For the past year, Gabriela Klečková, Head of the English Department at the UWB Faculty of Education, has led the TESOL International Association.
Gabriela Klečková was the first Czech person to assume the role of President of the US-based TESOL International Association for the professional community dealing with English language teaching from all over the world. "It is a kind of professional home for me," Klečková remarks concerning her TESOL membership. She intends to capitalize on her experience in her work at the English Department.
Your term in office as President of the TESOL professional association came to an end in March, though you continue to hold a leading position at the organization. How does that work?
For another year, I remain part of the Association's leadership, specifically its Board of Directors. After being elected, the person works in top management for three years, holding a different position each year. You have one year to prepare for the position of President, then you hold the office for a year, and then you collaborate with the current management. This 3-year cycle is typical for various leadership positions across TESOL. The entire Board of Directors works and votes together as one. Neither the President nor the top management have more powers. The President is more of a representative and spokesperson for the organization. In my view, this gives the President much more responsibility. You lead the Board of Directors comprised of eleven people so that they make sound decisions for the benefit of the organization and its members.
In recent years, we have all got used to online meetings. How did that work in your organization?
From the day I took office in the spring of 2020, all meetings of the Board of Directors were held online until October 2021, when we managed to meet in person for the first time. It was a bit of a worry for me, as people from the EU were only allowed to enter the United States with a special permit. After going through the whole rigmarole and thanks to support from a number of people, I received the permit ten days before the key meeting. The idea of me leading the Board's meeting and the selection procedure for choosing the new director and being the only member attending online was very stressful, but everything worked out in the end. We now successfully continue with online meetings (also for financial reasons), though the difference between the time zones of the Board members is our big enemy.
Can you give us a sense of how TESOL works and how you benefit from your membership?
TESOL is an international organization, but it was established and has its headquarters in the USA. There are two global organizations of a similar nature in the world, one in Great Britain and the other in the United States. Although I am a member of both, I am actively involved in TESOL. My engagement with TESOL provides me with professional training; I meet other professionals and we get to share our experience. TESOL's membership base is made up of people from elementary and middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities as well as various teaching centers, but it also includes teacher trainers. What I like about TESOL is the connection between theory and practice, that is, the application of scientific knowledge in practice. Apart from regular conferences and educational events, we publish all kinds of materials and periodicals. It is one way to stay on top of what's going on in the field of English teaching and provides space for your further education and growth, and you are exposed to current professional topics and research.
How common is it for Czech teachers of English to be members of a professional association?
In the Czech Republic, there is the Association of Teachers of English of the Czech Republic. We saw a big boom in professional associations in the Czech Republic in the 1990s, with English teachers receiving a lot of support after the fall of communism. As for TESOL membership, three people from our English Department are members of the Association, with a total of approximately ten people from all over the Czech Republic. The registration fee is relatively high compared to Czech salaries and not everyone can take full advantage of their TESOL membership.
You got your Master's and PhD degrees at the University of Memphis. Is that where you first encountered this professional association?
Yes, I was introduced to TESOL by my former mentor at the English Department. She was a very active member herself, as were other colleagues of hers. In the United States, it is normal and common for people to be involved in professional organizations. I call TESOL my professional home, because when you leave university, you need some space where you can advance your education and meet colleagues with the same interests.
How has your view of teaching English changed over the course of your professional life?
The basic historical distinction was between teaching English as a foreign language and teaching English as a second language. The first is what many of us remember from school, and this is still the way English is taught in many places. In countries where English is the official language, that is the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others where they have a lot of immigrants who need to learn the language, English is taught as a second language. These two basic approaches historically corresponded with the role of English in the particular context. There has been a shift, though, in terms of teaching English in countries where it is not the official language. We speak of teaching English as an international language. These days, we no longer speak only of two language variants, that is, British and American English. After all, these days we encounter Italian English, Chinese English, or Ukrainian English. English has become omnipresent virtually all around the world. In my view, English is no longer a foreign language in the Czech Republic. It is no longer connected with traveling abroad. Instead, we are surrounded by it here in our own backyard. To a certain extent, it is becoming a second language for us. Thanks to my experience with both historical approaches, I implement in practice relevant methods from both, and I find myself at a point where new ways and concepts of teaching English need to be found so that they correspond to the role of English in our country and abroad, its purpose and the reasons why we learn the language.
What are the benefits of your role in TESOL for your English Department?
I see what is happening in the world and think about what we could do differently to reflect the global as well as local context. My outlook on teaching itself has changed and so has the way I manage the department and its people, and what I would like to see in our curricula for training future English teachers. Although there have been certain modifications to our study programs over the past eight years, given the new paradigm of English language teaching, there is still a need for many other changes and adjustments.
Can you be more specific as to what changes these may be?
For example, you will no longer find courses that include British or American literature, or British or American studies in their title, i.e., courses dealing primarily with Great Britain or the United States. Our new focus is on intercultural awareness and understanding of our own culture and subsequently other cultures. For instance, students look at texts that were written by people for whom English is not their first language, where there is a cross-section between various contexts and cultures. Language and culture are interconnected, which is reflected in communication. I want future teachers to have an understanding of how English is used as an international language, i.e., in interactions with anyone from anywhere. At the same time, it is important to reflect needs that are specific to our country. We need to understand what a seventh-grader may need here and now, what he or she may need in the future and what types of language competence are essential for them. I think that motivating pupils by telling them that they will need English for work or traveling is a goal that is perhaps too distant for them at their age. Being able to speak English has become part of people's basic literacy, as we are surrounded by the language in the public space, on our clothing, which is much more relevant for a seventh-grader. As I say: I don't learn English to be able to work in the British Parliament, but to understand what I see and hear around me and to be able to communicate as needed. English is a functional tool.
There is a lot of interest in English studies at the Faculty of Education. What criteria should applicants meet?
For the Bachelor’s and follow-up Master’s Degree program, first and foremost it is advanced language competence at the C1 or C2 level. Applicants must also want and be willing to invest time and energy in their studies. In terms of the follow-up Master’s Degree program, I would add a desire to become a teacher and the ability to see the significance of the teaching profession. For me personally, it is important that students, when they start working with children, see their value and respect the individuality of each and every one of them rather than seeing "stupid teenagers" struggling with puberty. Recently, I have become more aware of how important self-awareness and self-development are in the teaching profession. Knowing who I am and what I want, those are the fundamental prerequisites for being prepared to teach children.