Love What You Do (Even if You Hated English Classes As a Kid)
When I introduce myself as an English teacher to people who haven’t met someone teaching English as a foreign language before, they often get the wrong idea.
“So, you love Shakespeare?” they’ll ask. Or, possibly, “do you make your foreign students write book reports?”
They may imagine that I spend my free time composing sonnets, or debating the finer points of grammar over white wine spritzers with my other English-besotted pals.
The truth is, being an English teacher abroad is not about studying great writers or trying to get students to analyze Western literary tradition. Teaching English as a Second Language is more about communication than analysis—though there are of course, opportunities for this—and, surprisingly, many people who hated English classes at school when they were kids find themselves satisfied and happy as English teachers abroad. That’s because teaching people to communicate in a new language is a different skill than teaching native speakers to appreciate the advances and traditions of our own culture of English speakers.
Many people who are drawn to teaching English as a Foreign Language like it because they thrive on interacting with people, enjoy the challenges of coaching, and have a knack for being able to synthesize and simplify. Even though it helps to have an enthusiasm for the subject—English—the real thrills in the profession come from seeing a student’s eyes light up when they finally understand a tricky language point, and from watching a class improve its functional ability over a period of time.
Teaching English as a foreign language is often more like being a dance instructor than being the English teacher you remember from fifth grade. Your job as a new English teacher abroad will include introducing students to new steps (target language) and getting them to practice these steps until they can “dance” them fluently (use the language in practice).
So what does this mean?
So, does this mean that you can still teach English effectively if you have trouble telling a colon from a semi-colon, mix up your past and present tenses and favor the word “ain’t” in informal speech?
Be careful that you don’t confuse disliking English class as a kid with being an incompetent instructor of English as a Foreign Language. No matter whether you love English or just love the training aspect of being an English teacher, you’ll have to have the same proficiency in the mechanics of the language in order to teach it effectively.
As far as using regionalisms that we’re taught are “wrong” (like “ain’t”), as long as you don’t mind marking the differences between what you usually use when speaking and what is considered “standard English” for classroom use so that you can explain any discrepancies to your students, you may actually be doing your more advanced students a favor by giving them an example of “real” English. However, it will be important for you to brush up on the gaps in your basic knowledge of the language, if you are missing any, so that you can be sure to present your students with accurate information. Just like any other job, teaching English as a Foreign Language will require learning some information to be able to do it well. And, it will be important for you to know how to grade your language so that you can speak more clearly for lower level students.
TED’s Tips™ #1: Teaching English as a Foreign Language is not the same skill as instructing language arts to native speakers.
TED’s Tips™ #2: You’ll need to know the mechanics of the language (grammar and structure) in order to teach well, but teaching ESL is not solely about these bits you thought were boring when you were a kid.