A Partial Ode to ESL Teachers

Many people write off educators as taking the easy way out, but it isn’t an simple job. Not if you want to do it well, anyway.

Class ACT

Over the last few months, there has been the occasional moment when I have been quite critical of ESL teachers in this column and usually, quite rightly so. This month I would like to write about how difficult it is to be an ESL teacher.

Where even accredited teachers fail
Over the years, I have seen experienced, accredited teachers from the US, UK, South Africa and New Zealand try their hand at teaching ESL. It only takes a few minutes into a class before one sees the deer in the headlight look on their faces. It isn’t their fault; they are just not accustomed to adjusting their speech to suit an ESL class and they tend to not use enough body language/expressions, as they have never needed to before. Based on my experience, an experienced and dedicated ESL teacher will do fine in a class full of native English speaking kids—as long as the teacher is given enough time to prepare. The same cannot always be said of even the best teachers in an ESL classroom.

Parental expectations
There are a lot of ESL teachers who dread the inevitable “Open Classes.” Depending on the learning institution, these occur once or twice a semester. It entails children’s parents sitting at the back of the classroom, watching the ESL teacher show off what the little dears learned over that period of time. There are many things that could go wrong during an open class, such as: kids (especially 3-5 year olds) freezing up/crying at seeing their parents in class, parents feeling as if their children did not speak enough during class, the teacher’s nervousness getting the better of them, etc. There are also those parents who expect their 4-6-year-old to be able to speak and read fluently after six months of tuition. It is not 100% the fault of the parents to expect such a thing, the blame lies at the institution’s selling unrealistic expectations to parents, which leads me to my next point.

While there aren’t many barriers of entry to teaching ESL, it isn’t an easy job. All ESL teachers who take their job seriously have my respect and they should have yours, too.

Boss’s expectations
In order to get that filthy lucre from parents, educational institution bosses will tell parents whatever they want to hear. Once a program has been sold, they then apply the screws to the ESL teacher: “Little Johnny’s mummy said that Johnny is not speaking English at home yet.”

Johnny might be six years old, his parents don’t do any review at home and he has been attending the school for only three months, but still, “Can you pay more attention to him?” Another good one might be when the learning institution wants the students to perform in a play. The play, script and everything might be ready a couple of months in advance. Suddenly, when the show is only a week away, the boss has an idea to make the play even “better” by making changes to the show. The teacher has to make it all work.

Knowing how to kowtow
Yes, without students there is no revenue and the business goes under. Everyone knows this, but no one is more acutely aware of this than the bosses. From the “can you pay more attention to little Johnny?” to letting certain students win spelling/English competitions to make parents happy, teachers need to play the game.

Problems always arise when an institution compromises on standards and when parents see an institution compromising on something, then the education institution ends up undermining its own staff and itself. Something that I have always told my ESL teachers and the management is that we are the educational professionals. We are the ones that have been doing this for years, not the parents, so they need to let us do our job.

Let me be clear on something, though. A lot of the time, it isn’t the parents who are to blame for this. Most do not know what learning a new language entails. The blame lies with management who do not educate parents/students on what the realities are in learning English.

By all means, listen to suggestions, never close yourself off from getting better, but if you do not agree with a suggestion, then tell the parent/student in a professional manner why you do not think that is a good idea.

There are many more examples I can give, but these are the usual ones that I have encountered over the years. While there aren’t many barriers of entry to teaching ESL, it isn’t an easy job. All ESL teachers who take their job seriously have my respect and they should have yours, too.

Category Class Act