April 10, 2020

Suzanne Rajkumar, Director Biliterate Culture Development

When I was given leadership roles in Latin America and the Caribbean, in two teachers' associations, I embraced them not because of the love of leading but because of a love of volunteering. Having worked in the manufacturing industry as an ESL business teacher, I saw the impact and value of continuous improvement in processes and professional development by volunteering at a Teacher's association. I was able to share my experiences to help others, and myself, grow professionally.

I am a global citizen, because I am a Trinidadian working on behalf of my twin-island republic, and because I live in Honduras. It is like listening to my bilingual son singing reggae music in Jamaican English Creole while living in Honduras. I never taught him that. However, it is in our nature as human beings to identify with what we are exposed to, even remotely. That is why I was drawn to ATC (Action TESOL Caribbean), it satisfied the " beyond borders potential" that was already part of my nature and experience.

I am of Indian ancestry, serving French-Canadian, North American, Indian, European, Mauritian and Latin American clients in Honduras, and serving Creole-speaking, and other ELLs in Trinidad and Tobago. How global is that? However, there are a few lessons of leadership that are different in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean, we are taught to rise above our circumstances and strive to be successful despite the odds, whereas poverty in Honduras is very oppressive. Many citizens do not have ample opportunities to develop their public speaking or leadership skills. A teacher's association in Honduras becomes a safe place to support, uplift, train, and cultivate communication skills that are so necessary when developing leadership among educators.

Honduras is also open to English culture, and as a teacher here, my role would be to sort out the culturally sensitive "chistes" from hip-hop, and reggaeton, which would offend if spoken outside of the music context, because they are just not polite. I would also see beyond ethnic groups and navigate between them, because that is what my Trinidadian heritage has taught me.

Being interculturally competent is described as being an extension of communicative competence related to "knowledge of what to do when cultural norms of appropriate linguistic behavior may not be shared, but strategic communicative goals still need to be achieved. Such knowledge requires that ESOL learners are mindful and sensitive to "the possibility of different culturally conditioned interactional styles" (Corbett, 2014, para. 3). In my experience, immersing myself in the local culture, learning my students' stories, and seeing their context all helped to shape my perspective as a global teacher of influence. It allowed me to connect more deeply with my Honduran and Latin American peers to foster better collaboration, teamwork, and communication. Also, we either do not speak English in Honduras, or we need it for social mobility, especially in the face of poverty and potential marginalization. To speak English sets you up to figuratively run with the wolves.

However, in the English-speaking Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago, everyone has some English, so the strategy is different. It has to be! We can be cloistered within our language group and be just happy doing things the way we are used to. So, coming alongside teachers to support what they are already doing is key. They are already TESOLers with multilingual English backgrounds and indigenous approaches. It is all about building awareness about TESOL best practices in Trinidad and Tobago- very different from what I have been experiencing for the last 20 years in Latin America. In this context, being flexible and listening with empathy are two key qualities to have when working with teachers who know English, but have not been exposed to the Tesol culture of professional development, research opportunities, among others. Their needs are different, and they have not yet discovered how much they have to offer in the TESOL arena.

In Honduras, English is a gift. In the English speaking Caribbean, the strategy is to help teachers unwrap the gifts they already have. This is the lesson in this in-between space - to listen more, meaning that I have to lay down my skills of technological ease, experience in ELT, and entrepreneurship before a different public that is more selective. It is challenging and fun.

The greatest learning opportunities have arisen from the "hard conversations," where the message that is intended is not necessarily the message that is received and where misunderstanding ensues it takes patience to switch cultural listening caps and not be defensive. Instead, it is about being open to what others have to say in the interest of a broader perspective. It is a place for expanding our growth mindset, as cross-country collaborations foster global citizenship in practice.

The recent ELT day for Puerto Rico event is clear of an example of a seamless collaborative effort among approximately 67 participants I have experienced to date. An idea was sparked in Brazil and set ablaze in a WhatsApp group chat where more than 66 integrants from all over Latin America and the Caribbean shared ideas, worked on documents online, discussed ideas, edited video content and networked to pull off a 24-hour marathon of 10-minute presentations on www.EFLTalks.com Over 93 presenters said yes to supporting the fundraising initiative for disaster relief in Puerto Rico after the recent earthquake episodes.

This event showed the real power of self-less collaboration; time was of the essence, available people said "Yes" and those who could not; they supported by networking or sending suggestions via the chat. No one was left out. The level of planning and organization was phenomenal- those with the skill set to set up spreadsheets that collected data did so and shared with the group. Everyone paid attention to instructions when given and responded quickly regarding their availability- their prompt replies facilitated effective and productive decision-making during this process.

Being digitally literate was also an asset during the ELT day for Puerto Rico collaboration. Are you comfortable using spreadsheets, online collaborations tools, video editing software, learning platforms? If not, it is time to step out of your comfort zone and raise your hand to participate in your local affiliate. It just might be the beginning of a wonderful adventure in learning and professional development. That is what we learn when we step outside of our comfort zones. TESOL is not a field only of the classroom; it is a global arena of influence!


Corbett, J. (2014). Communicative competence, Key Concepts in Intercultural Design,9 retrieved from https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/key-concept-communicative-competence.pdf

Lindholm, T. Mednick, Myles, J., and Deardorff, D. (2019). Navigating the Intercultural Classroom, Tesol International Association, P.47


In the spirit of collaboration, I wish to thank Dr. Renee Figuera for sharing her insight regarding this article.

Suzanne Rajkumar, one of the 2019 TESOL International Ambassadors, Assistant Coordinator ACTION TESOL Caribbean- Trinidad & Tobago, Regional Secretary ATC, Innovator of the CBC Codebreaker ESL game, Ex-president and past Vice-president II of Honduras TESOL with over 29,000 teaching hours accumulated teaching both adults and young adults custom-designed ESL classes focused on meaningful learning, currently pursuing a Masters in Applied Linguistics & TESOL.

Dr. Renee Figuera is the Founder and Local Coordinator of ACTION TESOL, Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. She is a Lecturer in Linguistics and TESOL at the University of the West Indies and a researcher and advocates for language in interdisciplinary contexts of peace, resilience and critical discourse studies.