Natalie Ferguson – Arizonan Authority on Language Learning
Chris Edwards | 07/06/2019

One of the unique things about Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) is that it’s one of the few universities in mainland China to offer an entirely English curriculum. To help students adjust to this new paradigm, the Center for Language Education (CLE) employs high-quality educators from around the world to teach students how to communicate in English at an academic level. The students are, to coin a phrase, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in many of these classes, and this enthusiasm comes from our CLE teachers.

One of these lecturers is Natalie Ferguson, who hails from Northern Arizona in the United States. We sat down with her to talk about how she made her way to SUSTech, her interest in language and what she wants to do more of, prior to the end of her time at SUSTech.

Who is Natalie Ferguson?

Natalie got her bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a mountainous area, known for its snow in winter and generally five seasons (two distinct summer seasons). It was here that she majored in both English and French.

“I also accidentally got my French degree as well as my English degree. It was supposed to be a minor, for fun, and then they said ‘you should do a major,’ so now I have a Bachelors in French as well.”

Following the completion of her bachelor degrees, Natalie spent a year in Paris teaching, before deciding to complete her Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at her alma mater.

TESOL was something that fell into her lap, in her own words. Natalie had always wanted to study English, and was initially interested in literature. During her junior year, she took a linguistics class that taught her about the study of language. It was here that her focus changed and her love of travel worked with her to take her graduate direction into TESOL instead of literature.

It was not long after completing her Masters that she found herself looking for positions in China. Natalie admitted that she was looking for a wide range of positions all over China, and SUSTech found her at an international convention for English teachers in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. When we asked Natalie as to why she chose SUSTech, she admitted that SUSTech had the best pitch, and Shenzhen is so different from every other city in China.

Natalie went on to explain that classes being taught in English with a high-quality English-language curriculum were also a huge attraction for her. As a new university with a new Center for Language Education, it created opportunities for Natalie to create something new, which is something that many foreign university lecturers do not get the opportunity to do.

How she spends her time on and off campus

Most of her time is focused on her classes within CLE. Natalie is exceptionally dedicated to her job. During second semester alone, she topped up her teaching hours by creating and teaching a career development elective and running The Short Story Society on Wednesday evenings. She also led CLE’s stall at the Regional Culture Festival, representing the United States of America for the second year in a row. Natalie is also heavily committed to professional development within CLE. She has represented SUSTech and CLE at various conferences within the Greater Bay Area, mainland China and Southeast Asia. Natalie also organized the first Center for Language Education on Teaching in English at SUSTech, which attracted esteemed colleagues from Xi’an University, Macau University of Science and Technology and the United States Consulate in Guangzhou.

With what little free time she has, she is a passionate yoga enthusiast. She tends to catch up with friends and explore the city by night whenever she gets the chance, and her social media feeds are full of her travels around Shenzhen and the Greater Bay Area. In terms of her favorite place to spend time in Shenzhen, Natalie recommends the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden in Luohu District.

“There’s an amazing temple that is absolutely worth going to.”

What has Natalie achieved and what does she want to achieve?

Natalie’s work has been recognized in many parts of the world. She is most proud of the time she presented with two of her colleagues on “Introducing Portfolio Assessment for First-Year University Students in China.” They presented together at The International Conference on English Language Education in the Chinese Context, held at the Education University of Hong Kong last year. They were specifically praised for presenting together in a seamless manner, with Natalie noting, “A lot of teachers were really excited about it, which made us feel really good… a lot of people came up to us and said that they want to do more group research now that we’ve seen you do this together.”

One of the keys to having a successful class, as far as Natalie is concerned, is keeping the students active. That does not mean the students need to move around, but they need to be interacting and doing something as much as possible throughout the class. “Students need to feel safe. If they don’t feel as nervous or embarrassed to make mistakes, the class becomes more relaxing and enjoyable for them.” Wherever possible, Natalie incorporates 1-on-1 interaction with the students.

Natalie had some incredible memories from her classes at SUSTech. At one point, she had a class of just 9 students, creating a unique challenge for teachers that would be used to classes of about twice the size. However, Natalie said that she really got to know the students, and the students really got to know each other. This meant that the barriers fell down much faster, and students felt more confident talking in class.

In terms of improvements, Natalie felt that freshmen students should be given planners so they can organize themselves. “They’ve had everything planned for them for years, so they lack organizational skills. Giving students planners and teaching them how to use them would be very helpful for them, and for the faculty.” She also hoped that she would see more female students in the future, but accepted that at a science and engineering university, this might be a challenge.

Her career development and business English electives have since become successful, with many commenting on their friends wanting to take the courses next year. Natalie is hoping to offer French classes in the future, but has come to terms that such an offer may be challenging to provide.

Traveling and teaching never a smooth path

Natalie, like many foreigners before her and many after her, have made mistakes and will make mistakes while they are traveling. It is a common situation, despite the best efforts of the travelers. She admitted that her habit of pointing with one finger has been one that has been very hard to break.

She wished that someone told her “to chill out,” before she came to China. However, Natalie learned that every day would be a surprise, and it’s good that way. “I came here to do something different. You need to have a world view.” She believes that you need to challenge yourself to have a truly fulfilling life.

It’s been hard being thousands of miles away from family and friends. However, her love for the family dogs was paramount, and the dogs don’t tend to interact in the family group chat so much. Whenever Natalie took the chance to go back to Arizona to visit family, the dogs receive a big dose of love from Natalie. She also misses authentic Mexican food – something she has struggled to find in Shenzhen, despite the improvements in the local restaurant scene.

Her wanderlust has ensured that she has spent time traveling to some far-flung points in China. She has spent time on the sandy shores of Sanya, the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, the gorgeous greenery of Guilin, as well as some closer stops like Guangzhou, Macau, and Hong Kong. “I also went to Beijing and will never forget my trip to the Great Wall of China. There’s a particular section in Mutianyu where you can slide down from the top of the Great Wall to the bottom. It was an amazing trip and would absolutely recommend it.” She would love to go to one of the hot pot capitals of China, Chengdu and Inner Mongolia. Southeast Asia has been a favored holiday destination when Natalie wanted to explore beyond the borders of mainland China, with stops in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam recently.

Final thoughts for successful TESOL teachers

Relax, chill out. Everything is going to be crazy. The challenges are going to be related to what’s happening in your life, not what’s happening in the classroom. Make an effort to learn about the culture, as it will make your life so much easier. Most importantly, don’t lose your self-discipline or your standards. Teachers are a dime a dozen in China, so you can be easily replaced. Remain disciplined with high standards, and your employer will fight for you.

2019, 07-06
By Chris Edwards

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