Are you new to teaching ESL? Are you starting out in your first classroom or a new school? Are you worried that you aren’t giving your students everything they need in the way of language instruction? Are you haunted by the fear that you may have made a mistake in taking this job or choosing this career?
I’m here to tell you that your worries are perfectly normal.
Teaching ESL isn’t like teaching algebra or geometry. ESL teachers (and students) face challenges that are unique to the second language classroom – challenges like cultural conflicts, translating instinct into instruction, or communication barriers that are nearly impossible to overcome. Add to that ESL teachers are often teaching overseas, in a culture not their own, with their closest supports a world away (or at least several time zones). It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to doubt. As long as you don’t let those fears stop you. What I’ve learned in my years teaching is experience makes a lot of those fears distant or nonexistent. Here are some things that I have learned through experience that I’d like to share with you.
Words of Encouragement for ESL Teachers
Understanding Instinct Versus Instruction"I could tell students if what they said or wrote was right or wrong, but too often I couldn’t tell them why!"
My first job working with ESL students was in a tutoring lab at a university language center. It was a great program where one-on-one tutoring was built into every student’s schedule and tuition. Four afternoons each week I met with students in a large room filled with tables, resources, and other tutoring matchups. Though I had a background in linguistics and writing, I found out just how little I knew about the English language when my students started asking questions. Actually, let me rephrase that. I learned how little I knew how to explain about the English language. Because English is my first language, I could tell students if what they said or wrote was right or wrong, but too often I couldn’t tell them why! Though I could use grammar very well, I didn’t know how to break it down into rules and patterns.
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?
One of my greatest resources during these first weeks and months of teaching were my fellow tutors. Many of them had been working in the tutoring center for years, and they were well versed when it came to the whats and the whys of the English language. At first, I was timid about asking them questions about grammar. Wasn’t I supposed to know this stuff already? But I asked anyway, feeling that my students deserved complete and practical answers to their questions even if I wasn’t the one giving them. I learned something important though these conversations. My fellow tutors (and teachers) were the best resource I had when it came to understanding my own language. They didn’t mind answering my questions, and they could point me to resources in the tutoring center that would further explain their answers. I learned so much practical instruction from them that it rivaled what I was learning in my master’s program.
I write this to say that you have resources, too. You may not teach in a tutoring center like I did, but many of you have fellow teachers at your school who can help you through the early days of language instruction struggle. Some of you may feel alone, the only English speaker at an overseas school. You’re not. Many websites offer chat rooms and boards to help and encourage new ESL teachers. Use them. You’ll learn as much from fellow teachers as you did from all the books in your teaching program!
I’d like to say every one of my questions was easily answered by my fellow teachers, but that wasn’t the case. Though they shared infinite knowledge with me, sometimes I or my students came up with a question that none of us could readily answer. During those moments, I learned something else. It’s okay to tell a student you don’t know the answer but that you will find it and get back to him or her. Teachers are the ones with all the answers, true? False. Even the best teachers cannot answer every question every student will ever ask, but the answers are out there. Sometimes it takes some digging or some research or some serious thought about why we do what we do when we speak. When you encounter a situation like this, be honest. Tell your student that you don’t have the answer right now, but don’t stop there. Look it up. Find out the answer. Then get back to your student with the right answer. Like a child whose parent says, “Because I said so,” your students will not be satisfied with a pat answer void of information. Taking time to dig up the meat of the answer will be more valuable to your students and will garner you more respect in the long run, so do it. You won’t lose face by saying you have to check on that before you can answer their question.
Blessed Are the Flexible…
It may not be an official proverb, but this saying helped me more on my first trip overseas than any other snippet of training I had received up until that point: blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape. My ESL teaching career has been nothing if not unpredictable. My first overseas teaching assignment was one of the biggest surprises in my life. I found out just days before travelling to the other side of the world to teach that I would not be teaching grades 7-12 as I had been told but ages 7-12. Big difference! Needless to say my first classroom brought new challenges to me every day. At that time, I reminded myself that flexibility is one of the greatest virtues of the ESL teacher. My classroom struggles often centered around the difference between teaching children and adolescents, but flexibility is a trait that all ESL teachers should seek to develop in themselves.
When you are teaching ESL, you are teaching people from other cultures, other areas of the world. There is no shortage of cultural issues that come up in the ESL classroom. Sometimes they are simple to get past – don’t point with your middle finger, I have told many a student. Point with your first finger instead. Other cultural issues that touch on deep personal values are not as easy to clarify or resolve. And if you are teaching a class full of internationals, you have even more opportunities for cultures to clash. Be flexible. It’s okay to put aside your lesson plan for the day to address cultural issues when you need to. In fact, being flexible about schedule, lesson plans, and activities will do nothing but help you as an ESL teacher. The sooner you learn that, the easier a time you will have.
You Can Do It"Sometimes the best thing you can do for your ESL students is to close the lesson planner and just take the day and its questions as they come.
It’s also okay to put aside your advanced lesson to reteach the basics that your students should already know but don’t. It’s okay to take your students out of the classroom on a beautiful day and do some on the spot vocabulary development. It’s okay to change things up, be creative, play games, and have fun. You have to. Language learning is stressful, and your students will be looking to you for comfort, guidance, and direction. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your ESL students is to close the lesson planner and just take the day and its questions as they come.
Teaching ESL can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to it. Take heart. We have all struggled. You are not the only one. And you will make it over these hurdles just like the rest of us did. Be flexible, be teachable, and be honest with your students and with yourself. When you do, you will find that things become easier each day, each week, each year. Before long, you’ll be the one sharing your bits of wisdom with the new teachers in your school!
What words of wisdom would you share from your ESL teaching experience?