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Achievement Profile: Terry Pruett-Said
Practical Insights on the Art of ESL Program Development

Terry Pruett-Said is an active participant on several major ESL/EFL mailing lists, and is well-respected for her practical remarks on a variety of teaching matters. ESL MiniConference Online is happy to share her comments from a recent interview.

Some Terry Pruett-Said links:

How to Find an ESL Job
Northeast Iowa Community College
Kansas State University English Language Program
E-mail Terry Pruett-Said (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Terry Pruett-Said:

Terry Pruett-Said

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

From 1987 to 1996 I worked in the intensive English program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. In 1996, my family and I moved to a rural area in northeast Iowa. When I moved here, I wasnít sure what I would be doing. But I must say the last six years have offered me some different opportunities in ESOL that have broadened my horizons in the field.

For the first two years after we arrived, I taught ESL at both the high school and lower elementary level. Even though I was licensed to teach at the elementary level, I hadnít done so in a long time. Most of my teaching experience had been at the secondary and college level. So that was definitely a learning experience. Then I started teaching a Speech class at a nearby community college, Northeast Iowa Community College, Calmar campus.

This teaching soon led to an offer to teach some new academic ESL classes at the community college. At first, there was only one level. I was put into a small room with seven students. Fortunately, I soon begged a larger room and one level was changed to two levels sort of. I now teach two levels that meet at the same time. I have learned a lot about teaching multilevel classes, developing an ESL program in a relatively low-incidence area, and transitioning adult education ESL students into academic classes. I have both international students and immigrant students in my classroom.

Some of you may have heard of Postville, Iowa as a book was recently written by Stephen Bloom and a documentary made about this small Iowa town where a group of Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews moved and started a kosher meat packing plant. There is also a turkey processing plant. Both of these plants have attracted immigrants from all over the world. Many of my students come from Postville. I also help train and support tutors in Postville and throughout the area for the Adult Basic Education program. Iíve also had the opportunity to teach and give workshops to teacher trainees at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. All of these varied activities have given me a new and larger perspective on the field of TESOL. In fact, my back burner project is working on a book with an education professor which will hopefully take a look at the different issues and approaches involved when one changes from teaching ESOL at one level to another level.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

Not unlike some other ESL teachers, I didnít start out in ESL. In fact, in college I studied art education, and then got a Masterís degree in art history. But while I was in college, I had a number of friends who were international students. This made me more aware of international issues, and piqued my interest in living in another country. Some friends of mine suggested I join the Peace Corps. So at the age of 30 I joined the Peace Corps. I was assigned to teach English in a Moroccan high school. I was given a summer of good Peace Corps training in teaching ESL. But, regardless of the training, I still found myself overwhelmed by my first experience teaching in a new field in another country.

But, needless to say, I definitely learned a lot from my Peace Corps experience. When I returned to the States, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas where I soon found myself an instructor in their newly formed Intensive English Program at Kansas State University. While working in the program, I worked on my second Masterís in Education with an emphasis in teaching ESOL. In many ways working and going to school in my field at the same time was a great learning experience because I had the opportunity to take the theories and ideas learned in my education classes and directly apply them to my teaching experience. At the same time I knew exactly what I needed to know more about and looked for the answers in my education classes.

I worked for nine years in the English Language Program at Kansas State University. During this time the program grew and changed and I was fortunate enough to be involved in the early development of this program. I also worked with a group of very professional and inspiring colleagues who encouraged and supported me in my many professional ventures.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

Recently, many of my students have come from countries of the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In fact, once I was asked a similar question, and I realized as I started counting that I had taught students from over 50 different countries. Of course, I have also lived and taught in Morocco so I am familiar with that culture too. In North Africa the Peace Corps taught us the local dialect of Moroccan Arabic. I wasnít the best student to say the least. My own, not always successful, language learning experiences have helped me be more empathetic with students who find themselves having difficulties learning English. The insight I have gained about teaching students from many different cultures is to be very careful not to turn generalizations about different cultures and language learning styles into stereotypes. Not only is it unfair to the students, but you will find yourself with embarrassing surprises.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

I think my three pieces of advice hold true for all teaching situations. I think new teachers or teachers in new situations should ask themselves three deceptively simple questions:

1) What do my students need to know?
2) How can I help them learn it?
3) How can I know if theyíve learned it?

These three questions may sound very simplistic but they often have very complex answers. One more piece of advice Iíd give to teachers of adults is to remember they are your peers, and not to think of them or treat them like children.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

I think one of the important issues facing ESL today is to define ourselves as a unique professional discipline so that others do not see us as an extension of language arts or English literature or theoretical linguistics or whatever bigger umbrella people try to place us in. While all of these disciplines can contribute to the field, I think until we can accomplish this goal we will find that many teachers in the field continue to be marginalized. Yet, at the same time, those who hire teachers and others in the field must realize that, because ESL is often subsumed under other disciplines, good ESL teachers may come to us with varied backgrounds.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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