Taking TESOL Overseas │ Caeley Griffith’s Summer in Ukraine

For Caeley Griffith, a General Biology senior at Maranatha Baptist University, her TESOL minor (Teaching English to speakers of other languages) provided a unique addition to her career outlook after college. Most General Biology majors seek jobs in the science field post-graduation. Caeley, however, now feels called to TESOL after her five-week experience in Ukraine this past summer.  

Originally, Caeley had made plans to travel to Guam over the summer to practice her English-teaching skills, but the opportunity unexpectedly closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with several other missions opportunities she had been pursuing. Nearing the end of the spring semester of her junior year, Caeley faced the reality that she wouldn’t be going overseas that summer. Then, three weeks after finals, she received a call from Josiah Knight and Jeremy Robertson, two senior Maranatha students completing internships in Ukraine. They wanted her to come and help with the foreign ministry there. Caeley saw this opportunity as a way to minister to others while also practicing her English-teaching skills, and she left two weeks later. 

A Changed Perspective

Caeley stayed in Odessa, Ukraine, and worked at Lighthouse Baptist Church, planted in 2002 by American missionary Pastor Mark Priem and his Ukrainian wife Lydia. In order to practice her TESOL skills, she taught English at the church every Saturday for three hours. Caeley admitted that she had to take time to adapt to the new experience, but she was grateful for the real-world skills she gained. “The understanding that I had of TESOL before I left was really structured,” she said. “When I got there, I realized I had to be a lot more flexible. Unlike in the US, I needed to learn how to adapt, because the PowerPoint didn’t always work, and I wasn’t always able to print things out.”  

Caeley also recalled her surprise at her students’ excitement to learn English. She taught three classes, each a different level of difficulty, and she had the same students in all of them. Even though each person was learning English for a different reason, whether to watch their favorite movie or in preparation for admittance into a university, she still found purpose in helping them advance their knowledge of the language. 

In eastern Ukraine, the population speaks mainly Russian, and Caeley found that a significant language barrier separated her from her students. Still, she didn’t let it stop her from teaching. “It’s possible to teach English without knowing the language,” she said. “You use simplified language or pictures, or you conduct some homework on your part to find the Russian word for something and check with the students that it’s correct.”  

Different Culture, Same God

Though Caeley spent time improving her English-teaching skills, she also helped extensively with other ministries at Lighthouse Baptist Church. She had the privilege of conversing with babushkas, or elderly members of the church. She helped with VBS, conducting games and lessons, and making crafts with the children. She also traveled all around eastern Ukraine with Josiah, Jeremy, and other members of Lighthouse Baptist Church, passing out tracts in every city they visited. During their travels, Caeley learned more about Ukrainian culture. She experienced first-hand that people often squeezed into trains and trolleys with little regard to personal space, and she quickly developed a habit of looking out for trams, whose tracks ran right next to city sidewalks.  

In addition, Caeley also connected with missionaries from around the world. Her team passed out Christian literature to missionaries in Kiev, a city in eastern Ukraine. She met a Nigerian missionary and prospective missionaries to Ukraine. Perhaps the most influential missionary Caeley worked with was Sara Sager, an American missionary to Russia who had moved to Odessa. “She was a great person to learn how to deal with people,” Caeley said. “She’s good at adapting in classroom situations.” Sara also taught Caeley about Ukrainian customs and practices that helped her adapt to her new environment.   

Even as Caeley grew accustomed to Ukrainian culture, another aspect of her trip that surprised her was her busy schedule. “We’d be doing translations on Tuesdays and running around every other day of the week,” she commented. The days were long, and sometimes Caeley wouldn’t get back until eleven o’clock at night, only to get up early the next morning to face the same routine. The rigorous schedule helped Caeley realize how important—as well as how busy—a missionary’s life can be in the midst of an active ministry. “There are a lot of moving pieces,” Caeley said. “Pastor Priem definitely made sacrifices.” 

Through her busy schedule and her new relationships, Caeley learned that no language or cultural barrier ultimately kept her from praising God with her friends and co-workers. One specific instance Caeley recalled happened one evening when about twenty members of her new church family and friends squeezed inside one of the deacons’ apartments. Someone started to play the piano, and they began to sing hymns. “We were singing in both English and Russian, so it was really encouraging to see that even though we spoke different languages, we were still worshiping the same God,” Caeley said.  

Long after she had flown home from Ukraine, Caeley has still remembered these moments with joy, and they have greatly influenced what she now knows as God’s calling for her life. After she graduates from Maranatha, she plans to find a job teaching English as a second language, either in the United States or overseas. “After this trip, I realized TESOL isn’t really something I can live without anymore,” she said. “I don’t think it’s just going to be a career, but an opportunity God has given me to minister.”