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Why I teach ESL

This semester, I'm taking a seminar on teacher education. The readings and discussions have prompted me to reevaluate my motivations for teaching English as a second language. I have found it useful to answer the question, "Why do you teach?" because students have come up to me and asked. This question has caught me off guard as I didn't expect them to ask me this question as I met them in the hall. I believe that I didn't give them the best answer I could, so I disappointed myself. Perhaps that disappointed them.

So, why do I teach ESL? Or better, why do I choose to remain an ESL instructor? I can answer these questions in a few categories.

Intellectually Stimulating

I like having my worldview challenged. Living and working in another culture have certainly challenged my American worldview. After living in three different countries for nearly a decade total, I can safely say that my worldview is not the same as it was before I started teaching English.

Of course being immersed in a new culture is intellectually stimulating, but what about teaching? Part of teaching English is finding the connection between the teacher's background knowledge and the students' background knowledge. I love the challenge of discovering the gaps in my knowledge that cannot meet the needs of the student. When I discover these gaps, then I spend a good deal of time learning what I need to meet his or her needs. Sometimes this directly conflicts with my teaching approach or philosophy. That's when I have to make the crucial decision of who needs to change? When I teach overseas, it's usually me who has to change during the first year. When I teach in the US, it's usually the student, but that doesn't mean I refuse to change.

Teaching in the United States to a culturally diverse class can be more challenging. The unifying factor is that we are in an American classroom, so I have to find techniques to bring students into a more American frame of mind. Some students do it willingly and others do not. This is not brainwashing as I do not force my students to believe that the American way is the best way. However I have to let them know how Americans view rules and certain behaviors. I know some of the techniques to appeal to Japanese, Korean, and Russian students but those techniques are not widely used in America. This has brought me to the conclusion that I need to acquaint them with American teaching styles even though we will face emotional obstacles because of it.

Even more intellectually stimulating are the discussions that students or I evoke in class. I like to encourage open-mindedness, so I and sometimes students will volunteer discussion topics that may threaten a more close-minded person. I think nothing interests me more than discovering the thought processes of someone from a different cultural background, and this person doesn't necessarily have to be from another country.

No, I really don't like arguing, but I like to see how one's viewpoints have been formed. I can discover this in nearly any class regardless of their English-speaking ability. Students with a lower proficiency of English can illustrate their worldview by expressing preferences or raising topics that are not raised as often in my culture.

This is why I prefer teaching adults. Most of them already have a well-developed worldview because they have established their identity. My personal and professional goal is to find commonality between our worldviews, so that, professionally, I can teach them better; and personally, I can understand that worldview better. Perhaps I should have been a sociologist because I like to encounter as many worldviews as possible to broaden my worldview and to avoid unnecessary conflict. That said, I do not expect all conflict to be avoided but there are certain kinds that can be and should be avoided.


This is a personal trait of mine that I have been aware of since I can remember. Many of my family members and friends have commented on my creativity. Because of this feedback, I have made sure that my future jobs would allow for a reasonable amount of creativity. I do not need total creativity because sometimes the best creativity comes out of restriction. I just request no excessive restrictions on my creativity.

My first teaching job had such restrictions, but it was my first job so I had no teaching experience to fall back on. I was quite the teaching drone for the first year, but I was granted a very modest amount of creativity for the second year. If it wasn't for my second year of teaching at this entry-level position, I probably would not have made the decision to make ESL education my career.

For this job, I was bound to the textbook and the school's method of instruction. In my second year, I added supplementary material that complemented the textbook, imitating its style and linguistic objectives. I also created material that bridged the gap between the core textbook and the very dull but very popular supplementary text on idioms and phrasal verbs. I received compliments from fellow instructors for the authenticity of the language and contexts in my materials.

Other than creating materials, I also challenged myself by reducing my dependence on the core textbook. I found this to be most useful for students who have gone through the textbook at least twice. This new approach made me more learner-centered. I spent the first third of class with an activity or discussion to find their grammatical weak points, and then I referred them to the appropriate chapter or I created an impromptu lesson on the spot. After several weeks of this, I realized I had a gift for teaching impromptu.

Quite similar to my first teaching position, my first teacher training position also limited my creativity in that we were bound to a teaching approach and a very specific curriculum, sometimes planned to the minute. As a new teacher trainer, this was perfect for me. I didn't expect to bring in any creativity until my second year. However, after my first semester, there was a need to revamp the practicum course, and I had the ideas that were needed.

The second semester was an interim practicum course in which half of the curriculum was from the previous semester and the other half was from my recommendations. The supervisor and course coordinator took a close look at student feedback and found that the newer curriculum matched the students' needs better. In the second year, I took on the task of recreating the practicum course. The outcome of this was published in 2007 in the English Teaching Forum.

I reached the peak of my creativity in curriculum development in Russia and the ESL Institute in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In both places, I was granted a gracious amount of creativity. In Russia, I designed my own outreach teacher training program for the Greater Volga Region. In La Crosse, I designed two of my four courses from scratch, and later on piloted a new pronunciation and academic skills lab. The feedback from Russia was enormously positive. And the feedback from Wisconsin was neutral in the first year, but positive in the second year. I left both places with excellent plans. Although I don't regret leaving, I often daydream how the second outreach teacher training program in Russia would have been and how my reading and speaking courses in La Crosse would have been.

A dynamic field
Although I don't enjoy it to the extent I did 10 years ago, I still enjoy the process of change. There are not many professions that change as rapidly as the field of ESL education. Here's a list of all the changes that could occur in one year:
  1. School or location - An ESL teacher can teach nearly anywhere in the world at any one time.
  2. Students - If I choose to stay in one place for a long period of time, the cultural diversity of my class can change rapidly from semester to semester. The recent trend in intensive English language programs has seen a shift from a Saudi-dominated classroom to a Chinese-dominated classroom.
  3. Popular approaches to teach - Content-based or task-based? Form-focused or holistic? Integrated skills or skills divided into separate classes?
  4. Technology - computers and their software, online technology, distance education, new media
  5. Language - English changes year after year, especially idioms and vocabulary
  6. Market-dependent motivation in adult students
None of these 6 items stays the same for too long. Because of this rapidly changing field, I have to remain flexible and adaptable to these changes or else my teaching approach, principles, and philosophies will become obsolete. If I take on these changes without panic or anxiety, then I can manage to age gracefully and maintain my youth through my openness to constant change. How can anyone stay bored in this field?

Personal reasons
I have written about this on my website, about how I come from a multicultural family and I have always had a love for the English language and all languages in general. It seems logical to me that ESL education was the place where my interest and background in language and culture merge.


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