When Your English Teacher Isn’t a Native Speaker

“You are from Ukraine to teach English in the US?!”

The first time I introduce myself to the students I always mention that I am from Ukraine. I do it for two reasons, mainly because I am proud of my nationality, but also because I want to relate to my multilingual students. However, not all of them react positively to the fact that they have flown across the ocean, spent thousands of dollars and found a non-native speaker teaching them English grammar.

Oksana’s workplace at IECP. Gerunds and infinitives are on the agenda.

My journey as a teacher started in Ukraine when I was 16. I just returned from the US, where I spent a year living with a host family in California as part of FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program) and received some calls from neighbors asking me to tutor their kids. Later, I enrolled in an English language program and graduated with a teaching degree. Unfortunately, teachers don’t earn a living wage in Ukraine. So instead, I found a job as a social media manager, where I could implement my English language skills. But the teacher inside of me was not going to give up. In 2015, I won a Fulbright grant and went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania to pursue a degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Graduation at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania

As an ambitious student, I wanted to gain as much working experience in the US as I can in order to be professionally prepared for job market in my home country. Thanks to the Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program, I got an opportunity to work at Intensive English Communication Program at Penn State University this summer.

Oksana’s ESL classroom in Penn State’s Intensive English Communication Program

I was assigned to teach Grammar for Interactions class, which is an intermediate level course for English language learners. Little I did I know how much this experience would broaden my horizons. The first day I walked into the classroom, I thought I was in a wrong class. There were 11 male students. I don’t think they realized that I was their teacher as some of them looked much older than I was. I also got to know that majority of them were from the Saudi Arabian Navy. Well, a great class to begin my internship with— 11 male Saudi Navy students! I was terrified at the beginning that they would not respect me or even listen to what I have to explain about English grammar. Why would they listen to a young woman from Ukraine who is trying to teach them English?

Oksana’s students come from Saudi Arabia, Korea, and Kuwait.

I was completely wrong. These students turned out to be the most respectful, motivated and hard-working group I have ever worked with. Of course, there were times when I had to raise my voice to get their attention, but overall I was eager to come to class every time because I knew that what I teach matters to them.

This internship was not only a great way for me to gain professional experience but also to learn from students with different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. At the end of the day, it is not what you learn about English grammar, it is how this knowledge will serve you and help you to become a global citizen of the world.My students taught me that being a minority does not predetermine your social role and significance, even when you’re the only female teacher.

The Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program is a summer internship program funded by the U.S. Department of State that provides emerging leaders from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia with the opportunity to gain real-world experience complementing and enriching their graduate studies in the United States.