By Kadidja Koné
How Did my Journey Start?
English became my favorite subject when I was attending the tenth grade following a frustration. I obtained a bad grade in French literature essay related to romanticism because of my teacher’s non-flexibility. This teacher wanted me to defend and cherished romanticism, but I decided to prove that romanticism alone may not help an African girl reach the goals that she had set for her life. As a result, I was a given a grade that I would never share with anybody. This bad grade along with the humiliation inflicted on me in front of my classmates created a feeling of low self-esteem and decreased my interest in French literature although I continued attending the course in order to validate it. What is interesting is that I was more and more absorbed in the English course because my English teacher nurtured his students’ creativity and courage. Besides, he valued their lived experiences and used them while choosing his teaching materials and techniques. This tiny sign of attention was precious and motivating because most of my teachers at that time were like statues incapable of appreciating or valuing their students’ outstanding performance.
I decided to major in English once I succeeded in the Baccalaureate exam (a summative exam done at the end of the twelfth grade). This decision brought me to the Malian Teacher’s Training School where a five-year English learning journey started. Although my stay there was not always pleasant, my motivation was stronger and intrinsic and nothing even the poor studying conditions such as the lack of qualified English teachers, insufficiency or absence of adequate
learning materials, and large classes could stop me reaching my long-term goal: Speaking English fluently and becoming a teacher of English at university. To reach this vision, I planned my student’s life the following way:
– Each weekday I listened to the news in English broadcast by either British Broadcasting Company (BBC) or Voice of America (VOA).
– I went to the American Cultural Center twice a week to read books in English and to secretly listen to native speakers’ conversation in order to make sure that I was able to understand their English.
– I participated in all the events organized by the American Cultural Center in order to interact in English.
– I also prepared for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
It is worth mentioning that this huge effort investment was achieved so that I could apply for Fulbright, a fully funded scholarship. Obtaining Fulbright was an essential sub-goal that I was forced to attain in order to realize my desired and valued vision: Obtaining a Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language in the United States of America (USA) and becoming a teacher of English. I never gave up or got demotivated in spite of the hurdles that were set on my way. For example, I got married and became a mother. As a result, going to the USA meant to be separated from my loved ones, including my husband and my daughter. However, I did not give up my dream because I succeeded in involving my family in it and they were willing to provide me with motivating remarks that I needed to achieve my desired goal.
In 2012, I applied for one of the world most prestigious scholarship named Fulbright. That year was marked by a series of tests and interviews combined with a very rude selection process based on the written documents, including personal essays, letters of references, and academic
transcripts. The final selection was done by the American Department of State and its affiliated organizations such as the International Institute of Education. In April, 2013, I reached a significant subgoal in my goal achievement that is, I was the laureate of the Malian Fulbright and I flew to the USA in June, 2013.
In June, 2013, I left my beloved husband and my three-year old daughter for the USA. After spending two months in Rochester, New York for my pre-academic program, I was forced to apply for a six-month maternity leave and come back home based on the Fulbright requirements. I was not given any choice although I was eight-month pregnant. Fortunately, my determination and my enthusiasm for English teaching prevailed and transformed my despair into hope. Five months later, I was confronted with a crucial decision: staying home with my family and giving up my dream or getting separated from my family, including my three-year old daughter and my two-month old son and carrying on my studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Coming to the USA, the second option meant to attend a graduate program and mingle with international scholars coming from each corner of the world. I was obsessed by my vision in a way that I could see myself studying in the American classrooms and discussing with seasoned professors. Additionally, I could change my children’s lives and offer them a better life upon my return home with a diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). The first choice aimed to stay with my family and abandon my dream. I had never imagined that making a decision could be so difficult and painful. I wished my family had forced me to fly to the USA, but nobody intervened since I was a mature and educated woman. After months of reflection, I chose the study abroad option in order to give a boost to my English learning and teaching journey.
Would I Achieve my English Learning Goal?
I arrived in Mankato, Minnesota in January, 2014 and I completed the administrative requirements in two days so that I could meet the TESOL faculty and attend my courses. For my first weeks there, I was living between two worlds: I could not help thinking about my family and at the same time I was struggling to remain concentrated. Staying focused and devoted to my courses was like winning half of the battle and being closer to my precious vision. The only way for me to reach this goal consisted in making a study plan that did not give me any opportunities to think about my family or to feel lonely. This did not mean that I would completely forget about my loved ones. I gave them some space in my plan so that we could interact and be aware of our future endeavors.
For a first semester, I was advised to take two courses, specifically second language acquisition and second language assessment although I was motivated to finish the program in one year and half instead of two years. My professors opted for two courses so that I could value and protect my multiple identities ranging from a mother separated from her family, an international student living abroad to a Fulbright scholar. Therefore, I considered the TESOL program as my little refuge; I was not only taught the methods of teaching English, but these teachers also took care of me as a person. This warm welcome and attention were my first surprise because my knowledge of America was done through the lens of my English teachers’ experiences and the mass media. I had never dreamt of meeting such a teaching faculty whose primary goal is helping their students achieve the goals that they had set for their graduate studies regardless of their nationalities, age, color, and individual differences. My professors valued and used their learners’ diversity, including their cultures so as to build a strong learning community inside and outside the classroom. My goal attainment was facilitated by this positive learning environment that existed beyond the confined walls of a classroom through group work and friendship.
Achieving my first Goal
At the end of summer, I started working on my Master’s thesis literature review section. In spring semester, the TESOL faculty met to examine the students’ capstone projects. Although they were convinced that I was an outstanding student, they wanted to make sure that I could finish writing my thesis before the end of my program. What is interesting is that the decision-making process was very short because my academic advisor was satisfied with my progress and my eagerness to succeed at all costs. I finished drafting my thesis before the deadline and I submitted the final version in April, 2015. That day I cried of joy and I was enthusiastic to walk in the commencement ceremony with the other newly graduated students from the TESOL
section. That special day was full of happy memories ranging from the cloth that I wore, the handshake with the provost of Minnesota State University, Mankato, the various foods I ate, my borrowed family composed of my friends, classmates, and professors and their kind smiles and hugs, to the graduation party organized at my academic advisor’s house by the TESOL faculty. This 48-hour film was my favorite and it would never be decayed by age since it became part of my memory and I would perpetuate it from generation to generation.
Satisfaction and Enjoyment
Although I was satisfied with my academic performance, I was sad while making my farewell to my professors and friends. My new world was vanishing so that I could join the old one. I felt tired and lonely although I was going to meet my lovely family after 18-month absence. My motivational currents waned and I became a newly graduated English professor.
Upon my return home, I was shocked when I noticed that my 19-month old boy did not recognize his mother. My emotional shock was not over because I had to change my future students’ learning journey and help them reach their goals. However, I was conscious that changes would not happen overnight and there were many hurdles on my way. Some of those obstacles were the school administration and my male colleagues who were not willing to accept changes coming from a female teacher. Surprisingly, my engagement to share my experiences with my learners were exceptional and my male colleagues’ criticisms could not block it. My dream of becoming an English teacher at all costs was achieved, but my journey was not over. I just changed my seat and my new position was even more challenging and demanding.
Using my Newly Acquired Knowledge to Help my Learners Speak their English in Mali
Upon my return home I left my comfort zone to face the harsh realities that my position as a female teacher of English to speakers of other languages required. My students wanted me to
teach them real English so that they could learn and speak their English in Mali. On the other hand, the school administration and my colleagues just wanted me to teach a very structured and strict English program. As I was used to making controversial decisions, I decided to transform my class into little America and help my learners reach the goals that they had set for their English learning. I was conscious that changes would not happen overnight, but my hyper motivation transported me to my final destination effortlessly although I implicitly made a considerable effort so that my learners could enjoy my courses. For example, I designed projects that gave them a voice as English learners and that motivated them to come massively to my course. During the various courses I motivated my learners and proved to them that they could learn and speak their English in Mali without flying to the inner circle countries (Great Britain, United States of America, Australia, Canada…).
Would my Journey End?
Based on my learning and teaching experiences, I came to the conclusion that my journey would never end. A language teacher is like an experienced learner who will never stop learning since each student is a hidden treasury with multiple mysteries. Language teachers must analyze and decipher each mystery so that they can successfully shape their learners’ learning path.