Leadership Development for Multilingual/Multicultural English-speaking Teachers

*Dr. Yilin Sun

Dear NELTA friends and colleagues,

Greetings from Yilin, Past President of TESOL International Association! It is a great pleasure and honor for me to be invited to write this article on leadership development for your March issue.

Since your March issue is centered on the theme leadership and networking, I thought to share some personal perspectives on leadership development. In this article, I used the term Multilingual/Multicultural English-speaking Teachers (MMEST) to replace the term of Non-native English Speaking Teachers (NNEST) as we need to move beyond the historical Native Speaker vs. Non-Native Speaker Dichotomy.

Who can become a leader for a professional organization? As multilingual/Multicultural English educators, especially new teachers, many tend to say, “I’m just graduate student,” or “I’m not a native-speaker”, or “I’m just a new teacher in the field. How can I take a leadership role with established professionals?”

Let me share a personal story of how I got started. When I was a young graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)/University of Toronto in Canada about 29 years ago, my professors, like Jim Cummins, David Sterns, Dale Willows and Michael Canale encouraged us to attend professional conferences. I remember my first conference was a TESOL Ontario’s annual conference. I was so excited hopping from one session to another, eagerly taking notes and gathering handouts. Then I ran into one of my professors Dr. Canale. We started talking and soon he encouraged me by saying, “Yilin, have you thought of presenting at this conference? You have unique experience and perspectives. You should think of using one of your papers to present at a conference.” I was startled and also felt flattered that Michael, such a well-known scholar thought my paper was good enough to share with others at a professional conference. Before his enlightening comments I thought as a young graduate student from China that my best plan was to study hard and be the best student I could be. I never thought of making a presentation at a professional conference until then; not to mention of becoming a leader for a professional organization. Because of Professor Canale’s encouragement, the following year I submitted a proposal and presented! The topic was on A Speech Act – Gratitude Expressions in Chinese. To my pleasant satisfaction my presentation was well received by my audience; this was a memorable start for me. Following this, I continued to look for more opportunities to make presentations for informing and encouraging others. Along the way I fortunately met and got to know other professionals and many scholars. Some inspired me and many helped me greatly in my later work. Each encounter provided me with more valuable experience and led me to taking on different leadership roles including serving WAESOL (Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages) as president and as president of TESOL International. Even though Professor Canale did not start me with any direct leadership positions, the first presentation at that TESOL Ontario conference helped me build confidence, skills and network opportunities for my later involvement in various leadership roles. Everyone has that first time experience and sometimes needs someone to give us a PUSH!

In addition to lack of confidence, many other challenges, such as unfamiliarity with the system’s culture and structure, organizational ‘prejudice’, lack of support and opportunities may also be possible barriers for a NNEST to step up. And perhaps some of the biggest obstacles are myths about leadership and who can be a leader that we need to demystify.  

Myth One: Leadership is not for everyone. Leaders are born.

Many people believe leadershipis not for everyone. Leaders are born not bred. That is simply not true. The fact that some people may have the so-called innate talents (more outgoing, have a natural way of speaking as a leader) doesn’t not mean that they are a born leader. Leadership skills can be learned and cultivated through leadership development opportunities, dedication and willingness to learn, and most importantly through constant practice. There are numerous examples of the transformation of seemingly ordinary people into extraordinary leaders. They all started as ordinary individuals but with dedication and willingness to learn, courage and perseverance, and their commitment and passion for believing in what they do have enabled them to make extraordinary contributions to the society, like Neilson Mandala and Mother Teresa. We need to learn to lead by doing! 

An important step to start learning to lead by doing is through network. One can start with the social network within your workplace or professional organization to build trust and then expand it by working together to build a sense of community, shared expertise, and professional friendship. In this way, we can support each other in the process of learning to lead by doing.

Myth Two: Leadership is a position, so you need a title to be a leader.

This is one of the most common myths about leadership. You don’t need a title to become a leader. Like Kouzes & Posner state,   “Leadership is not a place, it’s not a gene, it’s not a secret code…Leadership is an observable set of skills and abilities” (2012). A title of any kind does not in itself qualify you as a leader. Leadership is based on a vision and supported with knowledge, confidence, optimism, drive, openness, humanity, integrity, and caring and more! It is a direction and good guidance that instigates dedication, confidence, persistence, and achievement. Good leadership is framed with inspiration and should always bring out the best in people, so everyone can work and have the courage to overcome challenges and reach to their potential in achieving a common goal.

What is our common goal as a TESOL educator? I believe our common goal is to strengthen the TESOL profession, to develop our professional competence, so we can better serve our students and advance the TESOL field. An important component of professional competence is to develop leadership skills and get involved in different leadership roles with local and international professional organizations, such as TESOL International. One can start as a volunteer, a presenter at a conference and/or a committee member for a local, regional or an international professional organization. Participating in all of these activities shall make all of us potential leaders, better educators and stronger professionals.

Myth Three: Leaders are always in the spotlight – lead from the front

Many good leaders do not seek to be in the spot light at all times. Many do an excellent job leading from the periphery. It is true that once you take on a leadership role, you need to be a spokesperson for the organization you serve. As a representative of any association, you will always, known or unknown, be “wearing your association’s hat” and will have the responsibility of representing it positively at all times. As a leader you shall have opportunities to give talks, write articles and conduct workshops for members and educators of other organizations. Being involved is a wonderful opportunity to build personal confidence and polish your public speaking skills; not to mention the new opportunities to network with association members, colleagues and other educators.

However, as MMESTs, we are often considered to becoming from the periphery, not the mainstream. Today, it is well recognized that non-native English speakers from the Periphery (the outer and expending circles) outnumber the native English speakers from the ‘inner-circle’ (US, Canada, UK, New Zealand and Australia) (Kachru, 1985, 1996, Crystal, 2003, to name a few). Many people of color in the ‘inner-circle’ countries are playing important leadership roles in educational systems. However, the number itself doesn’t imply that MMESTs share an equal playing field in the policy-making and decision-making processes as MMESTs are still considered peripheral politically and geographically. We need to learn how to lead from the periphery and how to lead from behind as well as lead from the front (Anderson, 2009). Being in the peripheral position gives us a different perspective and opportunity to bring different voices, especially voices that are historically excluded, such as MMEST’s voices to the decision-making process.

In addition, Leaders don’t need to be always in the front. Good leaders are good team players and good listeners. They collaborate with others, bring out the best in people around them, and they are creative and innovative. Being a team player will give you more opportunities to see the big picture and discover issues, solutions and trends from the grass-roots level. You also have a chance to build trust and support from the team and pave ways for others to step into leadership roles.

Myth Four: It’s not possible for a MMEST to become a leader

Is it possible for a Multilingual/MulticulturalEnglish speaking teacher to get involved in leadership roles with a local and international professional organization? The answer is “Yes.” It is not only possible but a reality!

In 1998, when the Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL (NNEST) Caucus was born in TESOL International, perhaps very few people could imagine the remarkable achievements of NNES professionals who have since taken various leadership positions in less than ten years. The 2006 inauguration of Jun Liu as the President of TESOL—the first nonnative and a person of color elected to that position—epitomized this attainment. In 2008, another landmark was made by the inauguration of Shelley Wong as the President of TESOL—this time, the first Asian woman in the position. This was followed by the 2008 election of Suresh Canagarajah for the 2nd Vice President of American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL), a position that leads to the Conference Chair and then to the President. He is also the first MMES professional in this position. Subsequently, he became the first MMEST TESOL Quarterly editor. Today we have more MMESTs take on leadership roles both in TESOL, AAAL and AILA.

Many other MMES professionals with English as their additional language or first language are increasingly filling academic and leadership positions in higher education as well as professional organizations in the field of second language education and applied linguistics in North America and around the world (Kubota & Sun, 2012). With all the achievements and successes that MMESTs have made over the last 15 years, another myth has surfaced.

Myth Five: There are no more challenges for MMESTs to take on leadership roles as the doors are wide open for them 

It is true that today, MMEST is well recognized as a professional group, a research field and a community. More and more MMESTs are working in the ELT profession and playing important roles in TESOL leadership, the research field, teacher training and working on the front line with EL learners. Their significant contributions and impact on our learners, the association and the profession are no longer peripheral. In TESOL there is a Non-native English-speaking Teacher (NNEST-IS) Interest Section, which is one of the most dynamic Interest Sections within the TESOL International Association. The members consist of both English as first language and English as an additional language speaking professionals. They are working tirelessly together to raise the awareness of MMESTs and the significant contributions they make to TESOL and the ELT field. 

Does that mean that MMES professionals can sail through various obstacles to advance their career and professional goals? My answer is NO. We are not there yet and we have a long way to go as MMESTs are still considered from the periphery by many. Growing diversity and increasing awareness of MMESTs in higher education and the ELT field do not necessarily mean that racial and linguistic discrimination has disappeared, nor does it mean that all MMESTs can easily obtain a leadership position or leadership development opportunities in any professional organizations due to increasing competitions and many challenges we still face. We need to be aware of the challenges we face and develop strategies to overcome them.

More importantly, if we want to get our voices heard, we need to get involved in leadership roles and act with other professionals to be part of the solution to addressing a systemic problem and making positive changes.

Suggested Strategies

Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me and many other MMES professionals who have taken on the leadership roles in various professional organizations and institutions.

  • Act Now! Don’t play ‘wait and see’ anymore. Start with your local affiliate association. Submit a proposal for presentation, or volunteer at a TESOL conference, so you can build confidence, start your network and get to know the organization. Soon you will find out that there are many opportunities out there and your local organizations need people like you to get involved. It is very rewarding!
  • Conduct a personal SWOC analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges) of yourself. Realize that strengths and weaknesses are internal; opportunities and challenges are external. List three strengths you have and develop them. Simultaneously list three weaknesses and note details.       Now discover three opportunities that you can utilize in the upcoming two or three years and seize them. List the three major challenges you believe you will face in next 2-3 years and make a plan to conquer those challenges and turn them into strengths. By doing an honest self-assessment, you can learn a lot about yourself and your potential contributions to the organization you belong to or plan to join. Then you can make a more focused leadership development action plan. Remember, no one is a born leader. Leadership development is a worthy life journey, so start with a self-assessment and grow into a good leader.
  • Read publications on leadership and search leadership websites. Read books and articles on leadership development (TESOL publications on leadership development; I enjoyed reading Leadership in English Language Education by Mary Ann Christison and Denise Murray (2009) and The Leadership Challenge by James Kounzes and Barry Posner. Here are a few leadership Web sites that I found helpful: The Center for Creative Leadership: http://www.ccl.org/ Center for Women’s Global Leadership: http://www.cwgl.rutgers.edu/ http://www.ascd.org/ ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) to name a few.
  • Participate in leadership training sessions. TESOL and other ELT professional organizations offer leadership development workshops and online training. TESOL’s Leadership Development Certificate Program is one of the best. They will give you insights and many helpful tools on how to be a leader with a professional association. Highly recommended!
  • Learn the organizational structure and governing rules – attend business meetings of the association. Discover who are the “movers and shakers”. In every organization there are different cultures and rules for getting on the agenda, getting an article published, raising issues and concerns, getting a resolution through and developing policies. In the process of learning and doing, you create opportunities to meet people and leaders as well as opportunities to collaborate with others. Be a good observer and don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the system constructively.
  • It’s very important to have a mentor and a ‘Buddy”, someone you respect and trust as a leader or a colleague. During my professional career, I have mentors at different stages of my journey. Look for mentors who are insightful, caring and can help you see the bigger picture and who are willing to give you honest perspectives and constructive criticisms. We need mentors and buddies and also we need more MMESTs who are in the leadership roles to pave ways for more MMES professionals to step into leadership roles at local and international associations. This is also a great networking opportunity with your peers and your TESOL colleagues and leaders.
  • Leadership is not about position, so no need to be always in the spotlight. One can lead from behind, within a group, and from the edge. Start with a small step – find an opportunity to lead beyond the classroom level and create success; not only for yourself but for all of us. Develop network and find your community. Always be persistent and with a positive attitude.
  • Timing is important. Seize the opportunity when the time comes and presents itself without hesitation. Seize the opportunity as we know personal success without leadership ability brings only limited effectiveness. Seize the opportunity to create more opportunities for you and others and use these opportunities to enhance your development as an individual and as a professional through strengthened communication and organizational skills.

Leadership is about “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things that matter to them” like Jun Liu once said. And with this, remember, no one is a born leader. We all learn to lead by leading, so don’t wait. The time to Act is Now! 


Anderson (2007) Leadership Is Not about Position: Leading From Behind. retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/docs/default-source/new-resource-library/symposium-on-leadership-4.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2012) The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 5th Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Kubota, R. &Sun, Y. (2012). Demystifying Career Paths after Graduate School: A Guide for Second Language Professionals in Higher Education. Illinois: Information Age Publishing.

Sun, Y. (2014) Demystifying the Myths about Leadership.The English Connection.Volume 18, Issue (1 & 2) http://www.koreatesol.org/sites/default/files/pdf_publications/TECv18n1-2.pdf

(*Dr. Yilin Sun has a doctorate in applied linguistics/curriculum and instruction from OISE/University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is the Past President (2015-2016) of TESOL International Association, USA. She has been chair of the TESOL Affiliate Leadership Council (2007), president of WAESOL (2003, 2007), and a Fulbright Senior Scholar (2011–12). English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State since 2009, Yilin currently teaches at South Seattle College in Seattle, and has more than 28 years of experience in the field of TESOL as an MA-TESL teacher trainer, researcher, classroom teacher, and program leader with a variety of higher educational institutions in China, Canada and the United States). 

This article was based on one of my articles entitled “Demystifying the Myths about Leadership” published in 2014.


One response

  1. Wow! Great Experience of leadership. Thanks a lot for this article Dr. Yilin Sun.
    Leadership is about “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things that matter to them” like Jun Liu once said. And with this, remember, no one is a born leader. We all learn to lead by leading, so don’t wait. The time to Act is Now!

    Liked by 1 person

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