Scott Poteet: I love the democratic spirit of Mongolian culture

  • By chagy5
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  • 2024-06-04
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Scott Poteet: I love the democratic spirit of Mongolian culture

Today, we interviewed Scott Poteet who has been living in Mongolia since 2018, and teaching English as he contributes significantly to the foreign language education in our country. You may know him if you have ever been to and participated in any of the activities that took place in the American Corner at Natsagdorj Library. He also taught English at Mongolian University of Science and Technology for some time. We mainly discussed learning and teaching English, especially in Mongolia. 


You have been contributing a lot to English language education in Mongolia. When did you come to Mongolia for the first time, and with what purpose?


I first arrived in Mongolia in August of 2018 as an English Language Fellow. The Fellow program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The purpose of the fellowship is for English teaching professionals to teach in university settings and assist in the professional development of local English teachers as part of the public diplomacy mission of the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar City. 


One of the latest programs that you were part of was the “Competitive College Club”. Could you tell us about that?


The Competitive College Club is a new effort of the Mongolian branch of Education USA, a free program sponsored by American Councils. The club, which is open to local Mongolian secondary students, provides guidance for students who want to apply to study in U.S. universities. For example, the club assists students with essay writing, finding scholarships, and some educational counseling. I gave a talk to the club to address misconceptions about U.S. universities. For instance, there is no best university in the United States; however, there is a university best for their needs, educational goals, and interests. 


Can you share a little bit about working at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST) as an English teacher?


MUST is an incredible school. While there are no English majors, the university has an immensely talented group of local English instructors who specialize in teaching the English for Specific Purposes that science, architecture, and engineering majors need in their future careers. One of my memorable duties was co-teaching with Mongolian English teachers. I was often asked to develop task-based activities to support the English curriculum, including speaking practice and fun group simulations for groups of students to use English in order to design their own imaginative company, product, or service.


In your opinion, what do you want to change in the English teaching methods in Mongolia?


That’s hard to answer because I’d rather ask my Mongolian colleagues to answer this question. However, they have told me that they are eager to learn more communicative teaching methods in their classes, especially giving students more task-based lessons where they can use speaking skills in practical, real-life ways. I tried to model that method whenever I co-taught with colleagues. But, I think it is up to the teacher to continue to use that method in their future classes. 


From your perspective, what important roles do the teachers, especially one in the same field as you, play in society?


I think foreign language teachers are important professionals in connecting learners to a larger world and help them discern each student’s personal and vocational place in that world. English is a global language, so a teacher’s role is to develop each student’s English skills that will make them successful and achieve their future goals. 


You are helping not only students to learn English, but also teachers to improve their teaching method with many workshops. Please tell us about your experience of organizing those workshops.


Teacher workshops are on every Wednesday afternoon at the Natsagdorj Library in the American Corner Program Room. The goal is to provide teachers with professional development in language teaching methods through practice. Some memorable workshops this past year included: using ChatGPT to support language lessons; project-based language learning; and, methods for learning new English vocabulary. 


Are there any difficulties related to teaching English in Mongolia?


I’ve experienced three main challenges of teaching English in Mongolia. Many Mongolian children have been exposed to a lot of English input through Smartphones, iPads, and TV channels like Nickelodeon. That’s good. But it doesn’t allow learners to practice productive skills like speaking. Many teachers tell me that they don’t practice English speaking in class because speaking isn’t assessed on the university entrance examination or there aren’t native English speakers to practice with. Many students don’t want to speak for fear of making a mistake in front of the class or the teacher. However, my experience is that all that students need is permission to speak, especially in pairs or groups, where they can express themselves. Another difficulty is how to integrate digital technology to support lessons in the classroom, especially for writing and speaking. 

A second difficulty is the pressure many teachers have to use digital apps in their classrooms. My suggestion for language teachers is:  don’t use the app unless it will help your students learn to use the language. A final difficulty is the assumption that IELTS is the only proficiency exam for studying abroad or assessing one’s level. IELTS is expensive for many. The truth is that due to artificial intelligence and the pandemic there are many different English proficiency tests that are cheaper, can be taken at home or on a mobile phone, and are internationally recognized like EFSET and English Score, both free; and the Duolingo English Test. 


As a foreigner, what was something that surprised you the most when you came to Mongolia?


Too many things. All positive. Like the hospitality of trusting anyone to give you a ride as an informal taxi, the kindness of strangers, the sharing of food, and invitations to attend family gatherings like Tsagaan Sar. These are wonderful traditions that set Mongolia apart.  


Is there one specific thing that is related to Mongolian culture that attracts you and other foreigners coming to Mongolia?


While there are many wonderful cultural traditions, one attractive part of the culture that I love is the democratic spirit in Mongolian culture. Maybe it’s the collective vulnerability of dealing with harsh winters and zuds, but that shared harshness binds people together, to look out for each other, to live the words: we can only survive if we work together. That’s a message that America needs to learn from Mongolia!


How has Mongolia changed over time during your stay?


I think the country has been through a lot recently. I’ve seen many new housing developments, a growth in technology, and of course, more cars! The pandemic was harsh, as was inflation. But the people have a resilient spirit here. 


From your perspective, can you share your thoughts on the future of Mongolia?


I think the future is bright for Mongolia. People work very hard. They support each other. They learn from mistakes. They embrace change. They want their children to have a better life. They have wonderful cultural traditions. These are clearly values that I think will continue to grow in the future, and are values that Americans can learn from.