Friday, May 24, 2013

The great thing about teaching ESL was that once you taught somebody how to talk, they could tell you about a totally different life, with a different way of looking at things. My first two years were teaching Korean men, who worked for several of the seventeen divisions of Samsung; they were businessmen, but gladly told me about life in Korea and interpreted their culture for me. In Ohio and Kansas, I taught in intensive English programs, attached to their universities. Students there were expected to become students in those universities immediately after getting enough English. This time, around 1988, could be best described as the Asian era; the vast majority were from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or in some cases Mainland China, or Thailand. Sure, even then there were a few from Latin America or the Arabian Gulf, or maybe even Europe, but these were in a minority.

The communicative method was made for these Asian students, because it taught us that being able to respond properly and use the language well was just as important as actually understanding how the language was made and put together. So for example, we'd say to our students, you've studied English for years, yet when I ask you how your weekend was, you can't answer. My mentor in Kansas those days was my director, K.M., who had been raised in Morocco, but who was a genius of an ESL teacher; he loved watching over me and teaching me things about what I was doing. He knew much more about teaching ESL in general than I could have guessed; one thing he enjoyed was that I learned grammar under his supervision, and was quite good at it by the time I left.

ESL is an exhausting job; generally there is a lot of grading and preparing, and you rarely get out of a 40-hour week with only 40 hours. This can be hard on families and was certainly hard on mine; at home I had two young children, and I didn't like being exhausted at night, or crabby. I was lucky to love what I did, but I had to be careful with my energy; I didn't have enough, and I couldn't put twenty hours a week into keeping the family occupied. This was a pattern that was to be continued over many years. To choose ESL, and stick with it, required that I put a lot of energy into what I was doing. At one point I considered maybe driving a cab, or doing something that I could leave at work, and have more of my head to myself when I got home, but I didn't really want to. I was happy teaching ESL.

The pressure on us as a family came more from the fact that Pittsburg was a small, isolated town, with not much else to do, no place for my wife to go in the long days. At work, I taught and prepared hard, and was pretty much unable to come home before five, or if I did, I would have to bring work home with me. One day they moved the copy machine right outside my office, and the sound irritated me as I was trying to grade. The irritation from the sound got worse instead of better until I almost went crazy. Finally I began using the copy machine to make xerox graphics; this involved cutting and pasting images, or enlarging and shrinking them until they fit into postcards. This was my postcard era; I made hundreds and used them for sending or notes. It was an ethical dilemma whether one could use a work copier for personal things like enlarging and shrinking, but I solved the problem by providing things to the workplace that would essentially pay them back for the copies. I saved by not having to go to a copy store to do my art; they saved by not having to dip into petty cash to buy me teaching materials. This was another pattern that lasted over decades, even well after I left Kansas.

In the classroom, I found the skills I'd picked up hitchhiking to be very useful. One, always be willing to apologize for cultural misunderstanding. These were common, and one just had to prove that one was truly sorry for crossing the line. Second, a good story always helps. I drew on my experience to tell stories about when one would use a grammatical structure. The requirement here would be that the story should be interesting; I was good at this. Another requirement was that people through different cultures should be able to understand and appreciate it. Finally, life is a performance; when you're on, you stay on, until you're backstage. And finally, think before you speak. It's incredibly easy to say the wrong thing.

One thing about teaching ESL was that off-duty, I tended away from being too self-monitoring, too formal, even grammatical. I would bring home the stuff my students would say, and use it. Or I would bring home the habit of repeating and rephrasing things until people got mad at me for assuming they were unable to understand. I had trouble switching from one world to another. This was another pattern that was to last for many years.

One advantage of ESL was that students were invariably polite and respectful, though I've found American students to be the same; still, over the years I've learned a lot from my students. It was well-suited to my ADD, curious nature; there was always something new to learn. Watching people learn English was like seeing their language in reverse, a mirror image, if you will, where you learn from the trouble they have with English, how things must look to them in their cultural and habitual frameworks. And almost all of these classes were multilingual; with the exception of my two years in Korea, virtually every class I taught had people of different backgrounds in it. When the end of term came, they'd often cook; one had to go to this, because the food was excellent. And then, at their house, or in private, you'd learn a little more about their spartan personal lives, their families, or their ways of adapting to life in the U.S.

Part of teaching in ESL is trying to go to the TESOL conference once a year, always in spring. I've saved that for another post. When I got to Carbondale, I was better able to do this, because they were more supportive in general of our getting out once a year. By now, I've been to fifteen or twenty of them. There are no better people in the world than other TESOL professionals. They've been my closest friends over the years.


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