Sunday, November 3, 2013

Master Becomes Student

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at, and he'll let you know how you can start participating!  To read other blogs from overseas teachers, click the link!

As an ESL teacher, sometimes it’s easy to forget how challenging the process of learning a new language can be.  I often find myself focusing so much on writing lesson plans, preparing materials, attending meetings, and doing paperwork, that I start to lose sight of what’s most important: the individual needs of the students!  Sure, we’re all trained to understand the range of learning styles and how to deliver lessons to reach type of learner.  But sometimes all the best practices get lost in translation, pun intended.

What'd you say??
(BIS Vietnam)

But all the challenges and frustrations of language learning are shocked back into my system any time the tables are turned and I become the student.  

My turn in the desk
(Shane Taiwan)

As a high school and college student, I studied German and Spanish, and I felt fairly confident using the languages in class or out in the real world.  However, living in Taiwan and studying Mandarin Chinese, I quickly realized how very different learning the most-spoken language in the world was going to be.  Initials, finals, tones, Simplified, Traditional, pinyin? Forget it.

Sometimes I want to cover my eyes, too!
(Shane Taiwan)

But the desire to communicate with the local people drove me to keep trying, and sitting in class trying to listen to and speak the language truly opened my eyes to the struggles my students were likely facing in my English classes.  If I was having difficulty understanding and pronouncing the sounds in Chinese, they were probably toiling to do the same in English.

Too much work!
(Shane Taiwan)
Must.... learn.... English....
(BIS Vietnam)

Before I moved to Vietnam, I thought “Great! Vietnamese will be much easier than Chinese!  At least they use an alphabet I recognize.”  Ohhhhhh, how wrong I was.  Vietnamese is no easier to learn than Chinese.  It has more tones, a bunch of extra vowels, and a pronunciation pattern that I find beyond mind-boggling.

Forget tests. Let's just play games!
(ILA Vietnam)

When I’m in class as a student, it brings to mind how it feels to be on the other side of the desk.  I’m reminded that as a teacher, I need to provide my students with more than just vocabulary and grammar lessons.  Students want to learn, but they also want to have fun and feel safe.  And THAT is what teaching is supposed to be all about!

I had my fair share of fun with this class!
(Shane Taiwan)

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