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International Exchange as Professional Development

Written by: Dr. Laura Baecher and Kelli Odhuu
Published on: Nov 20, 2023

As part of my blog series, I have been inviting voices from a variety of contexts to share their work and thinking on professional development (PD). This post, guest written by Kelli Odhuu, Regional English Language Officer with the U.S. Department of State, focuses on Kelli’s experiences as an exchange educator and the benefits of teacher exchange programs.

Kelli Odhuu

Kelli Odhuu

Kelli Odhuu is the branch chief for virtual engagement and materials development in the Office of English Language Programs. Kelli previously served as Regional English Language Officer in Islamabad, Tallinn, and Beijing. Before her career as a diplomat, she taught English for language learners for 19 years in the United States and other countries. Her doctorate degree is in second language acquisition from Purdue University. 

What changed my life? What experience gave me a greater understanding of another culture and my own culture? What experience allowed me greater insight into my students’ learning processes and improved my reflective abilities on my own teaching experience? The year I spent on a teacher exchange.

I received a grant from the U.S. Department of State for the English Language Fellow Program to teach undergraduates in another country. Being a Fellow was the best job I have ever had. I was a teacher to undergraduate students; a mentee of motivated and experienced English teachers; a tourist enjoying the new-to-me culture, food, and language; and an entertainer to the public, who enjoyed hearing me speak on such fascinating topics as English spelling absurdities.

Cultural Experiences

My development, personally and professionally, was profound through the exchange. Living in another country allowed my curiosity to find a wonderful outlet. Throughout my experience in different countries, I ate chicken feet, drank fermented mare’s milk and fermented corn juice, rode a yak, ate yak yogurt, saw a World Cup qualifier match, pet an elephant, and the list goes on and on. Those experiences were just the cultural side of the exchange.

Growth for Students, Growth for Teachers

On the teaching and learning side, my students were bright, engaging, and motivated. I reflected and read and learned to be a better teacher. I observed that my students did not use creative thinking in the classroom, so I added logic problems every day for warm-ups. This led to them sharing information as they tried to solve the problems, which then led to the students sharing information during class discussions, which led to collaboration during task-based learning. This was quite a change from their normal teacher-centered classrooms and was a fascinating process to observe.  

A few years later, my job allowed me to return to the location of my fellowship. I met one of my former students and her employer at the airport. I was happy to see her, but her supervisor was more excited to meet me. He told me that my former student was an excellent employee because she could problem-solve better than other employees. He said, “Thank you for encouraging her critical thinking!”

Kelli Mongolia

Kelli Odhuu holding a kid during her fellowship in Mongolia.

Effects of International Exchanges

There are many types of exchanges available for English teachers, and the benefits on our professional development are often amazing. My current work responsibilities have me interacting with many exchange participants — both English learners and English educators. Their message after the exchange, whether in person or virtual, is the same: The exchange impacted their lives — personal and professional. Experiencing a different culture and international viewpoints is that powerful for all of us. The exchange motivated them, gave them international networking opportunities, and demonstrated that there are numerous teaching methods that great teachers use. Educators shared that they were more engaged in the classroom since the exchange. They shared that they made important connections that will last a long time.

Why do exchanges change educators’ lives? By being adaptable, we allow our experiences to shape us. I became patient, flexible, and comfortable with uncertainty. I remember one day when I was thinking about winning the lottery. I was talking to my students about “what ifs.” I realized that if I had won the lottery that day, all I would do is buy a new couch for my apartment. I wouldn’t quit my fellowship or travel because I was living my best life during the exchange. Simply a new couch for perfection.

These exchanges were developed similar to an adult education program: I was self-motivated, I chose what to learn, I collaborated with my colleagues and students, I had immediate opportunities to put my learning into practice, and I gave myself ample reflection time to process my learning. Professional development has been discussed for decades — reflection, collaboration, teaching journals, peer mentoring, observations — the list of wonderful activities and projects goes on. That list should also include exchanges: virtual, in-person, or hybrid.

Finding Exchange Programs

One way to find exchanges is to search embassy websites in your country. What are the embassies doing where you live? What exchanges are possible for you to participate in? Can you set up an exchange between your students and another educator’s students?

In the United States, the Department of State is always looking for experienced English teachers to join its exchange programs. U.S. educators can join exchanges in the English Language Programs. Another excellent opportunity for educators in many countries is the Fulbright Program, for students, teachers, scholars, and professionals. There are many other exchanges for educators. The Department of State is also looking for developers: materials, courses, virtual exchanges, MOOCs, or social media content.

I encourage you to invest in your professional development and collaborate with learners and educators around the world.

Further Resources

For more views on exchanges, please see the following articles:

Note: Kelli Odhuu is an employee of the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this post are not an official endorsement by TESOL International Association. 

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.