I have decided not to become an English teacher

Reading my posts, people must have an impression that I’m very confident in my ability to make learning happen in my students. Unfortunately, that is not true. There is a big difference between my DESIRE AND COMMITMENT to make learning happen and MY ABILITY to make that happen.

I can control for a variety of things in my teaching, such as content, approach, method, evaluation, classroom environment and interactions,motivation, style, flexibility, funding,etc. I even have the freedom to decide that if finances or schedule impedes a student’s learning journey we can make adjustments so those no longer become impediments. That is how much freedom I have. Yet ,when it comes to teaching ENGLISH as a second language, I consider myself a failure.

First things first, I am not fishing for anything. Secondly, each teacher’s standards of achievement/success is arbitrary. I set mine to the HIGHEST DENOMINATION possible, which sometimes means that even once I achieve the highest benchmark industry dictates, I then have new questions about how to take it further. I am not the only one who feels this way. Many native-speakers and researchers who have committed themselves to the field of ESL learning are beginning to question whether their methods and approaches, in spite of their dedication, theoretical knowledge and inspiration, makes them nothing more than fantastic motivators who still FAIL in their role to help a student achieve the level of proficiency they themselves have. In fact, native-like proficiency has ceased to be the gold-standard for ESL learning. The field, in general, now agrees that Communicative Competence is the new benchmark.

But this new agreed benchmark doesn’t solve my problem. The community I serve expects from themselves the fulfillment of life-goals on the back of a proficiency in English. These life goals include success in undergrad and overseas studies and a sky-high potential in employment opportunities. And this is on top of the social status and self-esteem that comes with being able to speak and write well in English. What compounds the fact is that they want all this while losing none of their ethnic and social identity.

So you see how I cannot achieve this consistently with everyone. I achieve this with about 70% of my learners. The hardest part is letting them still keep their identity and helping them realize that English language proficiency alone does not help with their goals, no matter what the world tells them. I said, if Englis-language proficiency and a university degree alone is the silver bullet, we wouldn’t see the situation happening in the US, Australia and across English-speaking/other EU countries. Aping the West, either in language learning or scholastic achievement is NOT the answers. If you match the wrong goals with the wrong solutions, you cannot get the right answers!

Another challenge is that when it comes to younger learners, most parents are still fixated on the 4-times a year, completely waste of time, utterly pointless, school tests. It is much easier for me to teach those who are 15 years above because they no longer listen to their parents by then and their decision to come for tuition is purely their own. Their parents are simply chaueffeurs and ATM machines. And since their parents have already accepted that their children don’t really care what they say anymore, they are more likely to be grateful to a teacher that is willing to do all the hard work to ground their children for lifelong success.

Several blogs ago, and also….many,many blogs of the same theme, I wrote about how the idea of English as a ticket to the betterment of one’s future fuelled its unjustified dominance in today’s world, threatening the validity and rights of other languages. No one language should be so dominant. Combining this with my sense of failure, I find it difficult to live the facade of an ESL practitioner.

That 70% I consider my successes are actually not true successes of English teaching. If you ask them, they will sing praises of how their learning has accelerated and mindset has changed. If I were to tell them,”Look, I feel I am a failure” it would break their hearts. So this is between you and me : I failed because I wasn’t an English teacher to them at all. I was simply a fantastic storyteller, a charismatic visionary in their eyes and an effective motivator, a life coach, if you may. The fact that their communicative competence and performance in college improved had LITTLE OR NOTHING to do with actual LANGUAGE TEACHING, but as a result of the inner changes in themselves AS A LEARNER, on the whole.

They attach their improved self-esteem, clarity in learning, thoughts and actions to my English teaching. But I see that they are still making errors in their spoken and written English after 2-3 years of weekly 2-hour lessons. I know that is too much to ask of myself because their environment is not supportive to autonomous learning and they are, after all, young people whose agenda in life is to get as much fun out of a day as possible. But what are their parents paying me for? They are paying me to do only one thing : teach some grammar and writing and speaking pieces. They are NOT paying me to teach them autonomy, leadership, character, goal-setting, motivation, creativity, time-management, credibility, seeing long-term, etc.

And so I feel like a fraud, a terrible fraud. The only significant, teaching-based improvement I can attach to is the reading proficiency of non-readers. That is something that is measurable. It is measurable from the speed of which they can acquire information from text and the percentage of understanding they can distill from their reading. Once this happens, they no longer find reading a difficult task but a natural and helpful extension of learning. Eventhough they make mistakes in their spoken grammar and written work, it is because of the interference by their first language. This interference usually goes away when they implant themselves for some time in an environment where the target language is spoken by language models that reflect the learning goals. And needless to say, I cannot create that 24/7 environment for them.

Yesterday, I asked my class of 11 year olds to write down 20 goals they want to achieve in their life. (I find that it’s necessary to occassionally include an element of unpredictability so children do not go into autopilot each time we have a session.)There were many wonderful, uncontrived goals they listed. The one that surprised me the most was from a girl who was ‘universally labelled’ slow and lazy. When she came to me in Std.4, she had the reading level of a 5 year old kindergartener. (It is students like her that make Smart Reader 6 year olds sound smart. I don’t really think all Smart Reader are actually Smart Readers but in contrast to the average non-reader, they do seem pretty smart. The benchmarks of readers of English in this country is so unrealistically low that a child who reads off like a parrot or reads from that horrible system called ‘phonics’ is considered a ‘Smart Reader’. I know I digress a little, but I want to make a point that I’m not surprised there are so many unlicensed Smart Reader franchises out there. The reason is simply because it doesn’t take a Smart Person to implement a program that has such low benchmarks of what ‘Smart Reading’ is.)

Listed there as goal No.18…after goals such as “have my own restaurant, eat at my favourite restaurant anytime I want, be a scientist, be a billionaire…” etc is the goal, “I want to have thousands and thousands of English books that I can read.” And guess what was goal No.19? “I want to score higher marks in my English test.”

Apparently, I was not aware that not only did she pass her English test for the first time end of last year, she was scoring in the top 75%. It was only when I threatened to stop her coming from class because of frequently being absent without notice that her mom asked for one more chance. The mom said, “she improved on her marks”. I don’t really sympathise with parents who come to me just to get some extra marks, but apparently I misjudged that comment. It wasn’t a matter of a few marks, it was the fact that, as test papers got harder in Std.4 and previous high performers were sliding down the elevated slope, this girl was improving on her scores above her peers. The girl who was consistently last and never able to finish a test paper was now listing, becoming an avid reader as a goal in her life.

I should’ve caught on when we played Boggle last week and she fought for every single mark she could get. She was usually the sort that expected nothing but being a loser or the last but she actually fought for 1 mark here or there. She actually dared to compete with the group that always made fun of her. Reading had changed her inside. She was not a ‘Smart Reader’, she became what a Reader really is; someone who is curious, challenges themself and has a creative, productive, imagination and a purpose in life.

I see the same changes in older students but they were more gradual and less dramatic than this, mostly because, the older ones make it a point to not let anyone on how much they desire to do well in life. Intellectualism, or reading, is so uncool. It’s so uncool that teenagers sometimes find it necessary to hide their passion for reading for fear of being called, ‘nerdy’. I simply have to tell you about this college student who works at a local Starbucks. She noticed I always have a book with me and one day struck up a conversation about how much she loves to read too. It’s strange because she felt the need to find some acceptance in an Aunty Stranger. To me, this shows that her passion for reading and discussing things intellectually is not a sentiment shared by her peers, so much so that she gets excited seeing another reader.

Well, this posting is about how I have failed in actually Teaching English. I teach Life, and I have to admit that. But no one pays to have their child learn about Life and Self-Direction! Deciding to give up teaching of English is like watching one’s own child being buried. I can’t teach English. Nobody can. But this is not the same thing as people not being able to learn English.

English cannot be taught, it can only be learned. And a person’s ability to learn depends on a complex chain of psychological, emotional and physical factors. There is a completely different field committed to it, originally epistemology but now evolving into other disciplines which take into account the role and nature of autonomous learning in language acquisition.

As far as I am aware of, published research on the on-going process in this fields has not reached widespread popularity in Asia. Heck, even methods and approaches post-Grammar Translation and the Skinner/Pavlovian approach to learning has not reached the masses! So many teachers are still using archaic, outdated methods of instruction, testing and evaluation. And I’m only talking specifically about language learning. If I were to start from the very beginning, i.e. infant, childhood learning, kindergarten, primary, secondary etc..and discuss and compare convincingly what is available in the field and what is actually being practised, my fingers would bleed typing them out case by case. As it is, I’ve worn my fingernails down so much by constant typing that sounds like millions of scarabs running across the room.

I know it seems like career-suicide to put so many years of training and learning and business investment aside just when my ‘business’ can really take off. (60% of English centres don’t survive profitably after the first two years. I’ve passed that benchmark.) It is something I have given much thought to, but unless the market is ready to use the learning of English as a vehicle to prepare self-directed learners and not merely a way to keep up with the Joneses by enrolling in some franchise or get a Cambridge ESOL certificate to frame up for visitors, I cannot continue calling myself an ESL practitioner.

But I at least fulfilled all the goals I set out to achieve when becoming an ESL practitioner……and the last goal was, “You cannot quit until you’re at the top.” There was always the risk of not being able to maintain enrollment,credibility and integrity while not letting overheads eat into what I expect to be my profit margin. There were so many reasons to quit when the going got tough, the Number #1 reason being this really big mistake in renting the wrong property. The Number #2 reason being when I see how hard these parents push their children and damaging them in the process.

One ex-student of mine probably doesn’t know this, but her recent permanent appointment with a 5-star hotel sealed the deal for me. Here was a student who never stayed awake in English class until I took over. She was already in Form 5. I saw her through Form 6 and heard her express her first intention to learn English to fulfill her dream of working in a nice hotel. She was not an A-student but hey, who cares about results when you can have your dream? And when I heard the news 3 weeks ago, I told myself, “OK. You did what you set out to do. You can quit now. You’ve gone through and witnessed the things you only read about in the papers and heard from third party informatioin.”

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Filed under On teachers, Rethinking Parenting & Teaching

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