Jillian Oslavsky (MA TESOL '14) tells us how she became interested in teaching, how her experience in the AU TESOL Program prepared her for future jobs, and gives advice to current students.
What led to your decision to study TESOL/Applied Linguistics at the graduate level?
I knew my path would always be in humanities, and I selected my undergraduate college based on its English program. However, I switched to political science because I enjoyed the combination of philosophy, culture, and current events. I initially planned a career in diplomacy, and interned in DC every summer and worked at the Embassy of Chile after I graduated. The embassy experience is actually what guided me to English language teaching. While there, I found myself interacting more with staff, such as drivers, cooks, secretaries, and answering their language questions. I was getting more of the cultural interaction with them than when I was at "diplomacy" events. My political science study ultimately helped guide my interest in writing my master's thesis and developing a connection between language and culture with policy and government.
When I transitioned to working at a law firm, I began volunteering teaching English at the Washington English Center (at the time, LETC) in order to maintain my Spanish language skills. I was surprised to find how much I liked teaching, planning lessons, and reading about teaching strategies. This led me to complete a TEFL Certificate at Georgetown University, in order to learn more about the field. Immediately afterwards, I enrolled in AU’s MA in TESOL, and quickly found that my experience at Georgetown was really just the beginning. AU's TESOL program opened up a new world for me in DC and it gave me a new sense of direction and purpose with my life. For a time, I was focused on staying in DC long term, but afterwards, I became open to leaving the city and then pursuing a career outside of the country. Primarily, I wanted to teach abroad in order to understand the experience that so many students I taught in DC go through; arriving in a country and using language for survival. I thought that going through this experience was an important step in helping me understand the students I wanted to teach.
What work have you been doing in the field of English language education?
I currently work as an IB English teacher and English Language Support Coordinator at Ritsumeikan Uji Junior and Senior High School in Kyoto, Japan. In high school, I teach IB English B, which is a language support class, and Global Issues, which incorporates my knowledge from political science. I teach Fiction English to junior high school students in a program known as International Preparatory Stream (IPS), which prepares students for the IB. Initially I did not see myself as a junior high school teacher, and although it certainly is different than teaching adults, I believe it strengthens me as a teacher. With junior high, I always go in with a detailed lesson plan, even if my class strays from my initial idea. In junior high specifically, my AU TESOL training of writing lesson plans has served me well. For every class, I still write a lesson outline and include an objective, warm up, focus, etc. My favorite thing to teach is surprisingly a play I never liked, Romeo and Juliet, because teaching this to teenagers, who are almost the same age as the characters themselves, has given me a new appreciation for the play. In English B, I teach students how to read and reproduce a variety of native English speaking culture text types, such as blog posts, newspaper articles, and interviews, in the context of current cultural topics. Global Issues is a class I love teaching, as it allows me to bring in my love of politics and international relations in the context of English language learning. Students within the IB program can be very multilevel; some are returning to Japan from abroad, while others have never left Japan. In each class, I try to incorporate a small English grammar point or language skill, which I will teach explicitly. I remember from one of my first TESOL classes that students need to have the errors explicitly pointed out to them, something which has actually benefited me in my own Japanese language learning, and so I try to briefly address it directly in my high school classes.
The workday, as it is for teachers, is hectic and I will arrive by 7:30am and typically leave around 6:00pm. In my final TESOL seminar with Professor Linville, we discussed how to keep from teacher burnout and also maintain professional development. Fortunately, this fall I will be visiting Hong Kong for an IB teacher training, but I have also utilized TESOL International online seminars for a lot of my own professional development.
Outside of teaching my classes, I try to develop the language coordinator position by incorporating strategies teachers may find useful to support students in their own classes. Additionally, I tutor junior high school students weekly who need extra support in their classes. Lastly, I organize Model UN for IB students and we have participated in different MUNs in the Kansai area. It is an activity that I did in both high school and college, and I enjoy having the opportunity to see students get excited about representing a country and making policy decisions.
What was your time at AU like as a graduate student? What’s your favorite memory from your time here?
As a graduate student, I worked full time until my final year, when I focused solely on finishing my classes, completing the practicum and portfolio, and writing my thesis. During my first two years, I worked at a law firm in DC and attended class at night. This was challenging for me because, although it supported me financially throughout graduate school, I was often caught between two worlds. I do not have a favorite memory, as much as I do a piece of advice that I have passed along to my own students. I remember feeling very "in the weeds" with my own thesis and reaching a point when I wondered, will this ever finish? Now that I am on the other side of this, I see my own students making the very common mistake that I did, which is to be too broad. So I often pass along the advice that Dr. Vinogradova gave to me, which is to be very narrow with your writing in order to sharpen focus and write with clarity. I think my own students have the tendency, as many students do, to choose a broad topic, which makes it difficult for them to sharply identify and answer their research question. So, her advice has stuck with me in my own teaching and I use it regularly.
What did you do as soon as you graduated from AU TESOL program?
Knowing that I wanted to teach abroad, I applied for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme in my final year of graduate school. I never had a strong interest in Asia and Japan was never a country where I saw myself going, although I studied its political system during undergrad. However, different friends and coworkers recommended I pursue teaching in Japan, as they thought it was a culture in which I would thrive. I can say now that they knew me better than I knew myself. When I went to Japan as a JET Assistant Language Teacher, I was placed in Fukushima City, Fukushima-ken, which carries its own stigma. People often think of metropolitan and futuristic Tokyo or traditional and serene Kyoto as representative of Japan. However, Fukushima with its mountains and inaka (countryside) people provide, to me, a true representation of Japanese life. As an ALT, I went to three different high schools every week: an academic school, a technical school, and a satellite school for students affected by the 2011 earthquake in Namie town. Teaching in Fukushima was a two fold experience for me; so I could not control or plan the entire class but only sections of the class, which could be frustrating. The teaching situations were traditional teacher-fronted, and students were often very reluctant to answer in English, as they were wary of mistakes. However, I was also surprised by how the Japanese classroom, in my experience, challenged the stereotype of a typical Asian classroom, as students were often talking while the teacher was speaking, sleeping, or doing other assignments.
On the other hand, I developed a lot personally as a language learner and cultural observer, which I do not think I would have been able to do had I not been in Fukushima. I have noticed that many foreigners come to a culture like Japan and are keen to impart their own knowledge on the host culture, without demonstrating a willingness to learn about the culture itself. In Fukushima, I spent a lot of time observing and trying to become a part of the local community, rather than build a community of other foreigners. Although I was more isolated in the beginning, after four months there was a huge turnaround for me and it came through a few different social groups. First, I joined a local weekly English conversation group that was held at the local government and consisted of a few foreigners and majority Japanese locals who wanted to practice English. Through this group, I met my now friend and Japanese teacher, and we began to meet every Saturday for a language exchange. Additionally, I focused on relationships with my Japanese coworkers, which took time to build. Often times, I heard ALTs say that they were bored or had nothing to do. Every free period I had, I visited different coworkers in an effort to improve my own Japanese. Particularly, I built relationships with the art teachers and we developed our own mini English lunch club with art course students. There, students felt free to try English and speak openly because there was no assignment or grade attached. I noticed my own Japanese rapidly improving and every week when I would learn a new grammar form from my language exchange, I tried to use the form with my coworkers. Through my efforts at school, coworkers invited me to events and dinners at their homes. I feel lucky to have had these opportunities, as I have been told it is rare in Japan to be invited into someone's home and also to have conversations beyond surface level culture.
During my second and final year, I was craving more depth to my teaching and had an opportunity to apply for a government grant through the U.S. Embassy in Japan. The art teacher and my supervisor at the time were very supportive of my project, "Shared Experiences: Relating Fukushima and American Culture through Art and English." In this project, I introduced American art to students in a conversation English setting, using a projector to display artwork and vocabulary. I emphasized key words and gave them small discussion questions. Outside of class, students kept language journals and then used the concepts presented by the artists we studied to reproduce those concepts in their own work about Fukushima. I was fortunate to receive this grant from the U.S. embassy and although I believe the students enjoyed the class, I think the experience was more eye opening for the teachers who participated. They could not believe that there was a class where the desks were structured in small circles, as opposed to lined in rows, and where students did not have to raise their hand to answer. When I left Fukushima, I felt that my impact was more on the teachers as opposed to the position I had been given of teaching students. When I have the opportunity, I try to visit Fukushima and my old school. There is certainly a sense of inaka pride when they hear about outside prefectures, but also a sense of remembrance. "Make sure to tell people about us" or "are you teaching Fukushima-ben (dialect) to coworkers in Kyoto?" they ask.
In the fall of my second year in Fukushima, I was anxious for more challenges in my work and to have my own classroom. I began looking for teaching positions at universities, international schools and IB schools in Japan, which I knew were difficult to secure as full time positions. I applied for a job at Ritsumeikan Uji in Kyoto, Japan and was surprised to receive a phone call and then offer for an interview. The interview process required me to design a lesson in 40 minutes using the materials provided, and then teach the lesson to a panel of interviewers. I was fortunate to receive the job offer and surprised that I would be moving to Kyoto, a place that I thought I would only visit while in Japan.
What is your specific field or area of study? How did you become interested in this particular topic? How did you become interested in this particular topic?
My academic interests lie in curriculum and materials design, family language policy, and teaching English via integrated curriculum. While at AU, I tried to find ways to connect my interest in political science with language teaching. Although working full time was difficult, it helped me maintain a hand in law and policy, while studying language and culture. My master's thesis focused on analyzing the current Bureau of Prisons policy for English language programs in federal prisons and designing a suggested curriculum, based on results of a teacher survey. The opportunity arose through an email forwarded by the TESOL program from a BOP employee looking for research assistance to update the current policy. Thesis research required that I design a survey, which I distributed to teachers, and then designed a curriculum using survey results and the requirements of the current policy. Learning how to write for a thesis and to design and distribute surveys is something that, although difficult at the time, has been valuable for me in my own work, as well as in my guidance for students. This past spring, a Japanese coworker and I designed a bilingual language survey. Understanding how to read and interpret policies, how to apply for grants, and how to write a lengthy research paper has been beneficial in my own career.
What advice would you give to current AU TESOL students and recent graduates?
My advice to current students and recent graduates is to be open to the range of possibilities for your career. The wonderful thing about TESOL is that it never has to be teaching in the traditional sense; it can take you a wide variety of places and work opportunities. Although it is difficult, remember that you are not alone in the process and that having the completed master's degree is meaningful to potential employers. I have never doubted the training that I received while at AU and it serves me well daily, whether it's planning a lesson, teaching an open class, or going through a job interview.
Jillian Orslavsky in classroom.