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Postgraduate graduate profile: Caitlin Nolan, MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

Caitlin is graduate of the Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). She describes her experience of the Masters programme and why she would recommend the course to other language-loving students below.

Caitlin Nolan, graduate of the MA in TESOL at the University of Limerick
Caitlin Nolan, graduate of the MA in TESOL at the University of Limerick

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to come to UL to study the MA TESOL?

I did my undergraduate degree in politics and public administration, but unfortunately, that specific course doesn’t exist anymore. During the second semester of 3rd year we all got the opportunity to study TESOL as part of the undergraduate degree. It was a three semester program, the last semester of 3rd year and two semesters of 4th year. I had a summer job teaching French and Spanish teenagers which I got following the TESOL taster from my undergraduate degree. I met a woman when I was teaching, she had completed the MA in TESOL. She told me how amazing it was and how happy she was that she did it. She also said it was a great opportunity for her to explore other areas outside the TESOL course. My ambition when I was in college was to go traveling and teach in the UAE. However, I was also looking at different postgraduate courses I could pursue. It was while looking that I actually received an email about the MA TESOL. After weighing up the pros and cons I made the decision to do it. I met with the then course director for the MA TESOL, Angela Farrell, that July. She was fantastic and said she’d be happy to progress with my application. And that was the best decision that I could have made at the time, especially now looking back. I absolutely loved it, the lectures and tutorials, I loved everything it was just amazing.

Could you give us an idea of a typical day on the MA TESOL program and the different activities that you might’ve gotten up to as well?

First of all, everyday was completely different to the day before. Even though the timetables for semester one and two were identical, every day was completely different. I guess for me the lectures and the tutorials were so important because I was learning from world renowned lecturers. You don’t even realise how much you take this for granted when you’re being taught by these people, but looking back it was just the most amazing opportunity. The class was small with only nine of us, so it was near to one on one teaching. You have a different relationship with your lecturers at this level, it’s a step up from undergraduate degree. It was really nice especially coming straight out of the undergraduate. In terms of activities, we had lectures which were put into practice during the tutorials. These were always so interactive, the activities that we did always involved communicating with each other.

The class was small with only nine of us, so it was near to one on one teaching.

Can you describe how you found the teaching practice experience overall and what you got out of it?

Teaching practice was daunting. It was the hardest aspect of the entire MA for me. I was the youngest person on the course and I had no teaching experience apart from the summer that had just gone before me. I was looking around at everyone else and it seemed they knew what to do. It came to them instinctively whereas for me it took some time. In the week leading up to the first lesson where we were on our own, I didn’t sleep – I felt sick leading up to it. However, my first lesson wasn’t a complete disaster. After I sat down with my supervisor, I realized that I was over thinking everything way too much. I was also leaving who I was as a person at the door of the classroom and acting completely different, like a robot. I just wasn’t myself and and it was only when I got feedback from the first few sessions that I realized what I was doing wrong. As soon as I stopped that, teaching practice went from being the worst hour of the week to the best part of the MA – I even got excited to plan lessons! As soon as I switched my focus from me to the students, everything just became clear.

After I sat down with my supervisor, I realized that I was over thinking everything way too much…teaching practice went from being the worst hour of the week to the best part of the MA – I even got excited to plan lessons!

Being one of the younger students on the program actually ended up working to my advantage as I could relate to the students more. We wove topics and subjects relevant to them into whatever the topic of the of the lesson was. Once I let myself open up and let my personality come into teaching my students became my friends and to be honest, since then that’s the way it’s been. It has become my initial protocol when I go into a classroom. I always aim to establish a collaborative teaching relationship with my students.

We received regular feedback during teaching practice. Everything you did from the way you presented yourself and walked around the room, to the resources you picked, to the way you spoke to the students was analysed. They went through everything. The more feedback I got from my supervisors, the better and more confident I felt in teaching. Their feedback just taught me so so much.

It sounds like you gained a lot of confidence in your own teaching and you learned a lot, which is great.

Not only that, but it actually provided me with the topic for my thesis – teacher identity. For example, the way a teacher presents themselves by bringing their own personalities and struggles they face into their teaching. Something just clicked with me and the subject, almost as if it was meant to be.

How supported did you feel by faculty during Teaching practice and the MA programme?

Initially we had no teaching practice for the first three weeks; in those three weeks we were preparing for calls. We got to observe teaching, through our supervisors classes. At the start we were doing team teaching, we got a 2 hour slot per week, one teacher would teach for the first 15 minutes and then there would be a 10 minute break and then the next teacher would teach for 15 minutes. They paired me with Helen, a girl from China who had so much experience. We really bounced off each other, I was bringing the more fun elements and I suppose while Helen was toning me down. We worked really well together. We were all supported as we had somebody there with us in case we ran into any difficulty. And then we also had an observer taking down notes at every session, but you don’t even notice them.

In terms of preparation, I have to give the programme 11/10! We knew exactly what was going to happen – how many students were going to be there, what nationalities they were going to be, what types of questions they might ask – and then each week we were given the materials for the next week. We started out with grammar exercises for the first few weeks and gradually the lessons got more difficult as the weeks progressed. By week 11 and 12 we were making our own lessons. We really needed the 12 weeks to get to this point where you’re planning and using your own materials. It just goes to show you how supported we were, and how they made us feel confident with what we were doing, which is a big thing as well.

Supportive isn’t a nearly good enough word to describe my supervisor Jade. She went above and beyond for me. She didn’t actually have to go to every session, but she did and she went even when I didn’t ask her to in the second semester. We had to get observed six times and she came to all of them. She was constantly emailing me, constantly sending me things that she thought could be useful for the coming weeks. I really benefitted from her feedback sessions.

Honestly, without the faculty being as helpful and supportive as they are, there’s no way that I would be where I am today or graduating with such high marks. You can’t fault them, there’s nothing bad to say in terms of how supportive they are and how supported we felt. You could email them at any time and they were always there to help. You could also meet them in the library for a coffee, to talk through anything that you were struggling with.

Honestly, without the faculty being as helpful and supportive as they are, there’s no way that I would be where I am today or graduating with such high marks.

Would you recommend the MA to others?

I would definitely recommend this MA to others. I knew that teaching was something I wanted to try and if nothing else, I’d learn something about teaching and I did, I learned millions of things.

I love the satisfaction of seeing the results of your teaching.When they ask a question that they may have had on their mind for a long time, it could be about anything, say watching FRIENDS for example. They ask you and it’s like you can see the light bulb go on in their head. There is literally no better feeling than when you know they get it.

If you know that teaching English is something that you want to do or if you want to go traveling, the Masters gives you such a higher status in places like the UAE. There’s no way that I would ever not recommend it. It was just the best year. I’m kind of biased but my class was just so amazing, we got on like a house on fire and that social aspect is an important part of any college programme. We miss each other so much but we do zoom calls every two weeks. We were such a close knit group which I think that added to the experience.

So the last question before I let you go, it’s difficult with COVID to know what you’re going to do post graduation, but do you have any ideas of what your ultimate goals or short-term/medium term goals are?

I got a full time teaching job in a language school in Limerick.  I’ve been teaching there since January, but since I’ve finished college, I’ve been with them full time which has been amazing. The language school I’m with actually have so many MA TESOL students from previous years, so it’s amazing to compare notes and talk to them and see what they’ve done. Doing the MA has given me such a high status, the school I’m working in would only will only hire students with the MA. They hold the MA TESOL to a high standard. I’m busy at the moment, but I’m so happy that I decided to do a PHD. My PhD will be on teacher identity as well, so I will bring that forward in my research. I can say it all started in the MA TESOL in UL.