Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) can either be a chosen or a fortuitous career. For many, TESL has been a chosen profession planned since before entering college, to finishing courses leading to a baccalaureate degree in TESL or its related degree in education until landing a TESL job. For some, TESL is a result of their serendipitous discovery in quest of their calling, a case of this writer, a second language speaker of English (L2), or the so-called “non-native” speaker of English (which is commonly interchanged with the ambiguous “non-native English speaker”).
Below is my personal account of the challenges I have met as an ESL teacher, coming from a different perspective. Some teachers of similar experience may find this article meaningful. Any positive implication elicited from reading this brief memoir is sufficient for me to say, “mission accomplished”.
I was introduced into TESL profession through what I call the “backdoor”, when a group of Koreans in a graduate school in the Philippines approached me to teach them English conversation to supplement their English grammar courses for Michigan Test sometime in 1999. I told them that I didn’t have any formal training in TESL or its related field, and that my degree was purely in the area of theological education, particularly Biblical Studies (Old Testament emphasis). These Koreans assured and gave me confidence that I had the skills and proficiency in teaching a language, even ESL, since some of them had seen me teach a Biblical Hebrew class (when I was temporarily requested by our professor to teach a group of masters and doctoral seminary students while he was on vacation in the USA for several weeks).
Consequently, I took the challenge. Sweat dripped from my scalp when I found out that TESL is different from teaching Biblical languages. While teaching biblical languages is confined to grammar, vocabulary, syntax, reading, exegesis, translation and interpretation, ESL seems to be more student-centered in developing language skills. I thought the ordeal was just for a few days. More sweat rolled down my younger baby face then when more Korean parents introduced their children to me. Oh, my! My limits were tested, as these Korean kids didn’t know ABC. I was forced to use common sense in catering to the needs of these young learners, groping into darkness in search for appropriate strategies and activities suited for their learning styles and needs. (Teaching graduate students seemed easier, though, because I could easily identify myself with them). There was no translator, so I was forced to use a Korean-English-English-Korean dictionary, photos, gestures, games, and other visual aids. They easily learned if I used their “Hangul” (the Korean alphabetic writing system) and its transliteration into English alphabet when they asked how to pronounce words. Some kind of bibliographic and experimental research was needed for me to grasp some basics of TESL. I learned to adapt to the level of these kids in a short period of time. Tens and hundreds of students came until I couldn’t accommodate all of them to my schedule, as some of them wanted to study as early as 5:00 A.M. and as late as 11:00 P.M. These Korean students studied like machine. They were killing me. It was fun, though, because they became my friends. And the joy of teaching continued into weeks, months, and six years as more demand arose to teach several levels of students from kindergarten to adults. It was funny that they wanted American accent, yet most of them couldn’t follow exactly its pronunciation after a period of study.
Another challenge came when I received a call from a group of Chinese evaluators to teach ESL at a language school in China for a year from 2005 to 2006. No longer on proficiency and experience (since I got the job through them), challenges were on teaching Chinese students from kindergarten to university levels in a Chinese way. What on earth was their style? My boss would just wake me up anytime without advanced notice and preparation and take me for demos to any schools around. There was no lesson plan required. Any books pulled from anywhere would do, and it’s the teacher’s job to adjust his/her teaching style to the student’s learning level and styles. I told my boss that I didn’t need those books, since they didn’t fit the students’ level. I would rather make my own plans and curriculum.
I soon discovered that the boss was marketing me to these schools so she could make a teaching contract with them. I was often scrutinized by a big crowd of students, teachers and administrators, as if a foreign ESL teacher was an expert in applied linguistics. They threw unexpectedly very hard questions ranging from phonetics (including Chinese ‘Pinyin’), proficiency, teaching methodology and strategies, classroom management, and cultural backgrounds, which were beyond my understanding and ability. I felt I was placed in a fighting arena with these Chinese gladiators. I had no choice but to “dance” with them to meet their expectation, using my common sense, or else my boss wouldn’t make a contract with those schools. After the question-and-answer portion, the interactive audience seemingly turned into a throng of political campaigners and voters with their loud shout, whistles and applause. The whole amphitheater was abuzz. I had never been in my life that I felt like I was running for president, because of the accolade they granted. Surely, my boss signed a contract with them. And that was not the first time. Soon, I came to know that in China, schools from kindergarten to university hire ESL teachers from language schools.
Every Saturday night, foreign teachers of different language schools would go to a park to participate in an informal program called “English Corner”. Students of all ages from different schools would gather around and ask varied questions, such as “What is your favorite color?” “What Chinese food do you like?” “Are you married?” “How do you like Chinese girls?” “How can we speak fluently like an American?” As with other foreigners, I had to respond favorably, or they would say “your accent is bad” and I would lose the gathering students. They often asked me the written phonetic symbols and enunciation of some words.
It’s funny that Chinese wanted spoken American English, while most of their books were written in British. So, I had to modify some written symbols to represent and produce the American sounds. As young as kindergarten kids, Chinese students are well-versed in Pinyin (a system for transliterating Chinese ideograms into the Roman alphabet) and many of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols to produce the Chinese sounds. Like Koreans, Chinese are meticulous in phonetics. (To be continued...)