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Teaching English at the United Nations

Mary Regan is an Instructor in the English Language Programme at UN Headquarters, which is administered by the UN's Office of Human Resources Management/Department of Management. Here she describes the challenges and rewards of being an English Language Instructor at the UN:

Teaching English at the United Nations is, in a word, fantastic. Because of the students. Because of the ambience in the classroom. Because I learn so much about different countries and different cultures. And because of the laughs. There are a lot of those.


Mary Regan, standing at left, teaching minutes writing
for the Local Committees on Contracts in Brindisi.
Photo: Alexander Saenko

I remember when I first learned about the UN English Language Programme. A fellow teacher at City College told me that the United Nations had a job opening in their English Language Programme. I had to pass an arduous competitive exam four years later, sit before an HR and language-expert panel and do another demonstration class to get a full-time position. But it was all worth it because, as I had predicted, this has been a dream job. The professional rewards are great, as are the challenges.

Because English is one of the working languages at the UN and the main one used at Headquarters, there is a great demand for our services, especially at the more advanced levels. And the stakes are fairly high for the students. They need to perform in English - to write letters, memos, reports, code cables and e-mail; to give oral presentations; and to represent their countries, offices or agencies at meetings. So the English teachers regularly create new courses to serve our clients, such as Oral Presentation Skills, Writing to Inform and Present, Writing for the Web and Summary Writing.

Departments can also request courses tailored to their needs, what we call “department-specific courses”. We work with a training focal point from the requesting department and design a curriculum and materials to suit their objectives. So there is literally never a dull moment.

In the past couple of years, I have developed and delivered department-specific writing courses for DPKO, DFS, DESA, DPA and the Headquarters Committee on Contracts. I have also had the opportunity to travel to Vienna and to Brindisi to deliver courses there. These courses are extremely challenging to design, because the participants are writing at a very high level and generally do not need much help with English, per se, but with the higher-level aspects of writing: the content, the organization, the tone and style. So I have to learn - about economics, about the political and social situation in countries with peace-keeping Missions, about procurement, about Mission recruitment procedures and about countless other topics.

I confess that I have sometimes felt frustrated by my lack of expertise in the content areas, and by the amount of work I have to do to surmount this challenge. But the rewards have been immense. Now I can talk with some authority about how a DPKO code cable should be structured and what should be included in a set of minutes for the Headquarters Committee on Contracts. I have had the opportunity to work with people from all parts of the UN and to develop an understanding about how this Organization works. And I see the role the Language Programme plays, and the contribution we make to the goals of the United Nations.

But by far the best part of the job is the students. They are great. They are open, attentive and engaged and they learn as much from each other as from the classroom materials. On rainy Mondays when I don’t feel like getting out of bed, I’ll remember that I get to see my Summary Writing or my Level 8 students and then I’ll get excited about the lesson we are working on. It’s not just that the students depend on me and that I want to match their dedication. It is actually fun and uplifting to be in the classroom. The students also get re-energized when they come to class. It’s a welcome break in their work day.

For me, the classroom is the best antidote to the challenges that life presents. I have yet to experience the “burn-out” that I have heard teachers in other institutions complain of. I have my students and my colleagues to thank for that. I wouldn’t trade this job for any other in the world.