Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Reflections on teaching

By Charles Schroen

Here are some thoughts to add to the discussion of ESL students in college, with apologies for length.

More years ago than I care to admit, I started teaching in EFL in the Peace Corps. The last 12 years of my teaching career I have been affiliated with an ESL program that is part of a two-year college. For the last seven of those 12 years I have been teaching full-time in that program. This has included summer teaching every year.

I care a lot about the progress my students make, and in many cases I find that I care more than they do. As a teacher, what should you do in that case? Without internal motivation to be better learners, how far can former ESL students (or any students for that matter) get in higher education in another language and in another culture? Let us not forget that many students we get were not successful in educational institutions (K-12) in their home countries.

What makes us think that they all should succeed in higher education in another country and in another language? What makes us think that the road for them should be smooth and that teachers should make allowances? What makes us think that teaches should care? I don?t know anyone in a two-year college who is not overworked. The more overworked we are the more difficult it is to care about all of the ridiculous things that administrators can come up with that they think everyone should care about, which makes it even more difficult to attend to students.

A few other questions to ponder: Across the U.S., what percentage of students born and raised in the U.S. who take courses in a two-year college ever get a degree? What percentage of the world?s population ever attempts to enroll in higher education in another country and in another language? And of that percentage, what portion does not succeed? These numbers will give us an idea of the enormity of the task that our students face. It is precisely that enormity that will indicate the percentage of success that we might expect.

As teachers, what can we do to be truly of assistance to these students? First and foremost, they need to be independent learners. We can talk about how to learn; we can have them practice so that they show us they can do those things; and we can be the best learner in the room by example. I like the last one because implicit messages are far more profound than explicit ones. Language is our subject, but learning is our discipline. Students who are good learners will succeed; those who are not will struggle. Good learners will persist through the struggle to find that success is born in the struggle. Use language to help them to become acquainted with these principles and they will become learners for life. Their education, like yours, goes on far beyond the walls of any college or university.

Keep learning.

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