M.A TESOL/Applied Linguistics Interview (4) with Michael Griffin

My fourth interview in this series is with Michael Griffin, a teacher trainer in South Korea. Mike is the first person I’ve interviewed who took his MA TESOL course in the United States. I’ll let Mike do the rest of the talking…

Q1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you cho
Picturese to complete an MA TESOL?

I am a teacher and teacher trainer/educator. I have a blog too. I am living in Seoul at the moment and working at a university here, among a few other jobs. To be clear, without my MA this job would have been impossible without the MA in hand simply based on the visa requirements.

.So, aside from actual job stuff, I just thought it was time to shit or get off the pot. I mean, I had been teaching for 8 years and it seemed to be the right time to decide if I was going to seriously consider this TESOL stuff a career or not. There was that and also the fact that I was generally and genuinely curious. I wanted to know more about this field I’d been working in for so long.

Q2. So I guess you decided to make a career out of English language teaching?! What opportunities do you feel have opened up for you since completing your MA?

Two opportunities come to mind immediately. As above, the first thing is simple; without my MA in hand I would not have been able to get my current job due to visa regulations and hiring policies. 

The second is how the MA program I took introduced me to a teacher training center here in Korea. The connection to the program was pretty much enough to give me a chance to work there on a short-term basis, which eventually turned into a more long term thing. Just being in the process of doing the MA was a foot in the door to teacher training.

You asked about other opportunities. I would have to include working with and meeting great instructors and classmates while on the MA as a great opportunity. Also, through the teacher training work that I did during and after my MA I was able to meet lots of people that guided, challenged, influenced and helped me. These people include other trainers as well as my course participants.

In terms of making a career out of English teaching and training, it sure seems that way. I remember working in different contexts (mostly in Korea and Japan) and feeling like some very silly things were being done but I didn’t really have the words to explain why they were silly. So, in a sense doing my MA helped me articulate some fundamental problems I had with how English language education was being packaged and performed. 

Q3. Do you feel that these opportunities were influenced at all, especially with regards to the contacts you made and people you met, due to the method of study you chose for your M.A course?

Maybe. I did the majority of my MA online. I think there is still some trepidation about doing so but I think in the future employers will look askance at MA holders that did their whole degrees offline, face-to-face. I imagine someday MAs done completely offline will raise some eyebrows. “So you just wrote papers and listened to face-to-face lectures with people all in the same immediate area?” potential employers of the future will ask.

Doing most of my MA online,  I will never forget how hard it was for me to jump from the online world to the face-to-face world. Yes that is right, I struggled to deal with face-to-face interactions. Let me give an example. When I was studying online I was able to quickly skim the contributions of my classmates and decide which discussion board posts deserved more of my attention. I certainly had (and have) a lot to learn but I had been working in the field for a while and had done a fair amount of outside reading previously. Online it was very easy for me to determine which posts I wanted to give more thought to. Offline, however this was impossible because decorum prevented me from simply jumping up and walking away when a partner was talking about something I felt very comfortable with. It was a nice chance to improve my listening skills and manners but I didn’t think it was as helpful for expanding my knowledge of methods and materials as it could have been.

Q4. It seems like overall you were very happy with this mode of interaction, do you feel like there were any other drawbacks at the time, such as not having the opportunity for face to face discussions with tutors etc.?

Oh no! On the contrary. I felt very well connected to to the instructors and was able to catch a lot of insights from them. For me, frequent contact with and feedback from instructors online more than made up for any desire to meet face-to-face.

Also, for peers, I was able to make some extremely meaningful connections. My theory is that because (and not in spite of) the written communication and distance we were able to forge better connections and open up more to others.

I will never forget the moment I met a long-time classmate at a party in New York City. A stranger came running up to me and gave me a big hug. I had no idea who she was till she identified herself. It was a magical moment which has stuck in my mind as an example of the type of relationships I was able to develop online. 

Q5. Even though your course was online it seems like it involved a large social element, perhaps even more so than a face to face course?

I can’t say for sure either way but I think that is it not fair to assume that all online courses are faceless and impersonal. I think it is important to distinguish between courses/programs that are online and those that are distance courses (or distance courses made into online courses with seemingly little effort or care). A simple way to distinguish is if most or all of the work on course could be done through the mail then it is what I am calling a distance course. Not that there is anything wrong with it, just that it is different.

If you will permit me to not speak from experience for a moment. One thing I have often heard from friends doing MAs distance or online or some combination of these is that they are not pleased with the amount or quality of the interactions they have with their peers and instructors. It seems to me that a key aspect here is if online interactions are considered to be a central part of the course and if they are assessed. It might sound overly simple but potential MA students looking for MA courses with lots of online interaction might want to consider if online participation is assessed (and how it is assessed) or if it is just a seemingly disconnected add-on. I don’t mean to suggest that online participation being assessed is the only key but I do think it is something to consider along with online tasks being closely related to what is going on in the course.

I was very happy I decided to do my MA online (and very happy that I had lots of interactions with classmates and instructors) and also very happy I decided to work while completing it. I felt the direct connection between what I was learning and what I was doing in my job. In fact one time, I was a bit freaked out in the middle of class as I compared the beliefs I had stated in an MA course recently to what I was actually doing as teacher in class that day and noticed a sizable gap. Although I was dizzied I thought it was an incredible learning experience. 

Q6. Drawing from your experiences again, is there any advice you feel like you could offer people to help them get as much out of their MA as you did?

If I had to offer some advice I guess it would be about doing your best to make what you are learning your own. In one particular term I took much more than the recommended amount of courses for people with jobs. So, partially out of necessity I tried to relate all my assignments to my (then new) job as closely as possible. For example, for one MA assignment I was asked to create an assessment rubric for students. I did it for the group I was working with and used it in class. I feel like I got much more out of it by focusing as much as possible on my then current context. So, in few words my advice is something like, “Try to make everything as relevant to you and your context as possible.”

Some people will say that MAs are just about writing papers and gaining esoteric knowledge. Surely this is the case sometimes but it need not always be. There is a wide variety of programs out there so I would encourage people to do their research. Find out about the courses and the instructors and what the alumni are doing. Don’t just focus on the cost (which is of course an important factor) and find out how prospective programs fit into with your needs, interests and goals.  If you are not sure about your needs and interests you might consider why it is you are considering doing an MA. If you are still thinking you might want to read this post by Dr. Geoff Jordan. 

Q7. I’d like to refer back to the MA course you took now if I may? We have heard mostly from people who took their course either in the U.K or the country they were teaching, but I believe you took your MA with a university in the US? Where exactly did you take your MA TESOL and could you tell us a little bit about its structure and focus?

Yes, my MA was through the New School in New York City.
There is a lot of info here.Some things that might jump out (besides the names of some of the instructors) is the “major focus on the political, cultural, and ethical implications of English language teaching in an era of intense globalization.” I should also add that from my view and experience the focus was very much on teaching and learning and learning teaching and not as much on writing academic papers. Of course, there were plenty of papers and a great deal of reading and writing but the focus was on how to become better teachers.

A recent commenter on the KELTchat Facebook page here (in reference to this series of interviews) mentioned something about the degree in which the importance of research varies from program to program. My sense is that the New School program would be at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of the importance of research. Again, not to say that there is no research, but just to say that I never had that sense of being given a reading list and being sent off on my own in order to write a paper. On a related note, a guided professional project and a teaching practicum are options that New School MA TESOL students can take.

I should also mention there are two concentrations; teaching and curriculum development. I took the latter and was very pleased as I was able to take courses like “Writing ESOL Materials” and Curriculum Development and Course Design” which I found to be invaluable learning experiences. I enjoyed and got a lot out of designing an English and teacher training course for Korean public school teachers in my curriculum development course. It was a great experience to work towards creating a  final product like that, completing a different component each week. Another highlight for me was the professional project in which I created a book proposal for a discussion book for Korean students.  

Q8. You are obviously happy with your choice, I wonder if there are any other programs you have come across that you feel might offer similar experiences?

That is an interesting question. You want me to suggest programs other than the New School in the States? Since you are twisting my arm I will suggest SIT and Marlboro College. I think these programs have a lot in common with the New School and might be a good match for like minded people

Q9. Mike thank you so much for your time in answering all these questions, before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Deciding to do an MA is obviously a big decision. Do the research while continually thinking about the kind of program you are looking for and make your decision from there. Don’t take the decision likely and be sure that doing an MA is what you really want to do. 

If you would like to hear more from Mike you can visit his extremely lively blog here.

AlienTeachers now has (after 1 1/2 years!) an email update system. You can just enter your email address here to get the most recent ‘thoughts & reflections’ straight into your inbox! Alternatively you can follow me on Twitter here or like the Facebook page here.



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