By Gregory Moskos
[This article was first printed in the Fall 2015 issue of TEAL News.]
During a BC TEAL (Association of BC Teachers of English as an Additional Language) conference at UBC, I attended a seminar titled Reflecting on the Precarity of Postsecondary EAL Teaching Careers. A question was posed along the lines of, “Why do people choose to teach in EAL?” I came out with an answer before thinking about it: “We dreamed of something, but it didn’t quite work out. So, EAL teaching became our Plan B.” People in the room gasped in response and a few others disapproved of my remark. I then realized it wasn’t a fair answer. Many of us have chosen to become teachers of English because we are drawn to the profession and the interest and inspiration it brings.
I’ve been teaching English as an additional language for about 10 years. As I approach the 10th anniversary of my first ever teaching position, I feel I am becoming better suited and more passionate as a language instructor. I can’t, however, discard my doubts about my future in this industry. Let’s be honest, language teaching is not a glamourous job. Unless you have one of the few continuing positions at a college or university, it doesn’t pay sufficiently well to live in any urban centre in Canada, where the majority of the jobs are. Nor does it provide the security and sustainability that we witnessed in our parent’s generation as we were growing up. (I’m a gen Y speaking about the Baby Boomers.) So what keeps us going in this industry? What is it that motivates us and instills in us the dedication to provide memorable and significant experiences for our students?
Let’s look at how we regard success in this industry. If you asked the average person to define a successful EAL teacher, he or she would likely say that such a teacher would be a teacher whose students improve their language in the shortest amount of time. We all concern ourselves with our student’s improvement in English language abilities. However, I believe there is more to success as an EAL teacher than how quickly our students approach fluency. I sense there is a hidden ambition for both teachers and students alike to connect with people in another language. Connection is vital for the health and success of any human being and being able to connect in a second or third language is a gift for anyone trying to adapt to a new society. The great thing about these connections is that they can be experienced for language learners both beginner or advanced. So my focus in this reflection is less on language competency and more on the potential for students to connect with others.
I want to look at this through a philosopher from India named Jiddu Krishnamurti, and how his recommendations tie into to a few experiences I have had as a language teacher over the last 10 years. Essentially, I want to point out the experiences, opportunities, and leadership we experience in this field and how they matter for our determination to persist and grow as EAL instructors.
Krishnamurti is a teacher and writer of enlightenment, meditation, and inner revolution. His words that I want to share are from his book, The Awakening of Intelligence (1973), which contain transcripts of various speeches he gave around the world in the 1960s and early 70s. The following quote reveals the difference between pleasure and passion and how the latter is more enduring than the former. He says:
We divide pleasure in ourselves; we say it would be nice to have a lovely car or listen to beautiful music. There is great delight in listening to music; it may quieten and pacify your nerves by its rhythm and quality of sound; it may carry you away to distant places, far away, and in that there is great pleasure. But that pleasure does not detract you from your vital interest; on the contrary. When you have a tremendous interest in something, then that very interest becomes the major pleasure in your life; in that there is no contradiction. But when we are not sure of your major interest in life, then we are pulled in different directions by various pleasures and objects; and then there is a contradiction.
So I’m inviting us to consider whether the connections we make in EAL teaching, with both students and co- workers, can offer us this ‘vital interest’. It could be something that begins in teaching and branches into other areas of life, or vice versa. What I see now is that there is potential in our work to give us satisfaction and that this is what ultimately grounds us in our career as language instructors.
My first ever teaching position was in Victoriaville, Quebec in 2005. I worked as a language assistant at a purely francophone high school and I held sessions with groups of students from every English class in the school. My task was to help them practice their speaking skills in English. As this was my first teaching experience in a high school, I was apprehensive about maintaining a sense of confidence and firmness among teenagers. Surprisingly, I came to enjoy the task very quickly. I was amused by the energy I got from the students and the hilarious outcomes of their experimenting with the English language in a friendly, casual environment. At the Christmas party that year, the Vice Principal approached me and told me he had gotten much positive feedback from the students about my activities. I remember he said, “The students really enjoy getting away from their regular English teacher, and they find your activities fun and refreshing.” As I ponder my interaction with the students, I realize I have no proof that any of my students actually improved their English. What I do know is that they enjoyed the experience with me. They had interactions that influenced them in a positive way and that will give them a happier association with English down the road. Now I realize they are less likely to be swayed by the negative attitudes towards English speakers from a society that has a troubled past with English as the dominant language.
The second experience I want to reflect on was at a private language school in Vancouver. This school was particular in that it was a Japanese company that offered a program for Japanese youth who had a range of social or learning difficulties. During the time I taught in this program, I sensed that many of these students felt relief being away from their society`s pressures to conform to their peers’ and their teachers’ expectations. Some of them remained reticent throughout the entire program; however, there were a few who opened up and pushed themselves through the tension to speak English in front of students from different countries. In some cases, I could see that these students were improving in English; in other cases, it wasn’t so obvious. What satisfied me though is that I offered them a friendly environment where they could at least try to express themselves. As the year went on, I could see them becoming more at ease interacting with their peers, both Japanese and from other countries. The experience I got from this was rewarding just by seeing these students interact in a new environment and in an unfamiliar language. My account of how well they improved their grammar and pronunciation was obviously secondary.
The final experience that I want to relate is teaching as a LINC instructor in Vancouver. This is the most challenging experience I’ve had as a teacher because I’m teaching immigrants, some of whom barely have the educational background necessary for learning a new language. The students come from a wide range of national, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The levels I’ve taught have ranged from pre-literate to upper intermediate. What sets LINC students apart from high school students in Quebec, or a group of international students studying English temporarily, is that they have a desperate need to fit into Canadian society, whether they admit it or not. Unfortunately, many of them will continue to interact exclusively with people who speak their native language. However, I can say that there is one thing that lights a student up no matter what their goals are. And that is the moment when we can share an interest, experience, or sense of humour. It’s almost like meeting someone at a party and you find yourself having that random conversation that brings two complete strangers together into a bond of appreciation, love, and understanding. It doesn’t happen every day but when it does happen, it makes every frustrating aspect of teaching seem trivial.
What I can say now, looking back over this decade of my career, is that these experiences are what made it worth being a language instructor. I am sure there are opportunities in every classroom that give a warm sense of connection to our students and set up the stage to have it spread to their classmates. This is the closest thing I can relate to Krishnamurti’s claim on finding a passion that satisfies me beyond my worldly pleasures and cravings. I know our classes seem limited at times about what we can offer our students, so the question I leave with you is: what ways can we foster connection among our students in the craziest, most creative, most spontaneous way possible?
Krishnamurt, J. (1973). The awakening of intelligence. Harper & Row. p. 283
From the Fall 2015 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Gregory Moskos has taught English in Quebec, Ontario and South Korea. He is now an instructor for the LINC program in Vancouver, BC. He also writes music for piano and hopes to perform it in the near future.
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Original reference information:
Moskos, G. (2015, Fall). A different approach to success. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BCTeal-Newsletter-Fall-2015-Final-2.pdf