For our second interview, we feature a stimulating discussion with Nicholas Rhea. Nicholas is currently an English language teacher in the Washoe county school district in Reno, Nevada, USA. He has been teaching English for five years, and has taught in Chile, China, Afghanistan, and the United States. He holds an MA in TESL from Northern Arizona University, and his research interests include corpus linguistics and working with refugee populations. Matthew Nall has taught English in Japan for over 10 years. He is an Assistant Professor at Miyagi University and is currently a PhD candidate at Ryukoku University. His research focus is language teacher identity.
Matthew Nall: Hi Nicholas, thanks for taking the time to meet me today. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and to hear about your teaching experiences abroad. I know you’ve been very busy, so let’s get into the interview. My first question for you is, can you tell me a little bit about your teaching background, and about how you ended up teaching in Afghanistan?
Nicholas Rhea: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure. To be clear, today I am not representing any institution in Afghanistan or the United States. Today’s discussion is only based on my opinions and experiences teaching in Afghanistan.
Regarding my educational background, I have a bachelor’s degree in secondary education with an emphasis in English. After graduation, I started teaching high school in the U.S., and I did that for one year. I was interested in living abroad, so I quit teaching high school, and then spent some time in Chile, working as a private English tutor and traveling before getting my MA in TESL from Northern Arizona University. I completed that in 2017. After that, I spent a year teaching English in China, and then my teaching journey took me to Afghanistan in July of 2018. My partner had seen a job posting for English teachers in Afghanistan. We were interested, so we applied at the same time and were both offered teaching positions. I honestly did not know much about English language teaching in Afghanistan until after I was offered the position and took time to do more research.
You have some very unique and interesting international experiences. So, what initially brought you into the field of second language teaching? And why didn’t you just continue teaching in China?
As I mentioned, I started my teaching career as a high school English teacher in the United States. That job was fine, but in my heart, what I really wanted to do was travel. At that time, I discovered that I could teach English as a second language and travel, which was my primary motivation for getting an MA in TESL.
Teaching in China was a really great experience. The students were wonderful, but when we got the job offer to teach in Afghanistan, we felt that such an opportunity to do something exciting and unique might not come up again. We jumped at the chance. We discussed it, and decided that it was a chance to work with an interesting demographic with a unique need. I knew that as an English teacher in Afghanistan, I would be working with students and faculty that were going to be integral to the rebuilding of the nation. I felt that was one way that I could make my mark on history. We wanted to help, and that was what really drew my partner and I into that experience.
Can you tell me a little bit about your teaching scenarios there? What was it like?
My partner and I taught in a university foundations program. Many of the students needed to take some bridge classes before entering the university full-time. Those were the courses I taught. The program was new when we arrived, and so much of our work consisted of curriculum and program development. I taught 12 credits per semester. Those classes were a mix of English composition and grammar courses.
What, if anything, was challenging about teaching those courses? Can you tell me more about them?
One challenge was helping students to see the value in the courses. Some students felt that they should be directly enrolled in the university and did not see the benefit of spending time and money in a foundations program. I started each course by showing them the expectations of the university and then comparing their writing samples to those of freshman enrolled at the university level. The goal was not to show students that they lacked English language skills, but to show them the very high expectations of university study. I followed this lesson with one, where we discussed the importance of quality of work, and I emphasized that if they were rushed into full-time university enrollment, the quality of their work would not meet the high standards required of university course work. With time, most of the students came to see the foundations program as a benefit that would help them. Once there was this buy-in, the students were more motivated and worked harder.
In each of these courses I also focused on study skills and built student capacity to be successful in their courses as well as to adjust to university life. Additionally, I served as an academic advisor and was on several faculty committees. I often found myself in roles that I was unfamiliar with. So, there was constantly a huge learning curve going on. For example, I was a member of the research committee and the faculty committee, both of which were in the process of reorganizing. Each day was definitely a learning experience.
So, what did it feel like teaching in Afghanistan, a country that, sadly, has been war-torn for decades? Were you ever scared?
Honestly, it felt motivating to teach in Afghanistan. I was lucky enough to teach at the university and in their community outreach program, and each day I felt that I was making a difference, and that is unique. My family was definitely nervous about us moving to Afghanistan and initially so was I, but once we arrived and learned more about security and safety protocols, I was much more at ease. The hardest part of working there was that we did not really have the ability to go out into the broader community. We couldn’t go to the markets, and could only go to a few restaurants. It was quite sad to be there and know that we couldn’t interact more with the community. However, our students, the faculty, and the university did a great job of bringing events to campus. Through those we could learn more about the culture.
Can you tell me more about the students?
The students were great! They worked hard and brought so much expertise and experience with them. At the same time, they were willing to be open to different perspectives. They were on board with trying different learning styles, learning how to trust themselves and their peers. What has stuck with me the most was their sense of humor and kindness. They were always willing to help each other, and they were each other’s biggest supporters, both in the classroom and outside. Students were always quick to help a student that had missed class. They also helped each other navigate financial barriers and family opposition to them studying. This was especially true for the female students. The students had high standards for themselves, their instructors, and the university and I can truly say that we were a community.
Language teacher identity is an important research area in our field. How do you think your identity developed through your teaching experiences in Afghanistan? Do you perceive any differences in yourself as a teacher through the experience? That is, as a human being, or as a global citizen?
My time in Afghanistan has had a profound effect on my identity as a language teacher. The two biggest takeaways for me are, first of all, learning to really listen to the advice of my local colleagues, and secondly, understanding that students have a lot going on in their lives outside of their studies. To the first point, I realized that if I was going to be an effective teacher, I needed to learn about the local culture and social norms. I found that the best way to learn was by having conversations with my colleagues, asking them questions, listening to their advice, and putting into practice what I learned. Related to that, and this is something I have been coming to believe more and more, is that while I can learn about a culture and its practices, I can never fully be a part of that culture. This is counterintuitive to what many believe when they start teaching abroad, but I’ve come to find that it is OK. My colleagues taught me that I can be a culturally responsive educator without trying to force myself into their culture. I am constantly working on finding the balance of being culturally responsive and not projecting my cultural norms and understanding onto my students. This is something I will have to do for my entire career.
As for the second part, I quickly learned that my students had a lot going on outside of school. I don’t really want to go into specifics here, out of concern for the students, but the lesson I took away was the importance of having patience. Students have so much going on in their lives that we don’t know about, and we always need to keep that in mind. This can require flexibility and creativity when helping them balance their lives as students and as members of their communities. Now, I try to apply both of these lessons to my life both inside and outside of the classroom.
Are there any other lessons that you learned in Afghanistan that you think should be discussed more in the global ELT community?
The first lesson I would share is that we need to continue to move away from the native speaker ideal. Globally, I think we are making progress, but this is something I have heard from colleagues and students. While in Afghanistan, I was often asked, “How do I sound more American?” This is a loaded question because it completely ignores the linguistic diversity within the United States, and it also ignores or diminishes the value of the many versions of English around the world. I learned so much from my Afghan colleagues about teaching English, and I had the chance to offer my opinions about the negative aspects of native speakerism. We should encourage more of this kind of mutual exchange in the world.
Another lesson I learned in Afghanistan was that I need to be more patient with my students and with myself. We all have a lot going on outside of school and work. It is important to take this into account when designing courses and policies. I had to learn to set clear expectations and boundaries that reflected my needs and those of my students. One simple example is a late work policy. I found it much more beneficial to negotiate this policy with students at the beginning of the year. This allowed me to set my expectations but also to hear the concerns of the students, many of which were valid. One issue that has stuck with me was the lack of internet access for students. In Afghanistan, it was sometimes difficult to access the Internet. When I set due dates, I learned that this was something I needed to keep in mind.
The political and social situation in Afghanistan is tragic for a number of reasons. What would be the message that you would want to share with the global ELT community?
If I had to give a message to the ELT community right now, it would be to open your arms and doors—welcome these students, support these students, and teach these students. I would also advocate for more people to learn about trauma-informed practices in this classroom. A book I am currently reading is Supporting the Journey of English Learners after Trauma by O’Loughlin and Custodio (2020). This book has some good strategies and bits of information that can be used in the classroom. The context is more geared towards K-12 education, but some of it is transferable. Essentially, this can mean learning how to make students feel welcome and safe. This, combined with culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2018), can really help to create a better learning environment. I think it is important to point out that culturally responsive teaching and trauma-informed practices are not the same thing, but they do, in my experience, complement each other. Most importantly, I think it is important to have an asset-minded approach. The Afghan people have a lot to offer the world, and we all need to recognize that.
As ELT professionals, our jobs often exist at the interface between politics and education. As foreign language teachers, sometimes the political landscape works to our advantage, but sometimes it does not. You have a unique experience abroad, and you have a lot of knowledge about teaching and about this geographic region. In your opinion, what do the current political changes in Afghanistan mean for ELT in the region? What do they mean for ELT globally? And, in Afghanistan, what do you think the picture will look like going forward?
I am not fully sure what ELT will look like going forward in Afghanistan. I don’t think anybody really does. Regionally, it could mean that universities in nearby countries are asked to support more study abroad students or refugee students from Afghanistan. Universities around the world might also find themselves supporting more and more students from Afghanistan.
I am not an expert on Afghan politics, nor on the possible implications for the future of education in the country, but I believe the outlook for ELT in the foreseeable future is not good, especially regarding the education of women and ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan. As individuals, who are at risk of persecution by the Taliban, leave Afghanistan, the country may experience “brain drain.” This can have long term effects on Afghanistan, as well as countries that see an influx of refugee Afghans.
The situation in Afghanistan is evolving rapidly, but it is important to remember the ripple effects of women being denied equal access to education. Unfortunately, the return to power by the Taliban may signal an abrupt reversal of progress in women’s education in the region. As we have seen recently, girls have been denied access to schools or can only attend segregated classes and schools. My worry is that the curriculum will be very different for those women who do get to study. My outlook is even dimmer for women who are denied education. It breaks my heart to know that all of the effort by these women to get an education and to contribute to rebuilding their country will probably go to waste. Additionally, it is likely that the curriculum in Afghanistan could see drastic revisions. This is another factor that could affect educational goals and ELT there.
In terms of research, is there anything specific that you are working on that is related to Afghanistan? Or, can you think of any avenues of future research that are important for the region? Or that are important to the ELT field as a whole?
While working in Afghanistan, I conducted research that evaluated the unconscious biases of students towards non-native English language teachers (Rhea, 2020). My goal was to evaluate whether students better understood native English teachers or non-native (Afghan) English teachers. The results did not show any difference in listening comprehension, but they did show that when asked, that students tended to prefer native English teachers. I will say that there needs to be more research in this area and that my study would need some modifications if I were to do it again. Things in the global ELT field are changing, but I think we need to continually consider and reevaluate the native speaker ideal in ELT. I believe that more research in this area could bring a greater level of equity to the field in contexts abroad, especially in developing or struggling regions like Afghanistan.
I would like to add that concerning research in Afghanistan, at this point I think we should be monitoring the effects of the changes that are happening on student proficiency levels. While difficult, it is important to see how the dramatic changes to education in Afghanistan affect language programs and language acquisition. In particular, I would be interested in tracking literacy rates in Afghanistan.
This last question is completely open-ended. This interview has been about your experiences teaching English in Afghanistan, and about your identity development, et cetera. Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you would like to mention?
Afghans are going to need long term support from the ELT community. We should ask Afghans, those who have left and those still residing in Afghanistan, how we can best support them. The current outpouring of support for Afghans is wonderful, but we need to continue support through the long term. I think those of us in the ELT community need to be continually thinking of ways to support students in and from Afghanistan.
There are many ways people can offer their support. First, people should find out if refugees are being settled in their local areas. Various local organizations are often responsible for the actual resettlement process. For example, two of the larger organizations that do refugee resettlement in the United States are the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (https://www.lirs.org) and Catholic Charities USA (https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org). Countries around the world have similar organizations that help refugees. These organizations may offer volunteer English language teachers the opportunity to contribute their time and expertise. Another organization to support is the Friends of the American University of Afghanistan; they have a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/emergency-rescue-auaf-student-faculty-and-staff). Finally, at the international level there is the International Rescue Committee (https://www.rescue.org), which does extensive work with refuges around the world, including in Afghanistan.
Thank you, Nicholas, for taking the time to speak with me. This has been a wonderful chance for me to learn about you and your experiences abroad and about the situation in Afghanistan. You have certainly changed my perspective, and there are a lot of things that I need to think about now. Thanks again.
Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press, Colombia University.
O’Loughlin, J. B., & Custodio, B. K. (2020). Supporting the journey of English learners after trauma. University of Michigan Press.
Rhea, N. (2020, March). Rethinking students’ native speaker instructor ideal in the EFL context. AL Forum. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2020-03-06/4.html