AUBURN, Ala. – For Nympha Pugh, learning English was part of growing up in the Philippines.
It was one of many subjects in her primary education lineup, a norm for Filipinos studying the world’s most spoken language. After earning a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, Pugh went on to teach English for two years in China before meeting her now husband, Torrey, an Alabamian with ties to Auburn University, and moving to the United States in 2012.
A teacher like her mother, aunts and younger sister, Pugh felt the need to take her skills to another level and enrolled in graduate school at Auburn’s College of Education, or COE, to do exactly that.
“I started at a very young age, and we were introduced to English as a second language in public school,” said Pugh, who came to the United States in 2012 and became a U.S. citizen in 2016. “I learned English through the public school system, but I didn’t think I was equipped to teach someone like me to learn English. As an English learner, or EL, I know the struggles and the challenges of learning a second language, and I think being able to teach them with what I’m learning at Auburn, I’ll be able to help them learn English better.
“The way we were taught in the Philippines was different, so when I came here, my English was a mish-mash of everything. I just thought that I needed to equip myself to teach others.”
Pugh is working toward that endeavor through a master’s program offered by the Department of Curriculum and Teaching called English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, while also teaching for Monroe County Schools in southwest Alabama. Auburn’s ESOL Education—otherwise known as Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL—grad students are a mix of native English speakers looking to increase their capacity to work with English learners in their K-12 classrooms, as well as international students who may want to return to their native countries.
“I’ve learned a lot from professors Williams and Harrison,” said Pugh, winner of the college’s 2021 International Women for Peace Award. “There are things I wasn’t even consciously aware of that I was doing. We’re talking about cultural perspectives, and I didn’t know it was important to know all of these things. Knowing cultures can help you give examples the students can relate to from their own lives and countries.”
Pugh—who also is busy raising a 6-year-old daughter—hopes to one day teach English in Taiwan or again in China after honing her skills via the master’s program at Auburn.
“I’m excited to use all the things I’m learning in class in my classroom,” said Pugh, who is certified as an instructor of secondary education, which is grades 7-12. “Teaching English is not just giving students grammar and a worksheet, it goes beyond that. When you’re teaching an English learner, it’s not just about them perfecting their grammar or their pronunciation, it’s learning about their cultures and making them aware of other cultures and the appreciation of those things to make them a global learner.
“I am an English language learner myself, and I want to give back to the community by getting the strategies to help them learn English better. I’m trying to make an impact, one student at a time.”
Reaching all students
Not only are foreign-born students like Pugh part of the dynamic COE graduate program, but native English speakers on the K-12 track also are pursuing the graduate degree to become better equipped to teach students from across the globe.
For many children who come to the United States from abroad, being an English as a Second Language, or ESL, student can be daunting as they struggle to acclimate to a new culture while also being expected to learn the same coursework as their peers. That makes the job of primary and secondary school teachers even more challenging as they work to make sure no child is left behind during their educational journeys.
Gwendolyn Williams, an associate professor and coordinator of the college’s ESOL Education program, knows how difficult a teacher’s job can be.
“Quite often, teachers might not have any warning, and suddenly they have an ESL student starting in their classroom tomorrow,” Williams said. “They don’t have time to get training before the students arrive. They’ve got to know before the students show up.
“Knowing how to differentiate instruction is going to be key, because you might have students at totally different levels. Obviously, you can’t write 15 different lesson plans, so we teach them how to make the material appropriate for the content standards and workable for the classroom.”
Certain techniques, including the use of visual aids and simplifying language to convey the lessons, are part of Auburn’s TESOL instruction.
“You don’t have to speak the student’s native language to actually be able to effectively teach them,” said Jamie Harrison, an associate professor of ESOL. “It’s great if you do, of course. There is no reason not to use a student’s native language in support of them learning English, math or science, but when that is not possible, the next best thing is to make our speech and classroom materials comprehensible so they can learn right along with their grade-level peers. Our goal is not to help them learn English first and then learn everything else, because they’ll never catch up.
“It takes five to seven years, at least, to get to the academic language proficiency levels we’re hoping for from the same grade level as their peers. So, unless we scaffold the instruction, support them along the way and give them the content in a way they can understand, they won’t learn it.”
Creating an environment where all students of differing skill levels and educational and geographical backgrounds can learn and even thrive is a chief goal for K-12 educators, and Auburn’s program is preparing them to accomplish that more effectively.
Growing the program
More than 15 graduate students from considerably varying backgrounds currently are enrolled in the ESOL Education program, and program professors are looking to grow the curriculum within the college. The college is offering Master of Science and Master of Education degrees, as well as graduate certificates.
Since virtually every teacher in the country has English learners in their classrooms as the nation becomes increasingly more diverse, giving educators the tools and techniques to best reach students from varying backgrounds is more important than ever before.
“We’ve got to get more people in the pipeline,” said Williams, an Auburn professor since 2015. “We want to grow the program so we have a healthy K-12 track, as well as an ESL track. The K-12 track is so pivotal, so we definitely want to encourage that and grow that.
“Just having an awareness and trying to promote how many options it can open for students from diverse backgrounds is great. It really does have far-reaching effects, as far as who it’s able to impact.”
Williams and Harrison are working with Auburn Global and the Office of International Programs to help recruit students to the ESOL Education program, and their hope is to gradually increase participation numbers in the coming years, as well as create undergraduate options that include minors and majors. Auburn’s TESOL programs do not provide initial ESOL Education certification for non-teachers who want to become K-12 teachers, but can be great avenues for grad students to take toward their professional pursuits.
Dedication to the craft
Another TESOL grad student, Shellie Flenniken, has spent her career as an educator helping level the playing field for ELs in Alabama. A 20-year veteran of the Opelika City Schools system and a mother of five, the Auburn alum is back on the Plains as a master’s program enrollee looking to complete her advanced degree and glean additional techniques and practices from Williams and Harrison.
“I had always been interested in teaching ESL, even before I had the opportunity,” said Flenniken, who is taking a leave of absence from teaching while she completes the master’s program. “A door opened for me to be a resource teacher teaching ESL, and that’s when I started looking into things at Auburn. They had the certificate program, which is what I started with, and I had always intended on finishing my master’s right then, but I couldn’t.
“The certificate was great, because it helped me have better tools to work that job. Now, to be finishing up, it’s still very relevant for me and what I do every day. I wasn’t required to do it, but I wanted to make sure I was the best equipped to do the job I was going to be doing.”
The perspective and experience Flenniken has gained through the years has been enlightening, and she feels the TESOL instruction will be crucial for K-12 teachers who are new graduates.
“This is ideal for pre-K through 12 for anyone who wants to knock out a master’s,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what school you’re at in the state of Alabama, you’re going to have ELs. Having been an EL resource teacher for 10 years, you have a certain level of freak-out when you have someone walk in your door who knows zero English.
“The child may be brilliant, but there’s just a language barrier.”
The instruction offered by Williams and Harrison helps give teachers more tools in their tool boxes as they navigate the ever-changing landscape of the education world, especially for younger and more inexperienced educators.
“When you are a young teacher coming straight out of college, you might not know how to adapt the teaching materials you are required to use,” said Flenniken, who earned her undergraduate degree from Auburn in 1999. “You have to understand how to adjust that curriculum to fit the kids in your class. You cannot modify the content, but you must know how to accommodate it to fit the individual needs in your classroom.
“That is something that comes with experience, and when you’re coming right out of school, you don’t have that experience. That is one thing a TESOL program gives you exposure to, how you can adapt whatever it is you’re looking at so everybody is getting what you need them to get from it.”
Fulfilling career with significant reach
Often times, EL teachers not only are helping students, but also serving as a resource by instructing their colleagues.
“As an EL resource teacher, you are a teacher’s teacher even more often than you are a teacher for the kids many times,” said Flenniken, who credits longtime Opelika City Schools teacher Ray Winegar for encouraging her to take on EL responsibilities. “You help empower the teachers and get them what they need to lighten the load for them to better serve their students in their class. I can help one person, and then she turns around and is helping 20, or you can help one grade level and then they’re suddenly helping 200 or 300 students. That’s a huge, huge part of the job.”
Helping Auburn students achieve career goals—both domestically in K-12 and abroad via the master’s in English for Specific Purposes track—is a considerable motivating factor for Williams, who has taught both university and K-12 ESL classes, as well as English in Ecuador.
“With ESL, there are so many different ways you can go with it,” Williams said. “We’re just trying to see them achieve the different goals for the careers they’re interested in. It just gives them so many more options, and that’s really what we’re all about. We want to help students fulfill their career goals, whatever that may be.”
Harrison, an Auburn professor since 2013, has thoroughly enjoyed working as a teacher instructor in the ESL/ESOL field.
“This has been my dream job, and ESL is a really fun field to be in,” said Harrison, a longtime K-12 teacher who also taught English in South Korea. “How we work with teachers now impacts how they work with their students. I love working with people from other countries and training people to work with them. It’s a very exciting career.”
In the K-12 ranks, the most fulfilling aspect of reaching children with diverse backgrounds is seeing them connect with others as they learn and grow.
“Kids are fun, and for you to learn how to include this little person and help them share their perspectives with everybody else, you’ve just kind of changed the trajectory of every single kid in the class because they have made this new friend who has totally different experiences than they have grown up with,” Flenniken said. “So, it’s pretty magical, to be perfectly honest.”
(Written by Neal Reid)