After receiving the Teaching Excellence Award from the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in 2021, Dr Mai Ngo has now been awarded the university-wide Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Innovation in Teaching for her personalised pedagogical approaches to hybrid teaching.
These approaches stimulate individual students’ interactive and reflective learning, motivate, inspire, transform and impact them to achieve academic and employability success. We sat down with Mai to find out how she distinguishes herself Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
Mai’s TESOL journey
Mai’s love for language and language teaching arose when she was just a little girl in Vietnam. Inspired by her mother being a teacher and her father teaching her English, Mai decided to complete a Bachelor degree in English.
After graduating, Mai wanted to test her skills in an English-speaking country. Coming from a poor background, she applied for an Australian Government scholarship which she won in 1999. In Sydney, she then completed a Master in TESOL, before returning to Australia 10 years later to do her PhD. Mai found that teaching TESOL required her to improve her knowledge of TESOL literature and do more research on TESOL and Applied Linguistics.
“Culturally, moving abroad for a 4-year PhD is quite hard for a Vietnamese woman like me as society expects us to stay at home and take care of the family. I was lucky that my family and husband fully supported me. Since we have migrated to Adelaide and I have been teaching at Flinders University for 6 years now.”
What the award means to Mai
Mai says the award is very meaningful to her, “It’s a recognition of my worth, hard work, and my passion for TESOL and applied linguistics. It gives me confidence in the professional development path that I’m pursuing. It gives me a lot of energy, motivation and inspiration. I believe my students are also inspired. The word ‘award’ itself is great.
“A is for attention – you must pay attention to what you are doing.
W is for worth – you need to create worth for yourself, and then you can spread that worth to other people.
A is for attitude to teaching and research – you need the right attitude to be successful.
R is for resilience – you need to be able to cope with challenges.
D is for discipline – that’s self-explanatory.
“I always think about my students who are teachers. If I can inspire them, they in turn can inspire their students. So I feel like I’m touching not just hundreds of lives in my course but I can multiply that by tens or hundreds.”
Mai’s approach to teaching
Mai follows the principle ‘no engagement, no learning’. “I innovate my teaching and engage my students in their learning. It’s very tempting for students to come to class and listen to me talking but you have to engage with the materials as well and do a lot of reading. So what I did in my teaching is to try my best to select the materials that are relevant and meaningful to the students. and designed the learning tasks in such a way that no matter their mode of study, they still get the same content.”
So both groups of learners benefit from her teaching, Mai has tried her best to redesign and restructure her topics. Learning how to use different software applications to create a fun, interactive learning experience, she has gamified parts of the content so students enjoy going to the lectures. “For me, play is a serious learning task.”
“Transforming and motivating people through active engagement is crucial. Most people understand the value of knowing an additional language but really investing your time, energy and efforts into studying a language is a whole different story. So if a language teacher knows how to motivate the students, they not only make a difference in the lives of their own students but also in their students’ students.”
Designing her classes
“In Vietnamese culture, you can only be a good teacher if you work very hard. And if your students work hard, it means you’re a successful teacher. In Australia, things are more relaxed and I see the value of that, but at the same time, I think that if you are too relaxed, you don’t learn as much. I think the hard-working mentality will always be in my DNA. While I make sure that the students have fun tasks to complete, I also make sure there are focused activities in my workshops.
“Initially, when I provide my list of tasks for the week, my students think the workload is high. I then remind them of the number of hours they have to spend on my topic: 13.5 hours per week, including two hours in the workshop. That means students have to spend more than 11 hours per week reading, posting online, and interacting with the teaching materials. I always design a sequence of activities or tasks for that 2-hour workshop.
“We start by reviewing what we’ve just learned. If I notice people have misunderstood a key concept, we spend time on those previously learned concepts before moving on. I call it looking back before moving forward. Then we cover new learning tasks. And at the end, I ask my students to name 3 things they’ve learned or found interesting. That also gives me feedback on what works well for my class.”
Whom Mai draws her inspiration from
After spending most of her childhood in Vietnam, she had the chance to travel a lot. “I spent some time working in London, in Hawaii, and doing all my postgraduate studies in Sydney. Here I am now at Flinders University in Adelaide.
“I’m very lucky to know a lot of teachers from many different backgrounds. I don’t have just one person who influenced me the most, I have many. My philosophy of teaching is that you should have several role models and pick out the best ideas from each.
“For example, in America, I had French teachers who integrated language teaching with music. The music would relax the students and they learned the rhythm of the French language. My Vietnamese teachers taught me to work hard.
“In Sydney, my teachers empowered me and gave me the chance to raise my voice and make choices. I could choose between different passages to read depending on what interested me the most. By doing so I needed to skim through all the material and ended up reading more. Different teachers have different styles of teaching and I’ll always still be learning myself.”
Mai’s vision for TESOL at Flinders
“Flinders already has a strong TESOL program. We have many scholarship awardees who are experienced teachers in their home countries such as Indonesia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, you name it. I’m hoping to attract even more international students and would love to supervise more TESOL PhD students.
“Language teaching is not just an art, it’s also a science. In order to make a decision in the classroom, you need to be well-informed about the literature, and the research. So my ambition is not just to touch the lives of the student teachers who come from different parts of the world to get their postgraduate degree in TESOL – a Graduate Diploma in TESOL, a Graduate Certificate in TESOL, a Master of TESOL or even a PhD in Language, Literature and Culture – but also to help them with their research so that they can do it in their own context.
”TESOL is quite topical and offers a broad field of research. Many of my students are very curious about the application of technology for language teaching for instance. It’s not surprising, as we are living in a technological era. Hybrid teaching, the gamification of language teaching and also digitalising the materials. These are just a few examples of research.”
Have you been teaching TESOL for a while and now want to refine your skills with postgraduate study? Check out Flinders Language offering. Besides Mai, you’ll also be taught by Dr Jeffrey Gil whom himself does lots of research, most recently about The Global Phenomenon of Chinese Language Learning.