Monday, January 30, 2012


Academic mutants, as with cultural mutants generally, should wear their "disability" almost as a badge of honor. That is, NOT to succeed when the school system is debilitated and the social fabric is ruptured means that those students have not bought into a status quo gone amok. So students of "high need" should not be ashamed of themselves. After all, if their basic physiological, safety and belonging needs are tenuous due to the constellation of difficulties inherent in poverty, then such students are on a hero’s journey of self-discovery. This is not to say that such students bear no responsibility for themselves; rather, it means that they need to be gently guided toward wanting to accept the responsibilities that come with the long passage into adult life in contemporary society.

Understanding oneself and society in an age of electronic gizmo distractions, entertainment, and instant gratification is no easy task. But helping students to stabilize, orienting them to the world, and motivating them to want to improve themselves, are the foundations of effective learning.

It would be a challenge to teach in a “high-need” school, but one worth the effort. Why? I would rather be helping misfits and non-conformists to have faith in themselves. It is these kids, from the street-school of hard knocks, who can offer more than kids who have everything handed to them and who simply schlep along through school, just as they will almost predictably schlep along through the rest of their lives. A kid with lots of challenges who learns from them and who can rise above them in spite of everything and become stronger for doing so becomes a kid with a stronger character, a kid with guts. I believe that these students are the ones who go on to make a mark in the world; it is these kids who make a difference that counts for something. Consequently, even if I, as a teacher, make a difference in just one student’s life, it would be a worthwhile effort.

I think I would make an effective teacher in a high-need school for two reasons: (1) I tend to think of myself as a cultural mutant and so I understand the phenomenon, and (2) I have a heart and teach with love. The rest, the imparting of knowledge, is the easier part. Knowledge of how to properly communicate using the English language is a hard-won experiential skill that comes with much practice and much patience. Role modeling the language is important too and I would do my best to show them what marvels can be had with good English language skills. I would hope that the memory of my example would remain with them as a guiding and positive force.

Kids bring mental/emotional trick bags with them in the form of various self-protecting devices. What manifests is usually obnoxious and insulting behavior meant to trigger a teacher's anger response. For example, they might talk at inappropriate times, ignore the correction of the teacher and/or say disrespectful things to the teacher or to others, and they can dream up numerous ways of 'absenting themselves,' viz., their minds, from the lessons at hand. And so students will test their teacher and challenge his or her commitment to being there and to breaking through to them. If they are successful, then they can project their failure by blaming the teacher's own failure in being able to successfully negotiate their challenges, and thus both engage in the dynamics wherein they continue not to learn.

Kids whose lives have been affected by traumas bring heavy psychological baggage to the classroom. Transcending outright disrespect can be one of the most trying aspects of teaching. The greatest challenge for me would initially be to successfully deflect student attempts to trigger a negative, unhelpful response from me. And it is not simply a matter of deflecting their often clever snares. Gaining their trust by earning their respect in the first few encounters is, I believe, the greatest challenge.

My role, as a teacher, in addressing this challenge is to be an accomplished master gamesman. My role is NOT to become a disciplinarian full of conceit and who is tense with anger. Overcoming the guile and deceit of students can only be achieved via a kind practiced patience; a learning not to play the action/reaction game, at least not on THEIR terms. This means that I must exhibit a calmness and reason sufficient to convince them that I am able to see through various cunning strategies that, in the end, do a disservice to themselves and to their classmates. It means that I succeed in winning them over to the understanding that uncontrollable disruptions are not contributive to the learning of English.

After getting over that hurdle it is essential to present the subject of English in a format that will attract and nurture their interest in it. Besides infusing my teaching with my own personal enthusiasm for the language, I would lean toward a learner-centered approach. This would entail models of cooperative/collaborative learning that are participatory, exciting, even kinetic in some way. This would include having the students keep journals. These would not be diaries, exactly. Rather, they would be exhorted to write a few one-page stories each week based on immediate sensory impressions, trying to avoid second-level, thought-processed or conclusory-type writing. They would be exposed to literature and would be encouraged to express their thoughts in class discussions about the readings. It is hoped that such discussions might lead to some "ah-ha!" moments wherein they start to glimpse some insights and taste the wonders that are vicariously available to them through reading.

In discussing the experience of being an ESL teacher it is important to preface the discussion by considerations involving the students' native language and culture, and whether the students are required to be there or whether they come to study voluntarily.

I taught ESL in countries that do not use the Western alphabet: Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In Korea I taught university students; in Turkey I taught at a language institute that catered mostly to students and young working people; and in Saudi Arabia I taught young soldiers training to be medics.

In terms of culture, Koreans topped the list as being the most distinctly different; the strident Muslim culture of the Saudis ranked second; and the Turks were probably the least different from my own Western culture (although differences obviously existed).

I always told my classes that I spoke three languages: the international language of English, and the universal languages of humor and love. (As a musician I also speak the universal language of music.) I proceeded to use humor and love to bridge the language barrier. I sought to make students feel comfortable and safe and instill confidence in their speaking and writing abilities. It was usually an uphill battle. I was not often very successful. It required patience and yet more patience. I found that teaching ESL overseas caused me to really tease-apart the non-phonetic aspect of the English language and think deeply about the spelling and pronunciation of words, its labyrinth of grammatical rules, and the sensibilities of syntax and colloquial expressions. I concluded that the language is best learned via immersion in it, and I exhorted my students to travel to English-speaking countries.

Probably most distressing to me (a self-described cultural mutant), teaching ESL often required me to be an exemplar of Western culture. I had a hard time trying to explain a culture from which I often felt alienated, even ashamed. And so I learned a lot about myself over those four or so years I spent as an ESL teacher.

In the end I felt that I connected with a handful of students. Whatever English skills I managed to impart, I always hoped that I left them with some sense of the commonality we share IN SPITE OF our language and cultural differences.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The ghost of Foucault scowls at your attempt to normalize the hegemony of English as the lingua franca of globalization.