Southeast Student Parlays Spanish Teaching Experience into Newfound TESOL Career


Southeast Missouri State University graduate student Tracy Retherford worked for more than 20 years as a Spanish teacher in the southeast Missouri region before making the decision to return to academia for a graduate degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

“As a bilingual speaker, I knew the tremendous need for Spanish-speaking teachers, and I wanted to serve others in this way,” said Retherford, of Jackson, Missouri. “The field of TESOL provided continuity as I transitioned from one form of language acquisition education to another. The field provides career opportunities beyond my current career setting as a public school teacher.”

She was inspired to continue her education in the TESOL field after having previously taught Spanish at Cape Girardeau Junior High, Central Academy, in the Oran and Advance school districts, and at Clippard Elementary where she currently teaches.

“I knew I wanted to extend myself onto a new life path that would reach a different destination while still using what I already knew,” she said. “The field of TESOL is a growing career, and I would encourage others to follow it. There is an outstanding need for bilingual educators, and our growing English language learner (ELL) population in our U.S. schools really reinforces the future of ELL teachers.”

Tracy presents her graduate thesis about gamification in education at the 2019 Southeast Student Research Conference.

TESOL is a branch of education that specializes in the acquisition of English language understanding and speaking ability by non-native English speakers. Educators who are trained in TESOL are trained to work with students from preschool through high school, adult education programs, colleges and universities, and immigrants and refugees. TESOL educators are integral in breaking communication barriers and creating a greater sense of cultural awareness by using their abilities to interpret for families and informing other educators about culturally responsive practices.

Retherford began her career at Southeast nearly 30 years ago when she earned a Bachelor of Science in Education, Spanish education, with a minor in English. While some may have considered her to be nearing the end of her teaching career and looking towards retirement, Retherford instead chose to follow her passion and pursue a graduate degree.

“I was beginning a whole new path to diversify my career and continue teaching,” she said. “At first, the lifestyle change was intimidating, but Southeast made the transition a smooth one and the support available made my fears quickly disappear.”

Retherford is quick to point out the many challenges she faced while returning to school to to pursue a graduate degree, including having a full-time job, raising two children, and having limited time for taking classes and meeting with instructors. She was able to overcome these limitations, she says, by studying while she waited in her car for her children to finish their school day and sports practices. She also credits her husband with being a major source of support, and the relationships she built with other students she met on campus. She mentions Dr. Irina Ustinova as a primary source of encouragement at Southeast.

“Dr. Ustinova has been a constant support as my advisor. She has pushed me to defy my own boundaries and discover new accomplishments,” Retherford said. “I regard her as more than a professor and advisor, and she has told me that she considers me as a colleague in the field of TESOL.”

After graduating, Retherford says she plans to continue working with ELL students at Clippard Elementary School in Cape Girardeau.

President Carlos Vargas and Tracy.

“I am amazed each day that I get to work with these 50 wonderful students and their families. I would like to eventually work within diverse levels of the TESOL educational field, such as at the university level.”

Her decision to attend Southeast was influenced by the faculty who welcomed her and made her feel a part of the campus, she said.

“The uncommon characteristics that make Southeast different are (Southeast President) Dr. Vargas and his equitable inclusion of all people by asking for input from students and actually listening to what they have to say,” she said. “Another distinctive part of Southeast is the family dynamic. When I chose to enroll at Southeast, I not only became a student, but I was welcomed as a meaningful member of the Southeast family. That family culture is what distinguishes Southeast as the best!”