Winning the Masters

Statistical trends point to increased demand for well-qualified ESL teachers so David Newman suggests now’s the time to choose the right program

Over the last decade, the percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners (ELLs) increased from 8% to 10% in 2009-10 (the latest figures available). What’s more — education departments across the nation are recognizing that they need teachers specifically qualified to teach these five million English learners.

In four states now, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada, more than 14% of public school students are English language learners (29% in California), and twelve states plus the District of Columbia have between 7 and 14% (Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Kansas, Arizona, Utah, Illinois, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado).

The percentage of ELL students in public schools was higher in 2009-10 than in 2000-01 in all but 13 states, with the largest increases in Nevada (up 9%), Delaware, and Kansas (both up 5%). The percentage of ELL students in public schools was higher in 2009-10 than in 2008-09 in 28 states, with the largest increase in California (5%).

In cities in 2009-10, ELL students made up an average of 14% of total public school enrollment, while in suburban areas ELL students averaged 8%, and 7% in towns.

Combine these trends with the growing consensus that students should be matched to educators who are highly-qualified to teach them, and it is clear that earning a master’s in TESOL (or in a TESOL-related field) is a great investment.

The Master’s in TESOL program enables teachers to:
• Learn the skills for development as a TESOL professional, including an understanding of the history of the field;
• Build a range of methods and techniques for teaching English learners;
• Find out how second-language acquisition and learning theories relate to methods and classroom applications;
• Understand the historical, social, cultural, and political issues that impact teaching in this area;
• Acquire a basic knowledge of linguistics with emphasis on English structure, its use, and its role in society;
• Develop lesson plans and design curricula;
• Put into practice standards-based ESL/EFL content-based instruction;
• Learn how to use assessments to monitor and evaluate student progress;
• Learn research methods and how to evaluate professional resources;
• Learn how to integrate technology into the second-language teaching curriculum.

Program Evaluation Tips
Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge into an MA, here are some tips to help you choose the program that’s right for you:
• Ask for a reference or two from the program director. Ask recent graduates if they are satisfied with the education they received and whether their courses have actually met the needs of their current jobs.
• Examine the job placement record. What percentage of graduates get jobs after they receive their degrees? Does the school offer placement assistance or career counseling? Is the career counseling specialized for your field?
• What kinds of courses are offered in the program? Are they more practical or theoretical in scope? If you are interested in going directly into teaching after getting your master’s degree, you should stick to a practical curriculum. If, on the other hand, you are interested in pursuing a PhD, then look for a more theoretically based curriculum.
• What do the faculty members specialize in? Ask the program director for details on what the faculty is researching, what courses they teach, and even about possible internships or assistantships. This will give you an indication of what the focus of your studies will be. If your interests are similar to theirs, you have a good match.
• Find out if the courses lead to or satisfy state or provincial certification and if they satisfy the requirements in any other state or province where you are considering certification.

Online Learning Tips
TESOL, like most other disciplines, has seen an explosion in online educational opportunities which offer great value and flexibility. Some programs are 100% online, but most are hybrids combining online learning with shorter in-person sessions. Should you choose one of these popular options, keep in mind the following points:
1. Participate. Whether you are working alone or in a group, contribute your ideas, perspective, and comments on the subject you are studying, and read about those of your classmates. Your instructor is not the only source of information in your course — you can gain great insight from your peers and they can learn from you as well.

2. Take the program and yourself seriously. Elicit the support of your colleagues, family, and friends before you start out on your online adventure. This built-in support system will help you tremendously, since there will be times when you will have to sit at your computer for hours at a stretch in the evenings and on weekends. When most people are through with work and want to relax is most likely when you will be bearing down on your coursework. It helps to surround yourself with people who understand and respect what you are trying to do.

3. Make sure you have a private space where you can study. This will help lend importance to what you are doing as well. Your own space where you can shut the door, leave papers everywhere, and work in peace is necessary. If you try to share study space with the dining room or bedroom, food or sleep will take priority over studying.

4. Log on to your course every single day. Once you get into your course, you will be eager to see who has commented on your postings and read the feedback of your instructor and peers. You will also be curious to see who has posted something new that you can comment on. If you let too many days go by without logging on to your course discussion board, you will get behind and find it very difficult to catch up.

5. Take advantage of your anonymity. One of the biggest advantages of the online format is that you can pursue your studies without the judgments typical in a traditional classroom. Unless you are using video conferencing, no one can see you, there are no stereotypes, and you don’t have to be affected by raised eyebrows, rolled eyeballs, other students stealing your thunder, or people making other nonverbal reactions to your contributions. You don’t have to feel intimidated or upstaged by students who can speak faster than you, because you can take all of the time you need to think your ideas through and compose a response before posting your comments to your class.

6. Speak up if you are having problems. Remember that your professor cannot see you, so you must be absolutely explicit with your comments and requests. If you are having technical difficulties or problems understanding something about the course, you MUST speak up — otherwise there is no way that anyone will know that something is wrong. Also, if you don’t understand something, chances are several people have the same question. If another student is able to help you, he/she probably will, and if you are able to explain something to your classmates in need, you will not only help them out, you will reinforce your own knowledge about the subject. Finally, if you know that you will not be able to meet a deadline, e-mail the instructor as soon as possible concerning the possibility of making other arrangements.

7. Apply what you learn. Apply everything you learn as you learn it and you will remember it more readily. If it is possible, take the things you learn in your online course today and use them in your workplace tomorrow. Also, try to make connections between what you are learning and what you do or will do in your job. Contributing advice or ideas about the real world as it applies to the subject matter you are studying helps you to internalize what you are learning and gives valuable insight to your classmates, who will benefit from your experience.

8. Read the syllabus on your first visit to the course. You may even want to print the syllabus for quick and easy reference. You should also print, write, or set a reminder for the course’s major calendar dates. You don’t want to miss quizzes, exams, or project due dates. Finally, take the time to complete the orientation course (available prior to the start of your online course), as it will allow you to familiarize yourself with the layout of the course to make it easier to navigate throughout the site and practice key skills.

9. Don’t panic when the technology doesn’t work. Try again and if the system still doesn’t work, contact the Helpdesk (and cc your instructor so he/she is aware of the issue).

David Newman is a TESOL teacher in Kyoto, Japan.