Archive for Tag: teaching profession

Monday, October 4, 2010

Is the Customer Always Right?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“We aren’t happy with our new English teacher.” This was the emphatic opinion of several of my friends who study at the same institute where I teach English. After listening to a few minutes of venting, I suggested they speak with the teacher about their concerns. They felt they couldn’t do that, so my second suggestion was that they meet with the director of the program. They did complain to the director, who spoke to the teacher, who then felt undermined and insecure for the rest of the semester.

This experience is a consequence of the student/customer divide. As teachers, we often think of the people our classes as students. We are the experts, and our teaching is informed by current and past methodologies, our own experience as language learners, and our cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Increasingly, however, in the minds of our administrators and, often, of the students themselves, they are customers. They have paid money to be in the class, and they have certain expectations about what they will learn and how they will be taught.

Not Always!

Yes, to some degree my students are customers. I work hard to meet their needs and expectations. However, ultimately, I am the teacher, and I make decisions that they may not agree with, but I believe are for the best. For instance, several years ago, when I was a much less confident instructor, I taught an Advanced Grammar class. On the first day, I had planned for the class to do an ice breaker, a survey activity. After I had demonstrated it, one student raised her hand and said that she thought they should not be wasting time with this activity. They were all adults and they wanted to learn grammar not make friends. I reacted by snatching up all the cards, my cheeks burning, and moving on abruptly to another activity. In retrospect, I realize that I should have described the benefits of lowering the affective filter at the beginning of the term and explained that in the class we would be doing a lot of pair work, so this was a necessary activity. From this experience, I learned that if I believe an activity is valuable, I need to explain its benefits to my students so that they know we are not just wasting time.

But, Sometimes!

However, I also think it is important for teachers to remain open to student suggestions. Although I am the expert, I also believe students have legitimate ideas about how they want to be taught. For instance, several years ago (around the same time as the previous example, actually) I was teaching a Conversation class. We were learning idioms and listening to a dialogue from the text. I was about to move on to the next lesson, when a student raised her hand and suggested that the class read the dialogue with a partner before moving on. My reaction was the same as before; with burning cheeks I agreed. (I don’t know why I felt so challenged.) Unlike the previous example, however, this was the right thing to do. As soon as I saw how engaged the students were as they read their dialogues, I realized that sometimes students do really know best.

Evaluations

One way to gauge whether or not your students are satisfied customers is by giving them a chance to anonymously evaluate you. In fact, this is a built-in aspect to end-of-semester activities in many programs. However, I have long felt that if you wait until the end of the semester to find out how your students feel, it is too late to do anything about it. I do not believe that teachers always know if they are teaching well. In my experience, some of the classes that I felt the most positive about gave me the lowest of my evaluations. So rather than be surprised at the end of the year, I give students the chance to voice their opinions several weeks in. If a student complains about something, I will either adjust what I am doing or explain to them why I won’t. For example, when I taught a TOEFL Prep class a few years ago, I would occasionally get requests for less homework. I explained to the class that they could always choose not to do all the homework, but, as they were preparing for a rigorous exam, this was what I felt was necessary to ensure their success.

So, are your classes made up of students or customers? Maybe, like me, you try to strike a balance between the two. I would love to hear your experiences. I would also love to hear interesting ideas for conducting class evaluations. I tend to rely on the anonymous questionnaire, but I would love to spice things up a little.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can You Be a Good Language Teacher if You’re Not Fluent?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Years ago, at one of the annual JALT (Japan Association of Language Teacher) Conventions, I attended a special session where a panel of experts fielded questions from the audience. One question that was asked was, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English, or a mediocre teacher whose English is excellent?

It’s a good question, I think, and I certainly have my own answer (the former!). Often this question comes up in non-English speaking countries when fully qualified local teachers feel pushed out by unqualified native speakers.

However, it’s often not the question that schools or administrators have. Instead, the question might be, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English… or not to have an English teacher at all? That’s a question that both influences the existence of English programs (and often that question gets settled by demand) and the self-confidence of teachers.

But I’m Not Fluent

I have personal experience with this, having taught—for years—a language I am not fluent in. I returned from a few years in Japan to take an ESL job at state university in the US. I was called in to see the Chair of the Foreign Languages Department about a week before classes started, and he asked me if I would teach the Japanese 101 class. Of course, the first thing I said was that I’m not fluent in Japanese. “But you were just living there,” he said. (Oh! Again the embarrassment of not having learned more! Does that ever really leave the non-fluent non-native speaker?) Rather than haul out my justifications and explanations, I just shrugged. My level was my level, and it wasn’t going to increase before Monday.

Do You Know Enough to Teach This Level?

He sat there for a moment, and then pulled out the textbook. “Do you know this much?” he asked. I thumbed through the pages for several minutes. Well… yes, actually, I did indeed know that much. In fact, I knew it quite well, because the Japanese that I had learned I had used over and over and over again, so it was solid. I couldn’t discuss the future of the United Nations, but by gosh, I had confidence in my ability to identify stationery items, report on the existence and ages of my siblings, and announce my job title and plans for the weekend.

What it boiled down to was this. He had a fully enrolled section of Japanese 101, and the native speaker teacher scheduled to take the class had just quit. Furthermore, some of the students in the class were seniors who had taken the class the year before and failed it—this was, therefore, their only chance to remove a failing grade from their transcript. And the choices for teachers seemed to be me… or no one. I said yes.

Be Clear About Your Language Level and Abilities

On the first day of class, after going over the usual information in the syllabus—name of textbook, office hours, grading policies—I told the students exactly how much Japanese I knew and how much I didn’t. Most of them, actually, looked quite uninterested; as long as I could teach this class, they didn’t really care about my nationality or non-native speaker status or inability to teach higher-level courses. Some students, though, did look a bit taken aback. So I put it to them exactly as it had been put to me: Their choice was me as a teacher, or no Japanese class. I also assured them that I was an experienced, competent foreign language teacher. I pointed out when the last day to switch classes was, and suggested that they give the class a chance, because they were certainly free to leave if it did not meet their expectations.

No students quit (although a few more added), and at the end of the semester, it was the students who asked me to teach the following semester; and then to teach the second year. I taught the first two years then for the entire time I stayed at that university.

It would be nice to report that while I was teaching the class, I also improved my own level of Japanese through intensive study. But that didn’t happen. I had my ESL classes, I had a young child, I was working on a Ph.D. Life stuff. I think that’s pretty common—while a teacher is in the midst of a full-time teaching job, it’s not so easy to find the time to work on his or her own education at the same time.

Get Support When You Need It

I compensated for my shortcomings where I could. I invited Japanese students in to help with pronunciation. However, I made it clear that these students were my assistants, not my replacements. They had the sounds, but I had the teaching techniques, and I let the class see me setting up the exercises and activities so they knew what role I was playing. When I designed worksheets that were, well, at the edges of my ability, I made sure a native Japanese speaker proofread them for me, so that I was not passing out anything that contained errors. If I couldn’t find a Japanese student on campus, I emailed a friend overseas. And so on.

It’s far worse, I think, to pretend you can’t make any mistakes than to be very clear with both yourself and your class what your abilities are. Students, after all, should be able to respect a non-fluent language learner, since they themselves are non-fluent language learners. But no one respects people who pretend to a skill they don’t have.

Results Build Confidence

The biggest challenge was to my confidence. Even knowing that I was the only choice, I felt sometimes as if I had no right to be in that classroom. I wasn’t fluent! I couldn’t always answer questions outside the textbook (although I knew how to find the answers). What got me back on track when I felt that way was looking at my students. When they entered my class, they knew no Japanese. When they left, they knew some. (Several went on to spend their junior year in Japan, and came back knowing more than I do!) The classes worked because I was a teacher, not because I was (or wasn’t) fluent in Japanese.

Just to be clear—I am not suggesting that an imperfect knowledge of the language is somehow better than a fluent knowledge of the language. Of course not. What I am saying is that fluency is not always necessary to teach a language. You need to know the level you propose to teach, and, to be comfortable, a decent bit above that level. You need to be a good transmitter of information and skills and strategies and enthusiasm and purpose. You need to be honest about what you can and cannot offer.

I do a lot of teacher training these days in other countries, and I sometimes encounter teachers who want to apologize for not being perfect in English. Our first conversations, therefore, are often not about English or even teaching, but about confidence and purpose. If there are non-fluent teachers reading this post, I want to say to you: Look hard at yourself and figure out what you can do; and then be proud of what you do.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Life Cycle of a Teacher

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Do you remember those “The Life Cycle of the Frog” pictures we often had to study in science when we were kids? You know, “the egg to tadpole to tadpole-with-legs to frog” graph? Well, wouldn’t it be handy for ESL educators to study a graph that shows the life cycle of teachers? Tessa Woodward thinks so. I was fortunate enough to watch her presentation, The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers, at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) 2010 Conference in Harrogate, England in April, and her comments really resonated with me. Basically, she distilled several researchers’ observations about trends associated with years of teaching experience into an hour-long lecture which made me think about what I expect professionally from myself and what supervisors can reasonable expect from their teachers.

The “Novice to Committed to Activist to Authority to Disengaged” Graph

According to Woodward, who was citing Huberman (1989), there are usually 5 basic stages of a teacher’s professional life cycle. Obviously, the time line varies from person to person and upon reaching one’s third year of teaching there is not a dramatic shift from stage 1 to stage 2, just as a tadpole’s new legs don’t just pop out on the Monday of their fifth week of life. These are merely the trends Huberman observed.

  1. 1-3 years: The novice teacher is usually overwhelmed and overloaded and struggles just to survive. On the plus side, this is a stage of great discovery for teachers. In this picture of the chart, I imagine myself sitting up in bed at midnight and cutting out an endless supply of flash cards.
  2. 4 – 6 years: This teacher has entered a period of stabilization in which they make a commitment to teaching (as opposed to “teaching so I can travel abroad”). In this portion of the graph, I imagine myself considering my MEd options and pulling from a box of my favorite, “go-to” flashcards.
  3. 7 – 18 years: In this stage, teachers do what Woodward refers to as “pedagogic tinkering.” This is a period of experimentation and activism; however, teachers at this stage are also at risk of burning out. I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching, so I don’t have to be too imaginative. I see myself branching out to learn new teaching skills and excited about motivating other teachers to be involved in professional development.
  4. 19 – 30 years: This teacher has entered a time of serenity (the promise of this ought to keep many of us going!) and authority. This teacher makes an excellent mentor; however, may tend toward a conservative rejection of innovation. I imagine myself at this stage in kind of a serene yoga pose and being more confident in the class and with other teachers.
  5. 31 – 40 years: At this stage, teachers are becoming disengaged from the profession. This can take a positive form of acceptance and an adventurous (“nothing to lose”) approach to new methodological trends. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this teacher might be disenchanted or already mentally retired. At this stage, I imagine (optimistically, maybe) I am motivated by the enthusiasm of my less-experienced colleagues and still interested in how research can inform my teaching.

Where are you?

Where are you in “The Life Cycle of a Teacher” graph? Are you the overwhelmed novice still spending hours creating materials? If so, take heart! If you commit to this profession, you will develop a rudimentary repertoire of teaching routines in just a few years. All the time you are investing now will pay off! If you are in the twilight stages of the life cycle, your less-experienced colleagues may benefit from your knowledge. Consider being a mentor and/or sharing some of your materials.

Where are your Teachers?

However, although this graph is useful for teachers, in my opinion, it is even more useful for administrators. If you look at your staff, do you see as much grey as brown or blonde? Having a balance of more-experienced and less-experienced teachers can benefit your entire program, especially if you have a mentoring system in place. Coupling experience with exposure to new trends in education can help all teachers to grow and stay positive.

Huberman, M. (1989) The professional life cycle of teachers, Teachers College Record, 91(1).
Woodward, T. (2010) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers, paper presented at IATEFL 2010, Harrogate, UK.