A teaching evolution

UND Associate Dean of Teacher Education & Student Services brings English teaching expertise to Saudi Arabia

Anne Walker

Anne Walker, UND associate dean of teacher education & student services, is freshly back from a two-and-a-half week expedition to Saudi Arabia. She was invited by the Saudi’s Ministry of Education to serve as an English Language Specialist after the U.S. State Department recommended her as a consultant and teacher trainer. Photo courtesy of Anne Walker.

Anne Walker has what looks like a large box of chocolates on her office desk.

But upon closer inspection, one will notice the writing on the side of the box isn’t English—and the treats inside are definitely not chocolate.

They are dates from Saudi Arabia, and they’re one of the country’s most popular commodities.

“They were gifts,” Walker says. “I had to buy an extra suitcase for the gifts. Saudi Arabian hospitality is amazing.”

Walker, UND associate dean of teacher education & student services, is freshly back from a two-and-a-half week expedition to the Middle Eastern country.

She was invited by the Saudi’s Ministry of Education to serve as an English Language Specialist after the U.S. State Department recommended her as a consultant and teacher trainer. The country is beginning a three-year-long process of reforming the way its educators teach English, and Walker’s experience was exactly what the Ministry needed to help guide development.

Within a travel itinerary that included nine internal flights and several long drives across seemingly endless desert, Walker met with English language teachers in four small, rural cities, and served as the keynote speaker of the first-ever English Language Teaching Symposium in the capital city of Riyadh.

“They created this conference because I was coming,” Walker said. “It’s the first time that the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education has partnered with the U.S. State Department like this on an English language teacher project. They’ve been trying to get it to work for many years, and it finally did, and it sort of mushroomed into this bigger symposium.”

Educating educators

Walker started her outreach with a two-day workshop in Al Ula, where teachers were split into male and female working groups per the country’s customs. Walker worked with 50 women to enhance the ways they deliver language instruction, while a male teacher-trainer worked with the male educators.

Anne Walker, UND associate dean of teacher education & student services

Anne Walker

In Saudi Arabia, English teachers usually have a degree in English literature, not English teaching. Walker said the big push is showing teachers how to teach the language in ways other than rote memorization and lecture.

“The Ministry of Education really wanted me to focus on critical thinking, creative thinking, using technology appropriately and collaboration and interaction,” she explained. “[English language teachers] tend to speak in Arabic because they’re not comfortable speaking in English, even in the English classroom.

“This was also a chance for them to practice their English with a native English speaker, because many had never even done that before,” she added.

Walker also visited the communities of Hafr Al Batin, Gurayat and Madinah over two weeks, providing more than 330 English teachers with training in current best practices. Amid the workshop whirlwind, she addressed hundreds at the Ministry of Education symposium.

“The main message of my keynote was talking about, in the United States, the preparation for English as a Second Language teachers, Walker said. “I was talking about teacher education standards, the importance of field experiences and long-term student teaching—that it’s not just the English language, but how you teach the English language.”

Walker’s visit was so successful that she has been invited to return to more rural schools and continue to promote education reform.

Making progress

This was Walker’s second trip to Saudi Arabia. She traveled there 10 years ago with the International Literacy Association. At that time, she could only visit private schools because the Ministry of Education was not open to the idea of outside consultants in its public schools, but Walker says the government has become much more progressive over the years.

“I think [Americans] have a wrong image of Saudi Arabia,” Walker said. “We hear about the political issues and the isolated terrorist issues, but when you really get into the country, it’s actually a very nice country. It’s very welcoming, very modern and very progressive.”

Walker added that, although many limitations remain, the country has made enormous strides with women’s rights.

“In the urban cities, it’s okay for a woman to go on a plane by herself. The abaya—it’s a fashion statement now,” she said, referring to the full-length cloak worn by women in the region. “There are still the big ones—women can’t drive—but you don’t need your husband’s permission now to travel.”

Walker’s passion for global literacy has propelled her all over the world—from Ethiopia Reads outreach in Africa to providing teacher training for International Schools Services in China, Chile and a return to South Korea this year.

She says, although the climates and customs change, there is a constant.

“In training English teachers around the world, the different places may have different resources, and teachers may have different training, but some of the challenges are the same, including how to motivate children to learn a language they don’t yet see the importance of,” she said. “Teachers are all dedicated; so the English teachers in Saudi Arabia are just as committed to their students as U.S. teachers.”