Growing Together with NELTA
Shyam Sharma, State University of New York
It was during the summer of either 1995 or 1996 when I attended my first ELT training. Professor Awasthi and Ganga Ram Gautam were in the city of Butwal to offer a one week training. In the almost two decades that followed, I have not only attended but also presented teaching workshops, training sessions, and papers. But when I think about my own growth as a teacher, I start in Butwal, with Awasthi and Gautam as the trainers. These two ELT scholars had a different way of sharing ideas: they inspired the participants to think about language teaching as a profession, as a life-long journey. They didn’t just tell us how to teach the conversion of active to passive voice; they framed their presentation of teaching skills within larger ideas of professional development. Gradually, I found out that these two scholars were among the first few people in Nepal to start a new organization called NELTA, an organization that they repeatedly told us back in those days was NOT politically oriented or influenced, an organization that was dedicated to professionalizing ELT in Nepal. What they said that week made an impact that continues to make me think about ELT, about teaching English in relation to the larger domain of secondary and tertiary education in Nepal, about professional development of the people and the organization that brings them together, generation after generation.
As I returned home from teaching the first week of class to business studies majors at the State University of New York this week, I thought about my journey of teaching from Butwal to Stony Brook. We all have our own individual paths that are different from everyone else’s, but we also have something that we share. I share with most readers of this entry (fellow English teachers in Nepal) a professional platform, a platform from which we have all gained something and to which we have given something. I learned from the community of NELTA scholars—conference presenters, to be more precise—how to use the blackboard, how to teach vocabulary, how to integrate literature into language teaching. I don’t know how significant my giving to NELTA community has been, but I think about it, I try my best. I was not one of the most active members between my becoming a member while I was teaching in Butwal and when I left for further studies in 2006, but I actively participated in NELTA trainings and conferences. I guess I learned to value professional development through give and take with a professional organization a little late in my career. But while I might have picked up the excitement about professional development a little slowly, when I think about how my participation in trainings and other professional development activities of the first few years paved the path for the next stage (for instance when my ELT trainings made my teaching at TU more effective), I realize how important an engagement with a professional community can be.
As I reflect on my own experiences, I want to urge my colleagues—not just those who are new in the profession of ELT but also those who are my generation and older—to share, to inspire others, to engage in professional conversations and activities, and to help NELTA build scholarship from the ground up. We have a journal, and we have this blog where a substantive amount of scholarship is published; but we need much more. We need to create more, and newer types of venues for developing and exchanging professional ideas that come out of or are applicable to the particular context of Nepal. For instance, a twitter-based conversation could help us share quick teaching tips with brief text; or a more teaching-focused conversation via Facebook would help us bring more of us into the conversation. Maybe we need more journals, newsletters, and mailing lists. But for any and all of these ideas, we need dedicated NELTA members. And the larger point that I am trying to make here is that there is space and opportunity—and also need—for many, many more NELTA members to start new initiatives, to join existing forums of professional conversation, and to share news ideas and challenge our conventions.
In order to realize our potentials, we may need to change or update our approaches and even our attitudes toward professional development of ourselves and our organization. When I first went for ELT training, I felt a stark difference between the “training” that one of my cousins, who was a public school teacher, went to and the training that I went to as a private school teacher. For my cousin, the training was a source of income and a matter of some pride/ego when he returned to the village. My incentives were very different: I was excited by the skills that I learned and used in my classroom and by the difference that using those new skills made in my teaching and my students’ learning. Over the course of the next ten years, NELTA’s ELT trainings helped me become an effective teacher as I moved up the ladder of my career. Even when I left teaching in high school and started teaching at the university—a place where teaching methods had almost no place in the discussions, programs, or incentives for teachers—I continued to implement new pedagogical skills and ideas that I brought back from NELTA trainings, conferences, and publications. In fact, even after I switched my discipline to writing studies and moved to a radically different academic setting in the United States, I refused to stop asking how the pedagogical ideas and skills that I had learned in the field of ELT might apply to the new discipline. Specific idea and skill from ELT may not have been directly relevant in the new discipline, but the underlying passion for professional development that I had acquired kept me excited, eager, and passionate about learning new teaching skills. I once again bring in my personal experience because I want to urge my colleagues in Nepal—whether you are just beginning to teach or have taught as long as me (or more)—to invest as much time and attention as possible to professional engagement with this great organization.
I will admit that NELTA as an organization has not always tapped into the potentials of its members very well. We see young people come in with excitement, and cool down after a while. When this happens, I am reminded of a teaching tip that professor gave me some years ago, telling me to “not” tell a student that what he/she is saying is obvious, that it has been said already by someone else. That’s not the point about learning; a learner needs to be excited first and foremost, rather than their knowledge having to be just right, relevant, substantive, etc. Let us inspire our new members to share whatever they can share, telling that they don’t have to say the most important thing in the world in our forums. Let us write to explicitly encourage and inspire them. Let us give them opportunities and challenge them. We tend to focus on “quality” at the cost of equal opportunity and respect for everyone. Often I feel like older members of NELTA don’t use the basic social skill of communicating, acknowledging, joining the conversation with especially younger members. Indeed, people with greater social status seem to be reluctant to take issues of teaching, learning, and scholarship seriously/passionately. It’s possible that in our culture at large, when people become more experienced and established, we expect them to maintain their status—which may make sense from a certain perspective but it is a terrible thing from the perspective of professional development, both for them and for the professional community at large. That is perhaps why we see many senior scholars, in any field, who do not share their ideas in writing—neither in traditional nor newer modes of professional communication—and so they lose the wonderful opportunities of continuing to develop professionally and intellectually. Other people regard them superior just on the basis of their age and status. That’s a terrible, terrible culture that needs to change.
Let me state more explicitly my objective for sharing this reflect on my journey with NELTA. First, I feel at this point that I am at a major turning point in my career. In August, I joined the State University of New York, the largest and one of the most prestigious public university systems in the United States, as an assistant professor. Though I specialize in writing studies (I moved away from ELT per se almost a decade ago), I continue to profoundly value my participation in NELTA’s various professional development activities (journal, blog, social media and mailing list, conference, personal and personal communication with members of the community) because I believe that I can give something back to a society and professional community to which I owe a lot. As I indicated above, I may be in a different kind of situation today, but I too started like any primary or secondary school teacher in Butwal or Birgunj or Taplejung is starting today—with a dream, with passion as an English teacher. I believe that if those of us who have a few ideas to share do not hesitate and share those ideas, we will inspire more new and young and resourceful colleagues to come forward. We may want to give back (as well as take from) NELTA in different ways—off and on line, in person and in groups, in formal and informal settings—but we can and should all give and take.
If NELTA grows, we will grow. Even when we go different routes off the regular path, we can help others who follow our footpaths grow and realize tremendous potentials for them, for Nepal, and for the world. And in helping them, we always get a lot back. We get new ideas, inspiration, satisfaction like nothing else. That’s a strong and sincere feeling about my growth with NELTA—from Butwal to Kathmandu to Kentucky to New York—which I wanted to share as I start a new journey in my professional career.