Jolene McConnell: “Do things you’re afraid of doing.”

Jolene McConnell graduated from BSU in 2006 with her MA in TESOL and Linguistics. She is now an English Language Fellow in Albania with the US Department of State. Jolene has taught at a private language school for adults in Poland, at public schools in Korea, and on cruise ships teaching ESL. Upon her return to the US, Jolene worked for ELS Language Centers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Kansas State University before taking a leave of absence to do her fellowship.  

In her current role in Albania, Jolene is conducting workshops for English teachers throughout the country.  She conducts the Regional English Language Office Belgrade Facebook page and works with a division of the Ministry of Education in Albania.

How did your English major lead to your current position? What skills did you learn as an English major that helped you transition into that job?

I am on sabbatical from my job as an ESL instructor at Kansas State University and I currently do teacher training for English teachers in Albania.  I majored in English, not only because I love how language works, but specifically because I wanted to learn more about the world.  Having a degree in English has opened so many doors for me and I have had opportunities to travel that I would never have had otherwise. English didn´t just help me with my job; it is my job.  

Albania was completely closed off from the rest of the world from the end of World War II until the early 90s.  Most historians compare it to North Korea today. During that time, very little educational or professional development took place for educators.  

When you have a system like that, you find that it is very hard to leap from one method of teaching to another, because the incremental steps are missing.  For this reason, a lot of Albanian teachers use very old-fashioned methods of rote memorization and mechanical translation.  This is effective for a few students, but typically the students who succeed in learning are the most highly motivated, and often the wealthiest students – the ones who have access to outside tutors.  

My job is to promote new teaching methods and to support the teachers who are trying their best to implement these methods in environments where new methods aren’t always welcome.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a ¨typical¨ day.  Twice a week I travel to different cities in Albania and lead workshops for teachers.  Sometimes I don´t go anywhere in particular for work at all and instead spend time working at home or in one of the numerous coffee shops, or just exploring Tirana.  

My primary job is to present the workshops, but I always have to keep in mind that as an English Language Fellow, I am representing the US State Department, and, therefore my country.  Right now I spend a lot of time posting to social media and meeting people in various government agencies.  Much of what I do is about being present in the right places.  I have met some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met here in Albania, and I have had many opportunities and have learned many new things.

Do you have any advice for English majors who are trying to figure out what comes next in their lives?

As for advice I can give: English majors have a lot of resources – use them.  I am constantly amazed at how many resources I am able to find.  I have lesson plans, job openings, grants, government agencies, and other people to help me out.  And don’t just use them, contribute as well!  You never know who will use what you have created and turn around and offer you a job just because they like what you’ve made.  

Think outside of the box.  I chose to be a teacher because I love teaching, but majoring in English doesn’t pigeonhole you.  You don’t have to be a teacher or a writer just because you studied English.  If that’s your passion, go for it, but English is used in everything, so don’t be afraid to go further afield.  

Finally, do things you’re afraid of doing.  You miss opportunities when you are afraid.  I’ve met a lot of people who tell me they’d love to travel and that they envy my ability to go places.  The one thing that I’ve found to be universally true is that traveling is easier than people think it is.  Giving up other, more comfortable, easier things is the hard part.  When you’re passionate about something, you have to prioritize it, or you won’t do it.

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