October 1, 2006

Tünde Csepelyi

The NNEST Caucus 
Member of the Month
October 2006

Tünde Csepelyi


Questions: Could you please tell us a bit about your linguistic, academic and professional background? How many languages do you know? How long have you been living in an English speaking country? Did you do your undergrad studies in the U.S. as well?

Tünde: "C'mon baby, let's have a drink." That was the only sentence that I was able to speak in English when I arrived in the United Stated in April, 1993. I grew up with German and Russian, and I never thought that one day I would live overseas.
I had just started teaching history and geography in a high school in Budapest, Hungary, when my husband received a scholarship from the University of Nevada, Reno, U.S.A. I never meant to come with him; I loved being out of school, I enjoyed my work with all the responsibilities of a high school teacher, and I spoke only that one English sentence without much clue of what it really meant…However, after two months of separation from my husband, I found myself in Reno, Nevada, where we have lived ever since.

Those frustrating situations that most native speakers might learn only from textbooks, I lived through all: from a respected high school teacher, I all of a sudden became a helpless immigrant. The first year was my “tourist year” – I enjoyed being in Reno, I used all my body parts for communication, and I did not miss my Hungarian life a bit. Nevertheless, soon my frustration with not being able to express my thoughts overshadowed my joy. I still remember when one day some professors came over for dinner and history came up as a conversation subject. I knew so much about the topic – my B.A. is in history and geography - but I had no English vocabulary to converse about the subject. I felt that my ideas were trapped in my own body. Gradually, I withdrew myself from the English speaking society, stayed home, and lived the typical life of immigrant women within four walls…

It took me five years before I finally decided to do something with my life: based on my English language learning experiences, I decided to apply for the MA-TESOL program in Reno, and become an ESL teacher. In spring, 1998, I took my first graduate course. My English was – well, honestly – modest…but my motivation successfully compensated for my lack of English. I graduated in spring, 2002, and a year later I started my Ph.D. studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the same university.

After being in Graduate School for 3 years, I felt ready to teach. In spring, 2001, I decided to apply for an ESL position at the local school district’s adult program. I still remember the day when I entered the director’s room and introduced myself. I had not said anything but my name when the director interrupted me saying that with that accent I would never be hired as an ESL teacher, and I – he further advised me – should take some accent reduction classes. I felt horrible. I crashed. Until that moment I had had no clue that I should have felt ashamed of my unacceptable accent; that I should have been more humble and not applied for a teaching position. All my language teachers – in German and Russian – were Hungarians who spoke those languages. I never questioned their authority to teach those languages to me. My fluency in both languages was (is) a proof that non-native language educators are able to teach languages.

I cried for two days, then – for reasons I can't explain, and which only those who have been in similar situations understand – I blew my nose, cleaned up my face, took a deep breath, and went to the local community college ABE ESL program director to apply for a teaching job. He hired me. His name is Paul Marsala and he never perceived me as NNES teacher but only a (good or bad) teacher. For the 6 years since, I have taught the ABE ESL (non-credit) and the academic (credit) programs at the college from multilevel to family literacy; from basic writing to research classes. This semester, I am teaching native English speaking college students how to spell and extend their English vocabulary.

Quesiton: What are your academic areas of interest?
Tünde: When I graduated from the MA-TESOL program in spring, 2002, I knew that I should stay in school and polish my academic English (BICS and CALP). One logical way was to apply for a Ph.D. program – by the end of the program I will have learned how to speak English, I thought. Well, by now, I have finished all the course work and I still feel I should stay in school, so – yes – I have enrolled in a second MA program in Educational Psychology. English is not my primary concern, however; during these years, I have observed and experienced that ESL is not really about teaching vocabulary and grammar but taking care of my students’ souls and well-being. I see a female student and I see myself 7 years ago in her eyes. I see a male student who struggles with two jobs to keep his family above poverty level, and I remember when we had $40 for groceries for a whole week. With Ed. Psych., I hope I can obtain the tools to help these students beyond my sympathy and empathy. With the Ph.D., my goal has shifted: I want to teach ESL-teachers-to-be, and to share my own language - and culture! – learning experience. I want to teach them, what they can't learn from textbooks, how they can serve their ESL students. Limited English does not mean limited thoughts and feelings.

In my dissertation, I am working on creating a new theory – Instinctive Theory – which will summarize my – and I believe others'– language learning experience, ergo, teaching perception. Whatever I do, whatever I teach, whatever I experience in everyday life, I can't be disconnected from me being an adult English language learner and teacher. If I go to the ER, my second sentence – after checking in – is “May I have an extra form for my students?” Also, I don't accept excuses when I hear "those ESL students." I am worse than a mother lioness when it comes to protecting my students. These issues have not been incorporated in any existing theories. This is different, this is more than teaching vocabulary with native(like) pronunciation.

Question: What about your most recent conference presentation(s)/publication?
Tünde: Besides TESOL and CATESOL, I am a member of the International Reading Association (IRB). I understand that presentations and publications are foremost in academia; therefore I have been taking advantage of their conferences and present there. My most recent presentation took place in the summer of 2006 within IRB: its World Congress in Reading was held in Budapest, Hungary, where I spoke about nurturing a bilingual and biliterate child.

Question: Do you have any future plans as a NNEST (personal and professional, long term or short term plans)?
Tünde: I really hope that in the future I can find a university where my language learning and perception of ESL teaching will be appreciated. If not, I am perfectly happy with my ABE ESL students – there are so many things that we can do for them. To mention a few: last semester I taught a paralegal class for ESL students. Yes, I had to learn legal English. Further, in my college, the two ESL programs (non-credit and credit) have been willing to work together to set up a special transitional class: from ABE to postsecondary education. I remember how confusing American higher education looked for me when I first entered the university. As a person who firsthand experienced this confusion and as an instructor who has taught in both (non-credit and credit) programs, I was naturally asked to teach this class. The class has been very successful – most of our students (80%!!) move on from the adult basic education program and attend college classes for a degree. This class is my“ESL baby”– the administrators let me develop the curriculum and run the class as I believe is most beneficial for my students. This semester, within a participatory action research framework, I am exploring what my students’ needs are and how else this class can serve them better.

Question: How did you initially become interested in NNESTs and their issues?
Tünde: See my very first job interview attempt…Looking back, interestingly, it was never my students but colleagues, professors, paraprofessionals who doubted my teaching abilities with this accent.

Question: How did you get to know about NNEST Caucus?
Tünde: My very first TESOL conference was in Salt Lake City in 2002. My professor, Dr. Elza Major, had brought TESOL and within TESOL, the Caucus, to my attention. Through the Caucus, I have met wonderful people who inspired me and help me “stay” a NNEST. However, for me, being a NNEST is not a choice; I clearly have my accent, I still make (many) mistakes when I speak, and I still can’t calculate in English. Also, I maintain my Hungarian identity. As a matter of fact, my greatest achievement as an ESL professional is my balanced bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural daughter. She was my guinea pig: whatever I learned in my second language acquisition class, I brought it home and tried those ideas out on her. Now, she claims herself trilingual: English, Hungarian, and, after our pet bunnies, Bunnien.
Also, I am the current coordinator of the California (and Nevada) TESOL Non-Native Language Educators Issues Interest Group. That gives me the opportunity to let my NNES voice to be heard.

Quesiton: Have you been inspired by the Caucus?
Tünde: I clearly remember that in spring, 2003, during TESOL, I attended the Caucus meeting where George Braine summoned the members for active participation. I went back to my university all inspired, and ready to change the world – yes, you might guess, I got into trouble. One of my professors at Educational Leadership where I had to take a class said something silly about bilingualism. Tünde, all inspired, spoke up. Don’t forget, I was a brand new Ph.D. student taking a class outside of my department with all native speaking students. I would not recommend that anyone else do the same thing… However, two years later, - no longer a brand new Ph.D. student – I also found myself in trouble just because I felt it was my duty – see Caucus inspiration - to educate my (native speaking) Ph.D. classmates about NNES issues. Bad idea. Ever since I (at least try to) keep a saying in mind: You need to be in the boat before you can rock it. Therefore, NNES (tenured) professors, you can rock the boat, you should speak up and educate your colleagues regarding NNES issues. We, M.A. or Ph.D. students, need to wait for our time to come.

Question: As an NNEST in the U.S., what have been your most vivid memories (positive/negative) in your academic and/or professional practices?
Tünde: In 2003, exactly 10 years after my arrival in the U.S.A., I had an all-day workshop (Teaching in adult multilevel classes) that I offered throughout Nevada and in some other states. I remember, I stood in front of 40 ESL instructors whose native language was English, who had been teaching longer than I spoke English, and they came to my workshop to learn from me. That was a magnificent sentiment.

Question: If you were to name one single huge challenge for NNESTs in your context, what would that be?
Tünde: During these years I have clearly comprehended that I have to go far beyond what an average ESL instructor might do. I recommend to every NNEST find a specialty area within the ESL field where her/his knowledge would be exceptional. My areas are adult literacy and teaching in multilevel adult ESL classes. If my colleagues need some help with these areas, they will find me. My accent is not an issue when it comes to knowledge.

Question: What are the things (if any) you would like to see the Caucus and its members initiate/do?
Tünde: I understand the limitations of our Caucus. The Caucus can't wash administrators’ minds, can't do wonders in the field, and can't apply in my name for jobs overseas. However, what the Caucus can do is to keep working on these issues and offer a safe harbor for its members. I felt pretty relieved when I first realized there are other NNES teachers in the field. Also, I believe it would be a useful resource for native speaking professor to create a “NNES issues 101” course outline. I have met native English speaking professors who wanted to know about and teach our issues – with a mouse click, they could reach that link through the Caucus website and share the findings with their colleagues and students. If there are any takers, I would be happy to develop that web page.

Finally, it is my ambition to become a NNES professor. I understand the weight of it. Once I am in that boat, it is part of my profession to mentor future NNES professors and advocate for NNES issues. This notion is my motivator now when I am preparing for the Ph.D. qualification exam.

I take NNES matters very seriously and perceptively. This is not just a job from 8 to 5, this is not just another degree that would help me climb on the pay scale; this is my life. That is my Instinctive Theory, which I'd like to contribute to the field.

Thank you so much for your thoughts, Tünde!


Anonymous Amir said...

Inspiring, Tunde! Thanks for sharing your experiences/thoughts! And all the best with the PhD Qualification Exam.


October 03, 2006 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great inspirational blog, Tunde! I remember you very well from your assisting my TESOL methods class with Dr. Major; you were quite outspoken about NNEST issues then, too. And, IMHO, you were more articulate than perhaps your self-perception was at the time.

Coincidentally, I plan on pursuing the MS in Ed Psych after the MA TESOL too. I miss seeing you in class, but hope to bump into you again in my new ESL career.

Kelly P.

October 19, 2006 12:36 AM  
Anonymous Rashi said...

"I have observed and experienced that ESL is not really about teaching vocabulary and grammar but taking care of my students’ souls and well-being."

"Limited English does not mean limited thoughts and feelings."

I agree, totally.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's inspiring :)

November 22, 2006 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From ABE to Ph.D! What a role model!

Ana Wu

January 26, 2007 5:01 PM  
Blogger Luz said...

If you know what college(s) count the online TESOL couse (www.tesolonline.com) as college credit, please let me know.


February 04, 2009 3:16 PM  

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