The tentmakers of the new millennium

“We didn’t sleep much in July—but when you have something you believe in
and have the support of the community around you, it’s not bumpy at all—it’s
an adventure.”—Bill Acton, Director of MA TESOL

Langley, B.C.—Trinity Western University’s undergrad and graduate degrees programs exist to equip students to compete in today’s marketplace. TWU’s newest Graduate Level Degree is one of those programs—but not in the traditional sense.

“This is a program for ‘tent-makers,’” says Bill Acton, Director of the new Masters of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA TESOL). “It exists to get more committed Christians into countries presently inaccessible to missionaries. Part of the initial success of this program arises from having a group of students who have a strong heart for God and want to share the gospel. If other people come, we’re delighted, but the training of Godly Christian leaders is really what we’re all about.”

Three years ago, Acton was a Faculty Professor in the Graduate School at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Japan. At the time, he never expected that an unplanned brainstorming session in a St. Louis cafeteria would change the course of his life. But one poignant discussion and a few dozen napkin diagrams later, a world impacting program was born.

“I first met Phil Goertzen (Director of TWU’s undergrad TESL Certificate program) while teaching in Japan,” explains Acton, “But I really connected with him at the ‘Teaching English as a Second Language’ conference in St. Louis, in 1999. As we started talking about the needs of Christian teachers, the idea of starting a program that would train teacher trainers ignited. So we walked around and picked up brochures from all the booths that offered a masters program. We looked at the best things each program offered and molded that into one program for TWU.”

Goertzen and Acton spent the next three years building the program as a side project to their full-time jobs. Remarkably, Acton says he had never planned to actually teach at TWU. “My job was in Japan,” he says. “I was just helping Phil. But when TWU called and asked me to come, I knew I had to say ‘yes’.”

Though provincial accreditation was only finalized in June 2003, by July the MA TESOL was up and running, with the first 20 student cohort. The accepted applicants came from across the globe: from South Africa, Gabon, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and, of course, North America.

“There has been an enormous interest in the program,” says Acton. “I think we’re approaching 300 inquiries in the first six months alone, and it’s pretty much all word of mouth.” According to Acton the need for English language teachers has grown exponentially, as has the need for accreditation. This global demand is creating many new ministry opportunities, as countries otherwise closed to missionaries are now opening to English teachers. There is, however, one big gap.

“Our greatest need right now is for more qualified teacher trainers,” explains Acton. “We need experienced instructors who will catch the vision to help train these tent-makers before we can expand the program much further. We are confident those people will also be called to train us!”

Structurally, the MA TESOL is a rigorous two-year program, enabled largely thanks to the Internet. For the first month of the program, students attend intensive classes five-days a week on the Trinity Western University campus. After July, however, students return to their homes around the globe, equipped with the tools to continue their on-line graduate studies. According to Acton, the first month is mainly a transition time to prepare them for the ‘real’ program.

“Online instruction is often the hardest thing to get students to really collaborate on, particularly in a meaningful way,” says Acton. “So we’ve made our program high in involvement. The concept is that the instructor teaches about half the course, and the four student groups (five students per group) teach the other half. It’s like they’re co-teaching—they do the research and create online classes and curriculums.” Since these ‘online students’ have a history with their peers and instructors, they shouldn’t have the usual setbacks of online interactions.

MA TESOL student groups have an additional innovation unique to their program: the ‘collaboratti’, a term coined by Acton. “Collaboratti are people who have been experts in the field for quite a while,” he explains. “They’re actually faculty members from other universities who work with the students, helping them with their presentations, online research and lesson creation. They’re generally my friends—they’re personable, fun to talk to, and most importantly they feel free to argue with me,” chuckles Acton. This year, students have access to several collaboratti from Japan and other countries, online.

Innovation is nothing new for Acton. While teaching in Texas in the 70’s, Acton gave lectures through ‘interactive television.’ “I’d be at a TV studio and there would be teachers from maybe a dozen high schools from around the state of Texas, watching from their classroom.” With that experience under his belt (and cowboy hat), Acton feels right at home in this cutting edge, online MA TESOL program.”

“I could teach this from Starbucks,” he jokes, though a truthful statement. “Once the model is done and we have been through the first 2-year cycle, we could stage it from anywhere. We’ve considered the possibilities of staging this out of Asia so students could take their one month of intensive training in Singapore or Hong Kong, for example. Another obvious staging location is TWU’s Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa.”

The MA TESOL is gaining momentum and building a good track record. For Acton and Goertzen it’s been a positive growing experience. “It’s been amazing,” says Acton. “We didn’t sleep much in July—but when you have something you believe in and have the support of the community around you, it’s not all that bumpy—it’s an adventure. Of course we run into obstacles, but whenever that happens there’s always some other way. God always provides for us—in time and online!”

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Last Updated: 2015-07-13
Author: Keela Keeping