CIEE TEFL Alumni Spotlight: Donald Kerchis

Authored By:


Hello! My name is Don Kerchis. As a young man, I grew up in Farmington, Connecticut, a small suburban city on the outskirts of Connecticut's capital, Hartford. The year was 1981, and I found myself fascinated by events occurring in the international community, such as the Cold War.

During the summer of 1982, I approached the town's board of education and asked for support in travel funds. In exchange for travel funds, I agreed to give talks and presentations in the social studies classes in the Farmington school system, based on my experience and knowledge gained through my 10-week trip to Europe. The board agreed to partially fund my trip. 

I was 16 years old. I had taken the initiative to enroll in a five-week French and German language and culture classes at the University in Strasbourg, France, living in a single dorm room. I also purchased a two-month Eurail Youth Pass ticket that would allow me to travel endlessly through all the Western European countries.

As a result of this first international experience, and much of the information I had gathered through CIEE, I returned to the United States to complete my senior year of high school convinced that I wanted to continue my international adventures.

Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service seemed an ideal fit for my current interest, and I applied and was fortunate enough to be admitted. I studied international politics and international relations for the first two years and then, lo and behold, in my junior year, CIEE came to the rescue again. It was common for juniors in the School of Foreign Service to spend a year abroad studying in another country. We had many options to choose from through the International Programs office at Georgetown University, but what captivated me was the option to go through CIEE and spend my junior year at the University of Seville, Spain.

That was the best decision I had made in my life up until that time, and CIEE’s excellent information packets, guidance and orientation program later confirmed to me that I had undoubtedly made the right choice. Once again, CIEE had been a major factor in what would ultimately help to dictate the trajectory of a lifetime involvement with international education and programming. So, in the year 1986 I became a CIEE alumnus as a result of having participated in one of their full yearlong Study Abroad opportunities that would serve as a springboard for me as I yearned to continue my professional career in international programming. Thank you CIEE!

1. What inspired you to get TEFL certified and teach abroad?

As I mentioned, my CIEE experience during my junior year in college is what really inspired me to continue my affiliation with CIEE. The skills and knowledge I learned during my year with CIEE in Spain largely prepared me for a career in international programs. Consequently, I decided to continue my studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where I received a Masters Degree in Public ans International Affairs and a Doctoral Degree (PhD) in International Affairs. These degrees were only possible as a result
of my passion for international programs that had been heightened through my CIEE/ Georgetown study abroad experience. 

I went on to become a Fulbright Scholar and then the Director of International Programs at a major university in South Western Pennsylvania. There, among other things, I continued to promote student participation in CIEE programs because of the wonderful impact it had on my life. I knew the students would be well supervised, well taken care of, and well guided in their academic pursuits.

I always dreamed that one day I would do whatever was necessary to attempt to get certified and teach abroad through CIEE because of the decades I had spent watching them fulfill their commitment to international education. In particular CIEE's commitment to help to build bridges of friendship and communication between peoples of very diversified backgrounds. I love the organization and its vision and mission statement and I wanted to continue my relationship with CIEE. I applied to be the Director of a new program they were opening in Alicante, Spain, and was honored to be one of the program finalists, although I didn't get the job. 

My commitment and desire to continue to be affiliated the CIEE organization still burned brightly within me. These factors greatly inspired me to get the CIEE TEFL 150-Hour Certificate and enroll in the CIEE TEFL Job Placement Assistance program to teach abroad in Murcia, Spain.

2. What have you found most fulfilling about teaching English? 

I have found teaching English in Murcia to be so satisfactory and fulfilling. The experience gives me such a sense of contentment and happiness. This is true for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the language acquisition skills of my students have improved tremendously. As an educator, I have always felt that the most meaningful learning occurs in an atmosphere where students understand that they are not simply learning a subject, but are gaining life skills, tools, and abilities that will allow them to enjoy a deeper appreciation for life in the future. Therefore, I have found it fulfilling, and I believe the students have as well, to never forget why we are studying foreign languages. I remind them that it can be and should be a fun and enjoyable experience. The students must recognize that they are learning to speak another language not just to pass a course, but to be able to develop lifelong friendships and form bonds of reciprocity with their new friends and colleagues that they will meet from across the world. Learning another language means being open and able to communicate with a whole new group of people that might otherwise remain strangers. It opens the door to deeper and more meaningful experiences that help create bonds of lifetime relationships that can bring us closer to international acceptance, understanding, and hopefully someday global peace. 

3. What kinds of jobs have you held (or are you considering) after your CIEE program? How do you think your CIEE experience shaped your career?

As I have said, I hold CIEE Primarily responsible for the career I have enjoyed that has led to such happiness, contentment, fulfillment, and sense of doing my best to create a more diverse and unified group of students who face incredible new and wonderful opportunities in a growing interdependent and globalized world. My College CIEE experience propelled me into an area of university study that ultimately led to a career where I was able to promote CIEE and build on their mission statement to help create a new generation of international student leaders who will be better equipped to face the world's most daunting challenges.

Contemporary challenges presented by world issues like climate change and international conflict will need to be addressed by students with diverse ideas, diverse knowledge and diverse backgrounds, all of which CIEE aims to promote. I would not be where I am today personally or professionally without the profound impact of CIEE and its awesome educational outreach and educational programs. CIEE is not a one and done experience. CIEE is a way of life that provides us opportunities, experiences, and tools for living in the future world. 

The problems of tomorrow are quickly becoming the problems of today and will need solutions forged by those student leaders who have been fortunate enough to have engaged in CIEE programs and activities

4. What was the biggest challenge you faced as an EFL teacher? How did you overcome that challenge?

My biggest challenge as an EFL teacher was recognizing that the ends were much more important than the means in terms of the language acquisition of my students. The education system in Spain is quite different from other countries, but that does not mean that the students are not open to new ways of thinking and doing things. 

I work diligently to create an atmosphere where students feel confident, cared for, and are presented with opportunities to learn the English language in a way that was fun and enjoyable. Our mind has a special way of remembering events that occurred while we were having fun, and enjoying ourselves, while still being able to absorb and comprehend the important educational material being delivered. Therefore, it is also important that the students view you, the instructor, as being happy, excited, and invested in the progression of your students’ language ability. 

That means constant positive reinforcement and creating an environment in which they feel free to express themselves in a non-threatening environment. They need to be convinced that you are there to help them and that you will go to any extent to do it and that you will try to do it in a way that makes learning the language enjoyable and fund. Help them to recognize that it is not merely a subject for which to get a grade in school, but rather a lifelong school skill, aptitude and ability that will serve them throughout their lifetime. Another language allows them to increase the number of different people they can meet with more sophisticated and more nuanced understanding. They can achieve deeper insights into the new society, people, values and culture in which they will soon be immersed. 

Also remember that you can learn as much as your students as they can from you, and once that point is made clear there is a level of mutual respect and admiration that can pay great dividends in reaching the desired final product and outcome which is continuous improvement of target language acquisition.

5. What was the most important thing you learned in your CIEE TEFL course or while you were teaching abroad?

The most important thing I learned while teaching abroad after finishing my CIEE TEFL Course was that I had as much to learn about myself and my own culture as I did learn about the students and theirs. I recognize that my job was not to simply impose my idea of the best and most correct pedagogy, but also learn from in about the students and really try to focus on in pinpoint, their specific learning traits and abilities. 

I wound up teaching using developmental strategies that were not what I had expected when I came to teach in Murcia. By dedicating myself to observing and learning the ways in which the students interacted and their particular learning styles and preferences, I was able to develop and deliver a product with which they found themselves more receptive and experiencing greater enjoyment in the class. That was the key to what made us click and made us move forward.

I also learned that there were times when I could develop the same course material while giving the students the option to decide on the appropriate or most desirable vehicle for them to integrate their knowledge. The often hierarchical structure associated with the US classroom appeared to work less well than the team approach of allowing students to express their own desires about how they would best learn and enjoy the concepts that I was wanting them to master.

6. What advice would you offer to future CIEE TEFL and Teach Abroad participants?

I would offer future CIEE TEFL and Teach Abroad participants to remember that creating a fun and enjoyable classroom environment does not run antithetical to the fundamental language acquisition skills that the students most desperately need. Recognize that you are dealing with young people in a country where many have not yet fully been able to appreciate the importance of learning another language.

Nurture them and help them to see how learning English can benefit them in their own personal life. And I don’t mean simply in terms of a professional career. I mean in their ability to augment the true satisfaction they will experience by speaking English and enjoying many more activities, meaningful experiences, cultural understanding, and development of more intimate and life lasting interpersonal relationships. This will not only form the basis for more permanent international friendships, but will help to serve the great need of helping to create international peace and stability. These new student leaders will form an international vanguard of an intellectual cohort that will ultimately be responsible for helping to solve the problems and crises of the next generation that are increasingly and inevitably encroaching upon us.

7. What is the top location on your bucket list? Why?

The top location on my bucket list has always been to return to Spain, to live in Spain, and to perform some activity that would help Spanish youth and ultimately lead to greater peace and prosperity throughout the world.

I was so delighted when I learned of the opportunity to be able to come and live in Spain and work with Spanish youth and fulfill a dream and passion that I had had all my life after I retired as a university professor of over 20 years. I thought that I was done having new experiences and learning new things. That could not have been further from the truth. To this very day, CIEE and its programming and mission have proved to me that you are never too old to learn. That you are never too old to seek adventure. And that you are never too old to be thankful for those people and organizations that have helped you along the way. 

I have had a very happy and successful life and career at the intersection of international experiences and educational opportunities. Both of which I firmly believe in and form the essence of who I am. CIEE has been with me along my entire journey and I am not done yet! I cannot guarantee you that participating at a young age in a CIEE sponsored program will lead to the kind of happiness and success I have found in my career. I can guarantee you, however, that it is a wonderful place to start if you aspire to have some of the wonderful and marvelous life experiences that I have been able to enjoy. I wish you all the very best! 

Thanks Don for sharing your experience as a CIEE TEFL student and teacher!

Want to be featured in the 'CIEE TEFL & Teach Abroad Alumni Connections' newsletter? Please complete the information on this form: CIEE TEFL & Teach Abroad Alumni Connections Form