Inspiring Teachers Worldwide

Elizabeth TannenbaumMeet TESOL faculty Elizabeth Tannenbaum

SIT faculty are not only teachers; they are practitioners who are active in their fields. SIT professor Elizabeth Tannenbaum has been active in the field of TESOL for more than 40 years, as a professor, teacher, and teacher trainer—in the US and overseas. In the interview below, Elizabeth reflects on the latest trends in TESOL, what makes a good teacher, and lessons learned from recent workshops she led in Iraq.

SIT: You’ve done work through the U.S. Department of State’s esteemed English Language Specialist (ELS) Program. Can you tell us a little about that?

ET: I have had the privilege of working as an English Language Specialist in many regions of the globe including in Haiti, Fiji, and Tonga, primarily to help with state curriculum development. The program brings English language specialists to areas where teachers typically have limited support and resources and may be teaching in challenging conditions.

SIT: Most recently, you led a series of trainings for teachers in Iraq.

ET: Yes. I was invited to work with English language teachers in Iraq as an English language specialist, following a competitive selection process last fall. In Iraq, I led trainings for multiple groups across the country—in Basrah, Baghdad, and Erbil. More than 250 Iraqi English professors, public school teachers, and teacher trainers participated in the following three workshops:

  • Teaching Grammar Communicatively
  • Building Teacher-Student Relationships
  • Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

It was a phenomenal experience. I was deeply inspired and impressed by the teachers with whom I engaged—they were enthusiastic, bright, and interested in learning anything that would improve their teaching. We covered a lot, including interactive activities they could take back to their classes, the topic of motivation, and the importance of authentic materials.

SIT: What was it like traveling in Iraq? 

ET: The workshops were done through the US embassy and consulates, and the program itself was organized by the State Department’s regional English language officer in Iraq. Security was very tight. My lodgings were always within a compound. Given the workshop locations, there was a lot of travel, occasionally in a helicopter. There was always an armed guard present.

SIT: What were a few highlights from the experience?

ET: The workshop on building the student-teacher relationship was very engaging. For teachers facing a set curriculum and tight schedule, this aspect of teaching can become lost—it shouldn’t. The teacher-student relationship is an integral aspect of language instruction.

One of the most inspiring moments of my time in Iraq was when one of the security guards—after having traveled with me to a few of the workshops—said he thought he might now want to become an English language teacher.

Also, a week after the workshops, we heard back from one of the Iraqi teachers who had been particularly resistant to some of the ideas I had presented. He contacted us letting us know that he had implemented one of the grammar activities from the workshops, and his students loved it and wanted more!

SIT: How did the Iraq workshops tie into your broader areas of expertise and engagement in the field of TESOL?

ET: I drew extensively on my knowledge of communicative ways to teach English grammar, from my 30+ years in the field and through my experience teaching English Applied Linguistics and Language Analysis for Lesson Planning, required courses in our master’s program at SIT.

Throughout the workshops, I drew upon activities and materials that I and other SIT faculty have developed over the years, particularly in terms of teaching grammar communicatively. I used the same principles I use with my SIT students, particularly during our Teaching the Four Skills course, focusing on how to prepare for and set up an activity, build schema, and what to do during the activity.

Intercultural communication is a central aspect of the master’s program at SIT. We not only require students to take Intercultural Communication for Language Teachers but also infuse an intercultural approach throughout the curriculum and pedagogy. So I thought carefully about creating get-to-know-you activities that would be culturally appropriate, of course, in this case, for Iraq.

SIT: What are some current trends in the field of TESOL?

ET: More and more, English language teachers worldwide are seeking new teaching materials that are student-centered. Teachers need to think beyond what’s on the page of the book, and this is a keen area of interest for me. TESOL scholars and practitioners are also focused on how best to build community in the language classroom. We know that students learn better if they feel comfortable within their classroom environment. This was an important topic covered in the student-teacher relationship workshop in Iraq and something we intently focus on at SIT.

Incorporating critical thinking skills into the language teaching classroom is another current area of focus in the TESOL field. It’s important that teachers learn how to get students to state opinions, communicate their perspectives, and take stands on topical issues. In Iraq, I wanted to avoid talking about anything too sensitive or controversial, so I had the teachers work with stories from the book Taboos and Issues. We took an “arms-length” approach to practicing critical thinking skills, how to express opinions, how to listen to one another, and how to respond in a way that shows that you are listening and can politely disagree. It is my hope that the teachers will be able to more effectively apply these techniques in their classrooms.

SIT: What in your view makes a great teacher?

ET: An effective teacher is someone who is able to actively engage students and can work with multiple learning styles. Both as a scholar and teacher, I constantly evoke the words of renowned linguist and English language specialist Earl Stevick, a founding member of SIT’s master’s in teaching program, who said, “Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom.”

Language teaching is a phenomenal and inspiring career field. The possibilities are extraordinary! 

A member of SIT Graduate Institute’s faculty since 1987, Elizabeth Tannenbaum teaches courses in methodology and applied linguistics and has a special interest in self-directed language learning, adult literacy, and teaching large classes with limited resources. She has served as a teacher trainer for the US Peace Corps, the U.S. State Department’s refugee education programs in Thailand and Indonesia, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and the U.S. State Department’s English Language Specialist Program.