Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Nemtchinova: I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. I started learning English when I was seven and fell in love with it, in the large part because the teacher would bring toys to class to introduce new vocabulary- a unique teaching technique in a Soviet school with its strict discipline. As a student of Moscow State Linguistic University (Moskovskij Gosudarstvennyj Lingvisticheskij Universitet; Московский Государственный Лингвистический Университет), I had several opportunities to experience teaching English in a grade school, which made me realize that teaching is an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience and what I really wanted to do was to teach at a university level. After graduation I worked as a technical translator for two years, all the time looking for a teaching job before getting a position at the University of Friendship of People (Universitet Druzhby Narodov; Университет Дружбы народов) where I taught English as a foreign language for three years.
In 1992 my husband, a physicist, was accepted into the PhD program at SUNY at Stony Brook, and left for the US. I joined him a year later and stayed at home for some time; when the tediousness of being a stay-at-home mom reached the critical point, I applied to the doctoral program in the Department of Linguistics at SUNY. While in the program I taught ESL classes on campus; I also taught methods courses in MA TESOL program during two summers. It took a certain amount of courage and perseverance to teach native speakers of English how to teach their language to people like me, but it turned out to be a very positive experience that came in handy when I interviewed for my current job at Seattle Pacific University.
Ana Wu: You teach methodology and linguistics in a MA-TESOL program, and Russian, your native language, to undergraduate students. With regards of being bilingual and bi-cultural, what are your strengths and challenges as a professor of your second language? What are your strengths and challenges as a teacher of your native language?
Dr. Nemtchinova: My dual teaching responsibilities of a language teacher and teacher educator are a perfect marriage for me. Teaching Russian language provides me with endless real-life examples to support and exemplify theoretical principles we discuss in the methodology and linguistics classes while teaching ESL methods keeps me abreast of new developments in second/foreign language teaching. It also keeps me honest in front of my Russian students and makes me consciously align my instruction with what we talk about in the methods classes.
Another benefit is the constant exchange of ideas and language learning activities with MA TESOL students: as they design and perform ESL mini-lessons as part of their academic requirements for my methods classes, I note the most interesting and innovative activities which could be adapted for my Russian students.
Each of my teaching roles involves a unique set of strengths and challenges. Beyond the proverbial native language model, teaching my native language fills me with everlasting enthusiasm and an immense joy as I see how students’ language skills and appreciation of the culture grow as they progress. Judging from student evaluations this passion is contagious and it motivates them to study better. As to challenges, I often face the problem of relating to my students’ level and not taking things for granted. I also know first-hand how difficult it might be for a native speaker to explain the finer grammar points without special training. Finally, I constantly have to check my urge to use as much Russian as possible in the classroom against students’ level of proficiency and modify my language without mutilating it.
My greatest asset as a teacher educator is my dual experience as a nonnative speaker learning English and as a native speaker teaching her native language. Students appreciate my opinion on what works and what doesn’t in an ESL/EFL classroom; they also benefit from my awareness of hurdles native speakers face in communicating about their native language. Addressing these problems in my classes in the context of some fundamental questions on the nature of language teaching and learning always results in an animated discussion and helps students develop their own approach to classroom teaching. These discussions are a valuable part of learning; however, sometimes graduate students fail to recognize my authority as a professor. Their inability to see beyond my nonnative-English speaking status, age, appearance, and background can impede teaching and communication and affect the classroom atmosphere in a negative way. While these individual attributes cannot be changed (with the exception of age), recognizing the motives underlying such an attitude allows me not to take it personally, to remain professional, and to assume a strong educator role by striving to improve my professional performance.
Ana Wu: You have done research on language learning, teaching education, using technology, and NNEST issues, particularly on the importance of mentoring and collaboration. In a NNEST-NEST collaborative model, what can both parties gain from this peer collaboration?
Dr. Nemtchinova: The importance of effective mentoring and collaboration in teacher education is well documented in the literature, which underscores the reciprocal nature of such a relationship as its primary benefit. Both NES and NNES can gain a lot from working together, and I see in my classes how NES and NNES students enhance each other’s teaching and learning experience as they work side by side towards their MA TESOL degree.
NNES students offer an invaluable insight into a variety of EFL teaching situations, either from the point of view of an EFL student or an EFL teacher, if they had taught in their countries before coming to the US. They also have a unique perspective on NES students’ teaching based on their language learning experience; they usually have a solid judgment about the feasibility of a lesson or an activity and can anticipate potential difficulties. Not only do they offer their opinion on how this or that activity will work in a real-life classroom or whether it is too challenging for a given population of students, they are also the best judges of NES students’ teacher talk which sometimes tends to be too fast and/or too complex because of the vocabulary, idioms and cultural references.
NES students appreciate NNES’s ability to present and explain grammar and vocabulary, an appreciation expressed in their highly positive peer evaluations. There is a lot of interest in language learning strategies that NNES employ; as we discuss the strategies suggested by the textbook NNES students are always asked how they found ways to master different skills.
For their part, NES make an important contribution to collaboration by providing personal and academic support to their NNES peers. They supply encouraging and constructive feedback on their teaching, attend to their language needs, and volunteer as an eager audience to help NNES rehearse their presentations. They encourage NNES to be assertive, ask questions, and participate in a class discussion. NES’s friendly guidance and advice is especially beneficial for those new to the country as it facilitates NNEST students’ socialization into the culture of an American university. As both groups get to know each other better, the NNES’s feeling of personal and academic comfort and self-confidence grows tremendously. I hope these collaborative relations will extend beyond graduate classes and will help both NES and NNES become better teachers.
Ana Wu: The NNEST Caucus became an Interest Section in 2008 and you were its first chair. What would you like to see the leaders and members of the NNEST IS do or initiate? Dr. Nemtchinova: As a long-time member of NNEST Caucus and Interest Section I find the work done by our community leaders inspiring and encouraging. I would like the Interest Section to continue reaching out to NNS members of TESOL who are still not members of the IS and invite them to join us. As I sat in the NNEST IS Booth at TESOL 2009, I was surprised by the number of nonnative speaking colleagues who did not know who we were. Our strength is in numbers, and the stronger we are, the better we’ll be heard. I also think it is important to enhance the presence of NNES in TESOL through education and research, and to extend our mentoring and support to NNES members in the profession. I hope we will continue working towards increasing the number of conference presentations, single-authored and joint publications, and representation in TESOL, and encouraging on- and off-line networking. On a more practical note, it would be nice to have a column in NNES newsletter devoted to successful classroom techniques, particularly related to NNES issues.
Ana Wu: You are currently writing a series of Russian textbooks. How do you balance your professional life - as a language instructor, professor and writer, mentoring students, giving presentations, writing articles, going to conferences - with your family obligations? What advice would you give to graduate students and new teachers who are also parents and want to have a fulfilling career?
Dr. Nemtchinova: Being a successful professional as well as a caring wife and a devoted mother are both very high on my priority scale, but the balancing act requires a lot of self- discipline, prioritizing and organizing. Preparing classes, grading assignments, providing feedback on student presentations, and actual teaching and advising consume the best part of my waking hours, and then there are demands of being an active scholar and finding time to serve the university and the community. My biggest challenge is to have a fixed block of time for writing once or twice a week. Because I am most focused and alert in the morning, I treat my productive time very carefully and try to arrange my school and home schedule so as to carve a few hours of creative morning freedom for professional writing. This scheduling comes at a price: my “teaching” days are crammed with classes, advising appointments, and meetings to the point of exhaustion. Despite my desire to be substantially involved into university affairs, my options for campus service are limited to committees that only meet once a month; even then I often have to plead with committee members to schedule meetings on my teaching days to avoid a 40-minute commute to campus which will surely ruin my writing productivity. I have to miss university events that take place on my research days and find other ways to increase my visibility and participate in campus life. Nevertheless, having a fixed block of time for writing, even once or twice a week, has proven to be very beneficial for my research.
Family life requires as careful time management and organization as professional life. I have a weekly plan for various family responsibilities and house chores and stick to it. I cannot live without my checklists (one for classes, one for research, one for family, and one for everything else) –they help me remember what needs to be done and stay organized. The most important lesson I have learned while trying to cope with the demands of teaching, research, and family is that it is impossible to be an equally successful and dedicated mother, teacher, and researcher without sacrificing something. I think it’s essential to define your priorities and lower your standards on something you deem less important. My most important priorities are children and work, but I am more relaxed about household responsibilities, particularly cleaning. It’s simply not possible to excel in everything!
My advice to those who are juggling family and career is not to succumb to the feeling of guilt when something is not up to your standards, but be flexible and realistic. Learn to accept that things may not always be perfect, set reasonable goals and have a small celebration when you achieve one of them. It is also important to take time to do things that help you relax and unwind- a hobby, an exercise program, or a stress management practice. Playing tennis, knitting, and listening to audio books help me recharge my batteries when commitments start piling up. After a little break now and then I can focus more effectively on teaching, research, and family.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this delightful interview!