Thoughts and Philosophies about TESOL and People
by Peter Huston
I like teaching because it helps me shape the world and work with people. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference. Although I have taught in several fields, I teach primarily English as a Second Language or Other Language. There are several aspects of teaching in this field that are unique and need to be addressed in a teaching philosophy. Other aspects, however, are universal to teaching in general.
Classroom Assessment and Management
Teaching does not happen in a vacuum, and a teacher cannot teach without students. And students, unless forced, would not seek out a teacher, unless they thought there was something that they could gain from that teacher that they could not gain from actions that they could take without using that teacher.
Teaching is not something you can just talk about or plan or study and then have it take place. It must be done and it must be done through interactions with other people.
First, you must assess needs and desires of the students, expectations of both the students and those managing or administrating the course, and then assess time alloted for the course and available classroom and external resources. A good teacher then assesses the possible way these things fit together and makes decisions concerning how he or she can best use the resources available, within the time and administrative framework that exists, to best produce a situation where the students can achieve as many of their desired goals and make as many of their needs met as possible.
At this step in the process, the teacher is like a manager or a director or even, if I can allow myself a military metaphor, a commanding officer. He or she must take the responsibility of assessing resources and setting realistic goals to produce the most benefit for those connected with the course, both administrators and students. Of course, he or she should consider consulting with others, as necessary, during this process, but ultimately the teacher must take and show responsibility during this part of the process. Students can be consulted during this part of the process, under special conditions, but usually will not be. There are several reasons why not, prominent being that course design normally takes place prior to recruitment of students.
Second, goals and expectations of the course are stated and set forth before the students as soon as possible. This should be done on the first day of the class, perhaps even earlier if realistically feasible, and in the syllabus and through lecture and as often as is possible. Students should be encouraged to seek out the teacher if they do not understand or agree with the goals of the course or feel that they do not fit them personally. When that happens the teacher should listen as dispassionately as possible and address the issue, perhaps by assigning the student extra or alternate assignments to help them meet their own needs, perhaps by referring them to an alternate class, or perhaps, in rare cases, even by modifying the course itself should it become obvious that the course will not meet the needs of the majority of students.
In some situations, quite honestly, students will have personal goals for the course that do not fit those of the teacher or administrators. For instance, many students wish to get an A or as high a grade as possible with as little work as possible and have no real concern about learning the course content. I have taught EFL as a required elective and this was the case with a sizable minority of my students. Some students do not value classes but for reasons that are generally outside the teacher's control, take them anyway. In such cases, I feel, it is especially important to make it very clear as to not only what the expectations are, but that they will be enforced. And then, if the sad event should take place that the student not meet these expectations, one must say “But you were told. Did you not understand?” and the pre-stated policies put into place. It is important in such cases that the teacher's expectations and stated goals be kept sensible, logical and non-controversial. (i.e. It is perfectly reasonable to expect class participation and attendance in a class where students are expected to develop their English through classroom practice and conversation practice in the classroom.)
If the goals and expectations are clearly stated, and the results of students' efforts to meet those goals uniformly evaluated, then it reduces not only the possibility of charges of favoritism (which has not been a problem for me at Fudan) but requests for favoritism. (By contrast, this is a constant problem at Fudan.)
Although I take no joy in causing students pain or suffering, I have failed several students for not meeting clearly stated expectations (2 out of 117 in my last semester, for instance) and punished others for cheating and acts plagiarism by lowering their grades after clearly stating I would do so. I wish to say that it is my belief that learning and personal growth often takes place through the enforcement of rules and even through failure. I say this as someone who once failed out of a high level emergency medical technician class I desperately wished to pass. It was the most effective lesson I have ever received in time management in my life and I have never forgotten it and doubt if I ever will. This failure had a very positive effect in preparing me for graduate school later.
Therefore I believe that setting and make clear the goals and expectations of a course, and then enforcing those goals and expectations is a very important part of fair and effective teaching.
Imparting Language skills
I teach primarily English as a second or other language. This is an unusual field in many ways. For instance, in ESL or TESOL what we are literally trying to do is to help a student to reprogram their own brain so they can think and respond automatically using a new language that they did not know as well as they did before the class began. The ultimate goal is that a student will some day be able to say anything they wish in English in a socially appropriate way without having to give the matter any conscious thought. Therefore, unlike in most fields where the goal is to increase retrievable, conscious knowledge, we are trying to produce results that will be achieved through ultimately using unconscious mental processes.
Although I am a stong believer in the value of science and the scientific method, I believe that in our field at the current time, the value of science is limited. In my opinion, we simply do not know enough about how the brain acquires additional languages to create a completely scientific method of teaching them. And I do, for the record, believe that a time will come when science will understand these things fully or close to fully, although I have no idea if I will live to see it. Which is not to say that science and scientific research should be ignored. If scientific research helps us understand one part of the big puzzle called human language acquisition, then this understanding should be applied when appropriate. For instance, I studied the role of language learning anxiety on classroom performance and feel such research does lend itself to classroom and curriculum design. However, that is only one small part of the puzzle of how people best learn additional languages.
In the meantime, with so much not being understood by science, we as teachers must utilize the techniques that seem to work the best to achieve the goals and results we strive for.
Fortunately we have a wealth of such resources if we know where to look for them. There is an incredible variety of techniques, drills, and other classroom activities published in books, magazines and on the internet. Of course, these are of varying quality and utility, but the material is available for a teacher to evaluate.
When evaluating these materials, or designing one's own materials, a teacher should evaluate them for their utility and “fit” for the classroom.
To evaluate the utility of materials or teaching or learning techniques, a teacher has several sorts of resources to draw upon. These include his or her training in language teaching and language acquisition. This should not be underestimated. Nor should one's personal experience in utilizing classroom drills and techniques be underestimated. Some techniques, such as the proven method of singing songs in class, for instance, just work better with some individual teachers than others.
Other sources include interviewing people who have proven themselves to be skilled at acquiring languages in real life settings. I have found, for instance, that some of the best language learners I have met have been refugees from Africa and Asia. These people often are able to communicate in multiple languages with the languages coming from multiple language families. They are often quite willing to share their tips once one has made it clear to them that you really do wish to know and want to hear what they have to say. (I once had a Karen refugee from Burma respond to this request with “Why are you asking me? You're the teacher.” I explained that I was asking him because he spoke six different languages at a conversational level. Which made him laugh and then he began sharing answers.)
I have also carefully read materials on learning languages written by military personell who needed to learn exotic languages for their assignments, but who were not trained language teachers.
Cultural and Interpersonal Factors in the Classroom
I mentioned previously that teaching English as a second or other language is a unique field in several ways. Another aspect of this uniqueness is that the instructor is supposed to instill the ability to perform an action, that action being socially appropriate English speech, in a socially appropriate manner. This requires confidence on the part of the speaker. Therefore it is the role of the teacher to help instill this confidence.
To the best of my knowledge, instilling confidence is not an issue normally addressed by teachers in fields such as history or mathematics, for instance. At times, a person who encourages students to perform actions confidently that they were previously unable to perform, an instructor of ESL or TESOL is more of a “coach” than a teacher. And we can learn from coaches and instructors of physical techniques like martial arts or dance.
For instance, although I have not done so in depth, I have encouraged students to practice visualization to improve their confidence in both public and conversational spoken English use. (This actually is a topic I hope to explore through further research in the future.) This study of visualization techniques originated in research into how emergency responders, such as firefighters and police officers, are trained to perform complex techniques under great stress.
I try to push my students to do a little more by the end of my class than they thought they were capable of at the beginning. For instance, all my speaking and writing classes at Fudan include a segment on public speaking, an area where foreign professors in other fields have told me their Chinese students lag behind their European or North American peers. At first the students are quite nervous about speaking English in front of their classmates, but, by the end of the course, after they've done it a few times, they are much more confident. Many students have told me that the public speaking was one of the best parts of my class. (Which actually touches on an unrelated side issue, a good class, especially a required class where the students don't all wish to be there, should include some beneficial activities that the students could not do outside of the classroom setting. In other words, a good class should utilize the classroom setting and the presence of a teacher and peer-students in ways so that the student can not complain that they could do the activities easier and faster on their own at home. Doubly so if attendance is required. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do in language teaching.)
On the other hand, a good teacher recognizes that students are individuals and some have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, although I expect all students to speak in front of the class, and have never had any really complain, I have been known to very quietly slide some students, those students who show signs of what may be a serious anxiety order or stuttering, ahead in the queue so that they do not have as much time to worry before their turn to speak arrives.
Similarly, we have the paradoxical need to increase a student's confidence in their English while simultaneously correcting errors and providing feedback when mistakes are done. I make no secret of the fact that I do not consider myself the smartest person in the classroom. Nor do I pretend to know every single English word. I make it quite clear that the English language is a living, growing, changing thing and that I will never have complete mastery over all of it and neither will they. Nor do I deny that there are accents and dialects of English, including English spoken as a foreign language, that I find difficult to understand. I make it clear that when Americans, native English speakers, start a course in a new subject, be that subject first aid, gardening or cooking, learning new terminology and new vocabulary is a normal part of the process. Similiarly, at Fudan we have an activity where all students must bring in an English language article from an academic journal in their field. They then use the article to practice making proper quotations and citations. I make it very clear to the students that although I have two master's degrees and read voraciously, I still cannot make heads or tails out of some of the articles they bring in. Examples of some pieces that I cannot understand might be highly technical pieces from peer reviewed research journals in the fields of management, finance, molecular biology and chemical engineering among others.
In teaching refugees, especially, one must be quite aware that just because a person has a deficit in one area does not indicate diminished intelligence elsewhere. The example that often comes to mind when I say this is a refugee woman I knew who was able to use her intelligence to manipulate much of the refugee center staff to do what she wished, but who I later discovered had no idea how to change a lightbulb in a lamp. (Due to poverty and lack of electricity in many refugee camps, many refugees do not know how to change light bulbs in lamps. Often this can easily be detected by looking at their lamps and discovering broken light bulbs stuck in the sockets. The broken glass comes from people trying to yank out the bulbs, instead of twisting and unscrewing them. When I asked this person if she could change light bulbs, she just looked at me and said, “Do I look like an electrical expert?”)
Ideally homework should be of the sort where students who do it can see that by doing the homework they are improving their ability to meet the goals and expectations of the class. I have noted a clear correlation in many cases between poor performance on the final and not doing homework. In fact, one purpose of homework is to catch students who have problems so they can be corrected before the final exam comes. For this reason, I do not allow homework that is more than two weeks late. (At Fudan, some students request to do all of their homework at the end of the course.)
Fostering Personal Growth
Although it has to be done carefully, I do think it is acceptable for a teacher to work to improve his students in ways other than direct improvement of language ability.
For instance, I think critical thinking is important, especially to students who have been through an educational or political system that discourages it. (This includes many refugees.) This can be done by giving assignments, such as debates, where more than one point of view is to be expected. Or through assignments where more than one answer to the assigned question is possible or there is no obvious answer. Again, sometimes one needs to push and clarify beforehand what is expected. For instance, I give an assignment where students are supposed to use the internet to find a newspaper article that deals with plagiarism, summarize the article in their own words, being careful not to accidentally copy sentences or phrases without quotation marks, and then give their opinion on the story discussed. I always get a few where the opinion is, more or less, “This is a good article,” and nothing more. These are the times when it's a real good idea to ask the student to see you after class, during lunch or during office hours and work one on one with them to clarify what you mean.
A goal of a good TESOL or ESL class is to increase independence of the student by enabling them to communicate better. This is definitely the goal of a course for immigrant, refugees or foreign students studying in the USA. In such cases, naturally, one should address issues where American cultural expectations and laws might cause problems for your students. However, if this involves controversial or sensitive issues, then the issue needs to be addressed quietly and in as low-key a manner as possible. Not only can students become offended over some issues, but public relations problems with the outside world can arise. (I have seen cases where Americans have accused immigrants of stereotyping their own ethnic group by stating that domestic violence is acceptable in their own culture and that people from their country need to be taught that it is not acceptable in the USA. This accusation and the backlash against it, was not only ugly but distracted from addressing the underlying problem of encouraging safe adjustment of immigrant families to American life.) Domestic violence, child abuse, age of consent, dating and courtship and driving laws are all areas where some foreign cultures have radically different norms. If you wish to aid your students with their adjustment to America, these issues need to be addressed, but they need to be addressed in a quiet, effective and tactful manner.
A good TESOL or ESL program for immigrants, refugees and foreign students should include practical advice that they might need to live in the USA .This would include their rights when dealing with landlords, police and others as well as the expectations society has for them that might be different from in their home country.
Role playing different situations can be an important part of both teaching English and providing guidance in problem-free behavior and social norms for immigrants.
For non-immigrant, ESL or TESOL classes, I think, a good class should include information on the role of English and English as a “Lingua Franca” in the world today. Although most Chinese, for instance, do vaguely know that not all foreign people speak English, they still often tend to try and speak English to foreign people when they meet them without checking. Accurate information, for instance, on how widely spoken English is in South America and Europe is often new to Chinese students of English.
With this should come information on how to do business or other tasks in foreign countries.
Whenever time allows and it is socially appropriate, a teacher should try to spend some time outside of the classroom with his students. This serves several purposes. It gives them a time to ask informal unrelated questions about anything and everything. It also gives the teacher time to better get to know his students.
When teaching, one will have problem students. At times these students can be draining and dominate one's thoughts. (At Fudan, after one has punished a student for breaking previously stated guidelines concerning plagiarism or other issues, it is not uncommon to receive several e-mails from that student begging for an exception to be made in their case. As my students at Fudan are all graduate students and 22 years of age or more, I only recall giving such an exception once. On rare cases, when I have thought that a serious cultural difference might be involved, I've asked the office secretary for her opinion. Only once did she advise me to make an exception and then I followed her advice.)
By taking the time to spend time with students who are not in trouble of any kind, you gain a much better and positive view of the students. Through knowing one's students one learns to respect them. I am often amazed at the work that students at Fudan do during their internships and such. Perhaps equally important, friendly social interaction with students helps a teacher maintain proper perspective on who the students are. And the refugees and immigrants also can teach one many things. I have found my time with students from Burma (Myanmar) particularly interesting and it has inspired me to do outside study of their culture and history.