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 (Pruettt@nicc.edu)
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with 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
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,
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
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
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
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online