Throughout the years that I have been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), I have kept a reflective journal on all kinds of issues related to methodology, curriculum design, and teaching objectives. In the following paragraphs, I reveal some of my “internal responses” to the teaching journey.
THE ESL TEACHER’S UNIQUE CHALLENGE: BRIDGING STUDENTS’ CULTURAL DIVIDE
Language teaching, like all other teaching initiatives, is effective only when the learner’s identity is gradually transformed. Throughout an individual’s efforts to learn the phonemes, morphemes, and syntactical structures that distinguish his or her native language from a particular target language, he soon begins to appreciate and understand the cultural cues to which native speakers of the new language normally respond. Within all language learners, therefore, bridges for cross-cultural communication are continually being established as they become more and more capable of “comparing” their native language with the newly acquired one.
This intense process of “cross-cultural exchange” takes on even greater proportions in the second language classroom, where one individual joins as many as twenty-five other individuals on such a “meta-linguistic/meta-cultural” voyage. As the facilitator of this multilingual/multicultural event, the ESL teacher must therefore create a class atmosphere that readily permits his students to find comfort in their diversity while they strive at the same time to make English a part of their lives. Since the contours of each class’s profile are shaped by the unique qualities of its individual members, the individual plays a very important role within the dynamics of the group. Nevertheless, because it is the creative potential of the class as a collective whole that brings the teacher’s lessons to life, the teacher must first assess his students’ common needs and then address those needs when developing his teaching strategies. In fact, it is through his direct response to his students’ immediate and long-term goals that a teacher can foster his students’ mutual cooperation, a condition that naturally breeds success in the learning situation.
CURRICULUM AND METHODOLOGY
The special character of the class unit should therefore determine what methods a teacher decides to use and what curricula he will ultimately design. Rather than subscribe to a specific pedagogy, a teacher must remain flexible and should select or create the method that works best for the particular class in question. In addition, he must inject substance into his lessons by designing a curriculum that interests the students and challenges them at the same time.
To be sure, discovering what engages one’s students is not as easy a task as one may imagine. However, because pleasing everyone is not always possible even in the best of all possible worlds, the fear of displeasing his students should not be so strong as to cause a teacher to eliminate lessons from his curriculum that he believes will be beneficial to his students in the long run. An experienced teacher knows how to pique his students’ curiosity and spark their enthusiasm in regard to subjects that they may heretofore have considered to be “boring,” and he should not lose confidence in his ultimate authority as an educator.
THAT UGLY WORD: GRAMMAR
As students become fully conversant with particular issues and develop their vocabulary considerably, they also become motivated to come to terms with the rudiments of grammar. That many students have studied English grammar for years without having learned it can probably be attributed to the fact that they were taught grammar as a “topic” unto itself rather than as the “tool” that brings the lexicon to life through speaking and writing. A grammar lesson, therefore, cannot be presented in a vacuum, but must be given within a meaningful context if it is to be an effective one. Moreover, its success will be guaranteed only if the teacher has created a listening, speaking, reading, or writing activity that motivates his students into “realizing” on their own their need to learn the particular grammar point!
THE ESL TEACHER AS DIRECTOR OF A LIFE-CHANGING PROCESS
As important as the give-and-take is between teacher and student, the teacher is without a doubt the director of the learning process. If, at the beginning of the semester, his students have not already perceived the significance of their common bond, the teacher needs to make them aware of the fact that they are all working together toward a common goal, that of learning English and using it masterfully within the American context. Let this truth ring loud and clear: The objective of second language teaching is to have students learn to understand the new culture in order to be able to function successfully within its bounds. No matter what their reasons for coming to their new country, all second language students must learn to use their new language properly within the context of their daily activities. Consequently, the second language teacher is responsible for helping his students do battle with the various linguistic, social, and cultural inhibitors that can become obstacles to them as they create a new life for themselves. The province of the ESL teacher therefore goes beyond the confines of the classroom into the less structured and more chaotic arena of the real world outside its walls.
CULTIVATING THE SPIRIT OF AN EMPOWERED LEARNER
Through his professional expertise, the teacher sets goals for his students and tries to give them a realistic assessment of what they can be expected to achieve within a given period of time. However, it is important to remember that as partners in this language-learning effort, both the teacher and his students need to remain humble before the magnitude of this great adventure. The teacher needs to make sure his students understand that what they learn in class, although important, only prepares them for the additional and infinitely more demanding work they must do “out there” on their own in the “greater language laboratory” of the real world. At every step of the learning process, he should consider repeating the following mantra gently but firmly to his students: “If you do not conscientiously attempt to make English an integral part of your lives, by taking risks in the language and using it in social contexts, whatever you will have learned during your formal classroom hours with me will lose significance.” Apparently, because no teacher, no matter what his area of expertise, can teach his students everything, a teacher’s primary goal is not necessarily to impart knowledge, but to teach methodology. Without a doubt, guiding his students into becoming their own best language teachers should therefore be the ESL teacher’s principal concern.
Thus, in his efforts to cultivate the empowerment of the learner, the ESL teacher becomes a resource person, an expert who not only shows his students how to continually improve their language skills, but who also provides them with links to various other resources in the community and the academic world. Under the teacher’s guidance, students become aware of the initiatives they can take on their own so that one day they will be able to understand the nuances of their new culture and thereby “speak” the language effortlessly and fluently. Indeed, the learning process reaches its just culmination once students understand that it is up to them to “take the bull by the horns” if they want to go beyond the scope of the formal classroom setting and transform their identity into that of competent writers and speakers of English.