Education professor Shelley Taylor is the first from Western University — and only the third from Canada — to be elected president of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) International Association.
TESOL is a global association of professionals advancing the quality of English language teaching through professional development, research, standards and advocacy. The association has more than 12,000 members in 155 countries, and more than 100 independent affiliate associations worldwide with about 47,000 members.
“It’s a huge mandate with a lot of responsibility,” Taylor said. “I’m honoured and very excited.”
Taylor will serve on the executive committee for three years, first as president-elect, effective March 2022. She’ll assume the role of president in March 2023 for a one-year term and will serve as past-president through to 2025.
Life-long love of language learning
Taylor brings a wealth of experience to the role, having chaired the bilingual education interest section and served on the professional development committee, nominating committee and the associate convention program chair for TESOL in 2015. She also has sat on the board of directors and various task forces.
Her research activity and breadth of practical teaching experience also give her first-hand knowledge of the varying needs of the association’s members. A professor of graduate courses in applied linguistics, TESOL and French studies in Western’s Faculty of Education, Taylor began her career teaching at the K to grade 12 level.
Her passion for multilingualism and plurilingualism traces back to her roots.
“I came from a northern community (Thunder Bay) that was very multilingual,” Taylor said. “I remember taking the bus with my grandfather and hearing all these different languages, because there was so much immigration after World War II. I just thought everyone spoke a different language.”
Taylor enjoyed learning core French throughout public school. After high school, she went to Vesthimmerland Gymnasium in Denmark, where she experienced a total “crash immersion” in Danish.
“I loved Danish,” she said. “It’s not my heritage language, but I sort of made it that, anyway. But it was a struggle to maintain. There was no Danish taught in Canada when I started my BA in French, so I took German, because German and Danish are so similar. When I did my master’s in French, I did a comparative literature course with a Danish professor in Danish literature.”
While earning her bachelor of education, Taylor learned about applied linguistics.
“It really put my background growing up in a multilingual community, learning French and Spanish in high school, and learning Danish, Italian and Russian in Denmark into context. I had this whole smattering of languages and related to all these amazing aspects of applied linguistics, like motivation. I just found it so interesting that I decided to not to go on in French literature.”
Instead, after teaching in the public school system for seven years, Taylor pursued her doctorate in language education. While earning her PhD, she returned to Denmark and studied under Robert Phillipson, author of Oxford University Press’s best-selling book ever, Linguistic Imperialism.
Originally, her thesis topic of trilingualism was going to focus on Mi’kmaq children in French immersion, but there had been a language shift to English a generation before because of residential schools. She switched instead to a school in Denmark.
“It was a bilingual, bicultural Danish/Turkish program, but half of the Turkish kids were Kurdish, which wasn’t recognized for political reasons, so it was a trilingual setting.”
Her research in French as a second language, and Danish as a second language brought Taylor to her interest in English as a second language (ESL) and her specialization in TESOL.
Western News recently sat down with Taylor to learn more about her upcoming role as TESOL president.
Western News: How did you first get involved with TESOL?
Shelley Taylor: TESOL seemed like the conference that was closest to my focus on ESL in the broader multilingual context. I was also warned the TESOL convention can have up to 8,000 people, and to find a home or risk getting lost. I ended up going into this bilingual education intersection business meeting, volunteered to be the newsletter editor, and never left. It became my academic home.
WN: What do you most look forward to once you become president?
Taylor: It’s a member-driven association, so it’s not about me; it’s what’s best for the association. It’s about working with the board and identifying initiatives that are timely and beneficial. And those initiatives, in the middle of a pandemic, differ from when I was on the board from 2016 to 2019.
WN: In a congratulatory message in response to a social media post announcing your appointment, a colleague expressed that you’ll be “leading with inspiration at a time when it’s most needed.” What is the biggest issue currently faced by TESOL?
Taylor: I see resilience as the key issue right now. These past months have left TESOL members, their students and communities reeling from health-related crises and racial injustices. Excellence in teaching English in times of crisis requires an understanding of how resilience can be gained through personal connections and networking and be a driving force behind creative problem-solving.
WN: How do you hope you and the TESOL executives can help build that resilience?
Taylor: By galvanizing existing connections through virtual conferences and webinars; helping members develop competencies needed for these unprecedented times, whether they are teaching online or in person. The association offers a lot of resources to help with that. It’s also important to recognize inequities facing learners and advocating for them. I want to advocate for our members as well, through policies and practices, strategically linking TESOL professionals with associations responsible for health, well-being and social justice.
WN: I see advocacy is one of the top values of TESOL. What does it look like in action?
Taylor: Advocacy is such a huge part of the association. Many people live in countries where they can’t speak up on issues, like sexual diversity, or on behalf of certain minorities because they would get imprisoned. But they can point to statements made by TESOL.
I attended a TESOL advocacy and policy summit where they brought people from across all sectors, including the Migration Policy Institute. It really gave ESL teachers, consultants, administrators and researchers insight into current concerns, and how and why they should advocate for their learners.
There were sessions on how Chinese-U.S. relations were blocking international students’ ability to come, and how that was affecting enrolment in EAP (English for academic purposes) programs, and loss of revenue for the communities where international students pay rent, buy food, etc. They were trying to show educational costs to learners, and the social costs to communities.
I think that’s an advantage of TESOL as a “global” association. It offers that breadth and affiliates have a “safe” place to turn to an authority to argue in contexts where, on their own, they can’t.
WN: You mentioned racial injustice earlier and seem eager to advance equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). How will you approach this in your role as president-elect and president?
Taylor: The TESOL board of directors convened a Diverse Voices Task Force in July 2019 to report on the state of EDI within the association’s culture and activities. The task force is now developing recommendations for the way forward. EDI initiatives will strongly inform the new strategic plan that the president, past-president, myself as president-elect, and the board executive members will develop this March (the week before the blended convention begins).
WN: Those are important steps, and a big job, I would think, with such a large and diverse membership.
Taylor: The trick is not to be so overwhelmed by all the diversity to not try, but to find manageable ways. Doing anything is better than not doing anything.
I really think it is important that we build a culture of inclusion across the association, which I see as both linguistic and cultural inclusion. It relates to something we refer to in the field as “funds of knowledge.”
WN: What are your thoughts on EDI when it comes to teaching and the classroom environment?
Taylor: It is important for people in higher education to be aware of their students’ funds of knowledge. How do you make the link between their knowledge that is valued in their home context, but maybe not where they are learning? How do you tap into that, so the teaching material is meaningful for them? It’s the idea where teachers become students to learn how to engage students through their lived experience and culture. And if the teachers don’t know, they can invite the parents in, or community members from places like the London Cross-Cultural Learning Centre; or they can access the school’s ESL teacher or consultant. The ESL teacher is an amazing resource because they have students from different countries in their class. And of course, we have many resources available through TESOL international.
Edited for brevity and clarity
With files from Gerald Rucchin