Interview with Rachel La Russo, PhD candidate at UMass

Each year, more and more young Americans are traveling abroad to teach English. Some are looking for a “gap year” experience after college that will also serve as a resume builder, others do it for mission or volunteer experience, and others use it as an opportunity to learn a second or third language while giving back to a community.  As the shift in language learning leans further towards not only communication, but cultural proficiency, understanding communities, and more, a teaching abroad experience can benefit not only the teacher, but the classroom they return to. Rachel La Russo, supporter of the museum and PhD student at UMass Boston, tells us about her experience here.


Tell me about your language background

Language has always been a part of my life. I grew up in an English-speaking household but attended French Immersion schools until the 8th grade, when I began studying other languages like Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.

I always thought that I would become a translator/interpreter, but in college I started volunteering at a community ESL program for low-income adults and I fell in love with teaching. I got hired on by the same program (the adult education program at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland) after I graduated, and worked for them in the evenings while I taught ESL during the day at a private institute in Bethesda, Maryland called English Now!. After doing that for a couple of years, I decided to try and do something with my BA in Romance Languages, and I got hired on at George Fox Middle School in Pasadena, Maryland teaching introductory and level 1 French and Spanish classes. I was there for two years before I got the urge to travel, and in 2011 I left the U.S. and wouldn’t return until six years later.

During that time, I spent a year in Brantford, Ontario teaching ESL to newcomers in Canada and tutoring schoolchildren in English and French. My husband (then boyfriend) and I wanted more of an adventure, so we got certified in TESOL through Global TESOL College and then taught English in Paju, South Korea at the government-run Gyeonggi English Village. At that point I realized that my passion was teaching ESL/EFL, and I decided to pursue a Master’s in TESL at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico. While I studied for my master’s, I taught English online to Russian speakers for a company based out of Moscow called Englex. After obtaining the MATESL, and because of my experience teaching Business English for Englex, I applied to the U.S. Department of State English Language Fellow program and was selected for a 10-month fellowship in Conakry, Guinea, where I taught English at Barack Obama University (among a plethora of other professional activities in the country, my favorite of which was training English teachers in the regions of Guinea)

. That brings me to where I am today: upon completing the fellowship, I returned to the U.S. and started my doctoral studies at UMass Boston, where I am a Research Assistant in their department of Applied Linguistics.

What are the biggest differences between teaching in the US and where you have studied?

In South Korea, I had the opportunity to teach Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai students, and their ages ranged from 5 to 50 years old. No teaching context is ever the same as the next, so classroom interactions always varied because of the different variables at play, but for the sake of simplifying my answer, I can say that I did notice some overarching differences between teaching in Asia vs. teaching in the U.S. In the American context, we tend to approach teaching more democratically; the teacher and students co-construct knowledge in the classroom while the teacher is seen more as a facilitator than a figure of authority. This is not the case in South Korea, where teachers are highly esteemed. Furthermore, ‘democratic’ – what in the U.S. we might call ‘interactive’ or ‘engaging’ – activities are confusing for students, because they used to listening and taking notes silently while the teacher talks. It was especially difficult getting Japanese students to interact not just with the teacher, but with each other in group activities.

All of the above were also true in Guinea, where teaching traditionally means writing information on the blackboard and having students copy it into their notebooks so they can memorize it and be tested on it. However, my Guinean students seemed more open to interacting in the classroom that my Asian students had been, and they were overall more eager to participate by raising their hands to answer questions and engage in group activities.

To sum up, I can say that the biggest difference between teaching in the U.S. and where I’ve worked is the approach to teaching. We certainly advocate ‘democratic’ teaching methods that involve students in constructing meaning for themselves, and this goes against more traditional and hierarchical societies such as those in South Korea and Guinea, where a democratic approach is seen to ‘weaken’ the teacher’s role in the classroom.

Is there anything the US could learn from these other countries?

This is a difficult question, because the one thing I learned by teaching abroad is that there is no single best approach to teaching. Moreover, each teaching context is unique and certain approaches and methods will not work all the time. For example, students in South Korea respected me more when I took on a more central role in the classroom (i.e., when I lectured vs. facilitated activities). So, my answer is two-fold: (1) the U.S. could learn that ‘our’ way is not always the best way, because the context is so important; and (2) students come to us from all over the world, and knowing something about where they come from and what they expect from you as their teacher can make your life – and the students’ lives – much easier.

Have there been efforts to preserve native or indigenous languages through these programs?

As far as I know, there have been no efforts to preserve native or indigenous languages through the programs in which I participated. The language in South Korea is now made up of a huge percentage of loanwords from the English language, but because of their usefulness and popularity, it is doubtful that efforts to reverse this trend would prove fruitful. In Guinea, the colonial legacy of language discrimination is so instilled in them that Guineans do not even consider their local languages to be ‘real’ languages in their own right (i.e., only ‘international’ languages like English and French are valuable). There is less of a threat of English ‘taking over’ in Guinea, but the use of French as the language of instruction in Guinea does function to perpetuate structural violence. For example, since the majority of girls (especially outside Conakry) are either denied an education or drop out early to help their mothers take care of younger siblings, they do not learn French and are thus excluded from the workforce and from participating in society in general. Language preservation – or perhaps promotion in this case – would change the lives of women in Guinea for the better.

Where do you see language learning headed in the future?

If we are speaking about the U.S., I think the communicative language teaching paradigm is going to see a shift in terms of incorporating more explicit grammar instruction in the curricula, which critics have pointed out is inadequate in the communicative approach. Furthermore, as we live in a highly literate society and standards for student performance continue to be pushed to their limits, I foresee a recognition that knowing the grammar and the metalanguage is important for effectively interpreting and producing texts.

As you can see, while there are many similarities how languages are taught around the world, context certainly matters. In highly literate societies, more linguistics approaches are incorporated, while whole language and authentic use continues to be incorporated where the language, in this case, is meant to be used in a practical application. What were your experiences learning or teaching a language abroad? Feel free to leave us a comment or an email at