Interview: Marshall Toman, TESOL MA Program Coordinator, University of Wisconsin-River Fall


Marshall Toman, Coordinator of the TESOL MA program at River Falls, joins us today to discuss Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

1. Can you tell us about the Masters in TESOL (MATESOL) programs offered at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls?

The MA itself is 36 credits or 12 three-credit courses. However, we do have pre- or co-requisites that an undergraduate program should have included the knowledge that is provided in two of our courses, which MA candidates can take if they do not have that knowledge in their background. These courses are a basic descriptive grammar course, ENGL 520, Structure of English, and ENGL 522, Language Acquisition.

The program is designed to be face-to-face, rather than online. However, we hope to be moving toward increasing our online offerings in the future, and eventually, we may be able to offer the degree almost exclusively or exclusively online.

There is also one other pre-requisite or co-requisite. (By “co-requisite” I mean simply that if you don’t have this requirement before entering the program you can take it while in the program.) That requirement is that you must have studied a second language for two years.

The program also requires a thesis and a final oral examination where the thesis is defended.

2. How long does a typical MATESOL program take at River Falls? What is the maximum and minimum time of completion?

The program is designed to take two years. Nine graduate credits is considered full-time. Thus, the course work can be completed in four semesters of “full-time” work, with “full-time” in quotation marks since many students take more than nine credits per semester. In fact, currently, full-time tuition allows students to take 9, 10, 11, or 12 credits for the same price. Just as with undergraduate study, most students find that carrying more credits than the definition of “full-time” works well. If 12 credits are taken in each of the first three semesters, the entire fourth semester can be devoted to the writing of the thesis.

Most students finish within two academic years, often plus the last summer to put the finishing touches on the thesis.

In some special cases it might be possible to finish in one and a half academic years.

The maximum amount of time allowed for any graduate degree at our university is seven years.

3. What do you think makes your River Falls MATESOL stand out from other similar programs?

The University of Wisconsin—River Falls has an English Language Transition program, or ELT for short. International students can enter UWRF with a score on the iBT of less than the regular admission requirement of 78. The program transitions their language and academic abilities to what is needed to seek a degree here. Having such a program offers MA candidates good opportunities. One opportunity is to see their profession in action. At least one of their courses will send them into such a classroom to observe and talk over the lesson observed with the instructor. The ELT program also offers opportunities for graduate students to get paid jobs as teaching assistants and put into pre-professional practice what they are learning. Of course, most TESOL candidates have an open attitude toward the world beyond their own country and the ELT program offers some opportunities to make some friends from all over the world.

The diversity of our program is also an attractive feature. We have students from Korea and the Middle East as well as the majority of students who come from the U. S. However, even these students often have had interesting backgrounds, having already taught in places like China, Saudi Arabia, Columbia, and so on. A Fulbright student from Oman is about to graduate and another Fulbright student from Palestine is in the program. Both these individuals have been very lovely people whose personalities and abilities in English and teaching have been real assets to the program.

Two other features of our program make it excellent. The first is our Taiwan Teach Abroad Program or TTAP (Tee-Tap). Eight to 12 students have their airfare paid to Taipei, Taiwan, to teach English to students at a university there for three weeks. They make friends, eat free and good university food, sleep for free in dormitory space, and get paid $750. We have other similar opportunities for hands-on experience.

The other feature of our program is that we are the agent for Yeungjin University’s English Village in Daegu, South Korea. We supply 50 to 55 native speakers of English annually. Again, free airfare to those who serve out their year-long contract, three weeks’ paid vacation, free living in a modern, single-room dorm space, health care on a state-of-the-art medical system, free and delicious food from an agricultural university that raises organic vegetables, and $20,000 to $30,000 base pay (two opportunities per year can increase the base pay). An MA would receive the high end of the range. You would not pay taxes. $30,000 with no food, housing, transportation, or tax expenses is the equivalent of a much, much higher paying job. We will seek teachers with a BA through an MA in various English-speaking countries, but UWRF students would certainly have an inside advantage.

4. How important would you say accreditation is when choosing a MATESOL program?

I would not choose a program that is not accredited if you mean accreditation in the broad sense that includes the accreditation that all U.S. colleges and universities must go through to ensure that their programs are meeting proper standards. There is a narrower sense of the word that applies to program-specific accreditation by an external agency specializing in accrediting that discipline, like the American Chemical Society for chemists.

I would think that this sort of program-specific accreditation could only be an extra stamp of approval. Naturally, I think our program is excellent, and it is not separately, externally accredited. It does have the accreditation that all River Falls programs have as an institution of higher learning, and the University of Wisconsin System is quite strict about making all its programs responsive to students’ and society’s needs. However, I would expect that in order to get that extra stamp of approval, we will be applying for a program-specific accreditation in the near future. And I look forward to what that process may bring.

5. There is some debate as to whether or not Online MATESOL degrees are as worthwhile as traditional MATESOL degrees. What steps does River Falls take to ensure that online students are receiving the same education that they'd receive in a classroom? 

As mentioned, our program is only face-to-face at this point although we may have two courses within the program available as soon as this summer. There are many ways to ensure quality of online delivery, and the required and incentivized program that all our instructors go through in order to qualify for online teaching addresses all of the ways to make the course effective. In other words, our instructors are required to go through extensive individualized training that relates to the specific course being moved to online instruction and they are paid for this learning. The instructor has a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in technological delivery of curriculum and is well qualified in terms of expertise as well as personality to be an excellent teacher-colleague of our teachers.

6. What are the advantages to earning a MATESOL degree in general?

Like any liberal arts degree it enhances a person’s ability to problem solve and to communicate, traits desired by employers universally. With its emphasis on teaching, it is excellent for service oriented professions. The most direct advantage, however, is to those seeking opportunities abroad. With English emerging as the lingua franca of the world, anyone who spoke English was in some demand in various countries as a teacher. Since some time has passed since this crisis point—take for instance the decade of the 1990s in Central Europe where the need for Russian was replaced clearly by the need for English—countries have incorporated the teaching of English into schools and universities and other organized structures that seek out specialists in the teaching of English. To be competitive now, people interested in world travel through world teaching will make things easier on themselves as teachers and easier on themselves as potential employees if they obtain an MA.

7. Does River Falls offer job placement for students who graduate in MATESOL?

Other than the opportunity that we currently have to teach in Korean, which is a competitive opportunity, we do not job placement. However, in addition to the MA or concomitant with it, River Falls offers public school teacher licensing. The demand for ESL teachers in the school in Wisconsin and Minnesota is such that students who graduate with either a BA or an MA and have a teaching license find jobs.

8. What type of financial aid packages are available for students in TESOL? Are there any fellowships, grants and scholarships available?

International students have been eligible for a $2,500 reduction in tuition. The university does have a tuition-remission policy for certain qualified students, and two of our current TESOL MAs have obtained this grant though it is fairly rare. Native Speakers of English have opportunities to work as graduate assistants. However, my best advice is to look at any institution’s bottom line. It can be far less expensive to attend a public institution like River Falls than an institution that may have thousands of dollars available in grants. Looking at the net cost of the program and the cost of living where the program is located are the important factors in choosing a program where cost is concerned. UWRF does pretty well on that cost comparison.

9. Do you have any advice for students enrolling in a MATESOL program for the first time?

It is important to make personal contact with one of the lead professors of the program. Find someone who knows all about the program. Talk to that person to get oriented. Keep that person as a friend even if you get assigned to another advisor.

10. What do you enjoy most about your position at River Falls?

A favorite author of mine whom I’m teaching this semester is Vladimir Nabokov. He says that everything plays: nature, people, art. Wherever there is play there is potential for a game. I see my job as Coordinator of the TESOL programs as a player in a game. The game’s goal is to make life as easy, interesting, and rewarding as possible for TESOL MA students. I win whenever that happens. I lose when it doesn’t. I’m competitive. I like winning. That’s what I like about my job; it is a game that I can win at.

For more information on the MATESOL programs offered at UNIVERSITY, visit them online.

Thank you Marshall, for sharing and participating in this piece.

That concludes our interview!