Spotlight on the 2021 TESOL Teacher of the Year: Khanh-Duc Kuttig

The 2021 TESOL Teacher of the Year, Khanh-Duc Kuttig, has been teaching EFL since her university days. She has a degree in English, linguistics and philosophy, as well as an MA in TESOL. She has taught in Germany and the United Kingdom. Currently based at the University of Siegen, she is also events coordinator for her local English language teaching association.

Ahu Moser, Director of Academic Programming at Literacy Council of Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, has asked Ms. Kuttig a few questions to help us get to know her.

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate you on being the TESOL Teacher of the Year. How are you feeling?

I was really surprised, as I know the competition is tough. But now that it has sunk in, I am really, really chuffed. I really don’t know how I got here—it’s just awesome.

I read that you had moved to Austria many years ago, and that when you moved, you had some language challenges. Would you mind telling us how those challenges affected you and led you to be an English teacher?

I arrived in Europe in my 20s and one of the first things I did was an intensive German course in Munich, in Bavaria. I moved to Vienna, Austria a few months later only to discover that Austrian German and standard German weren’t quite the same! I used so many words that were unfamiliar to the Austrians and vice versa! I had to learn the language again, and this time I learnt it on the job. I worked with kids, who accepted how I spoke—my foreign accent, the vocabulary unfamiliar to them and my slower responses.

Adults weren’t always so kind. When I moved to Europe, I had never really worked a full-time job, and I discovered that I had to learn all this new work-related lexis that I had never even used in my first language, English. And because I didn’t know all this vocabulary which they thought I should (I was working with special needs children), they thought I was only pretending to be a native speaker of English, and that actually made me embarrassed of my background. I’m not the traditional White, European, native English speaker. I grew up in Singapore with a Vietnamese mother and a German father, and people didn’t know what box to put me in. They found it hard to believe that English was really my mother tongue, my first language. I was made to feel like an imposter!

I discovered, through learning German, trying to qualify as a care worker, and discovering all this new language in my own native language, that language was a lot more complex, and I wanted to do something related to that. Because of where I was working, I wanted to go into speech therapy. Teaching hadn’t come into the equation. That came later. But my experience in Austria showed me that teaching isn’t just about standing in the classroom and talking about grammar and vocabulary. Learning isn’t just about doing language exercises, either. It’s about growing in confidence; it’s about knowing that how you speak is acceptable and that native speakers aren’t encyclopedias of their first language. It definitely taught me that even as a native speaker of English, I still have a lot to learn about my own language and how it is used. I still do quite a bit of reading and preparation for any class I teach!


Can you please tell us your professional background as a teacher?

I got into teaching first as a part-time job to finance my studies. I loved it. I did everything in the early years—I worked for Berlitz, I taught corporate clients in companies, I was director of studies for a very brief period (I think just a month!), and, after I graduated, I was an adjunct lecturer at various universities. I moved to England and that was a career boost for me. I did an MA in TESOL and from there, I just grew from being a lecturer who taught everything to finally finding an area of specialization that I really enjoy. I currently teach English language to BA students at a university in Germany. I teach in two programs—a BA with numerous combinations that include English as a subject and a teaching BA with English as a teaching subject. I teach what we call here, “practical language skills,” so my courses focus on essay writing, grammar skills, pronunciation and fluency, and classroom language skills for preservice teachers.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that novice teachers are facing in the current virtual teaching work in the midst of the pandemic?

Novice teachers appreciate the support and mentoring they receive from their schools or department heads when they start teaching. At present, teachers everywhere are having to cope on their own, learning on the job, being there for their students, and that doesn’t leave them much time to do anything else, much less support novice colleagues. Everyone is simply in survival mode. So, most novice teachers wouldn’t have been introduced to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Kahoot! and Wordwall, for instance. They’re as unprepared as more senior teachers are, but with the added disadvantage of being in the early stages of their career and needing more support. I think the biggest challenge is having to deal with a lot of new things on their own.

As an adult ESL teacher whose first language is not English in an English-speaking country, I would like to hear about one of the latest projects that you are working on while you are helping refugees who are interested in German schools. Can you please tell us about this project?

This project, supported by the German Academic Exchange Service and the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), is currently running in five universities in NRW. The University of Siegen is one of these. In this project, qualified and practicing teachers who have fled their homeland have the opportunity to embark on a 1-year program to qualify as teachers in state schools in NRW. Many highly qualified migrants often cannot find work in their new home countries because their diplomas are not recognized, and because of their lack of language skills. In this program, the candidates improve their (German) language skills through general language courses in the first phase and then a specialized language course for teachers in the second phase. Depending on their teaching subject, they also take courses in our degree programs. Those with English as a teaching subject will take courses in my department. As they have been previously qualified, they only take courses where the content differs substantially from what they would have covered in their own studies. In some cases, they may not have had the opportunity to take such a course. My Classroom Language Skills course, for instance, is open to them. They also take other teaching-related courses and are mentored in the year they are with us. These courses address cultural issues, or give them an insight into teaching in a culture that may be very different to theirs. They also complete a teaching practicum as part of the program. At the end of the program, if they successfully complete all components, they are qualified to teach in state schools and should have the same job opportunities as our own local graduates. The project is currently in its first year.

What trends in English language teaching are you most excited about for the future?

One trend I see is the move towards digital learning and teaching. I am not referring to apps and tools to be used on their own but in all classrooms, by teachers and students. There are some really good tools out there which can be used both in remote teaching as well as in face-to-face classes. Good tools change the learning experience. I’ve discovered a number of new tools this last year, and I’m always asking how this tool can support teachers and students in the physical classroom, not just online. I think education technology is going to become more and more important and relevant. It’s part of the 21st-century global skill set: information, media and technology literacy, and working collaboratively and creatively.

What advice do you have for novice teachers right now?

It’ll get better. We will return to our classes someday, it’s just a matter of time. For now, test things out, try out something different, learn something new. Take this as an opportunity to develop new skills. But don’t worry if you can’t. Be kind to yourself. No one before you has ever had to work in a situation like this.

Ahu Moser is currently the director of academic programming at Literacy Council of Montgomery County, MD in addition to being a full-time doctorate student. Ahu has had experience in various roles from being an ESL Instructor to being a program administrator in grant-funded adult education programs in MD for the last 17 years. She is the incoming chair for TESOL International APC.

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