By Natalia Balyasnikova
[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]
Drawing inspiration from Suresh Canagarajah’s article titled: “Teacher development in a global profession: An autoethnography” (Canagarajah, 2012) in this article I examine my own journey from an English language classroom at a Russian school to a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) doctoral program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I see my academic life experiences as a process of socialisation to various communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) that shapes who we are and what we do.
At the start
It seemed that the rigor, efficiency and devotion to quality I had so admired in 1989 had been undermined” Rosabi (1991).
I started learning English at the age of 11, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I was learning new strange sounds and words, the country around me was changing. Perestroika brought new hopes and excitement for the people, along with the confusion and loss of all existing social and educational paradigms. English was not among my favourite subjects in school. I was not a good student, and my teachers had nothing nice to say to me. “She will never speak a foreign language because she doesn’t understand the rules,” I overheard one of my teachers telling my mother. The teaching methodology heavily relied on the grammar-translation method, with very little emphasis on practice. Even younger learners memorized densely worded grammatical rules formulated by Soviet linguists, and failing to repeat the rule word by word resulted in low grades. Very little attention was paid to students’ individual learning styles, visual support, group work, and creative tasks. The results of this teaching philosophy for me were devastating: after completing six years of English language courses in school, my proficiency was limited to memorized dialogues, poems, and short monologues about my family, my hobbies, and myself. I felt zero confidence in speaking because I was terrified of making a mistake. The label of “not capable” has become a part of my learner identity and I have struggled to prove otherwise.
Going up a ladder…
In 1996, my mother took me to the USA, where she was working as a visiting professor at Brown University. I arrived in the US without any background knowledge about this country. Because of my limited English language proficiency, I attended special classes with other ESL students. Our classes were nothing but fun, and I enjoyed coming to class. It was a safe space, free from direct judgment. In contrast to my previous experience, this community was democratic and free from “negative labelling” (Labov, 1982). This is where I learned the power of positive reinforcement and a collaborative learning environment, where everything from posters on the walls to stickers used for grading were designed to increase students’ interest and motivation. This pedagogical model had its own impact on me. While I felt like an outsider during the lunch break, I thrived in my ESL classes and saw this education as a fun after school club where we played games and sang songs.
…or down a chute?
My return to Russia was traumatic: I came back with an accent in my native language and giant gaps in my theoretical knowledge about the English language. All those games and songs left me completely unprepared for the exams required to graduate from high school and enter university. I could speak, but I had a hard time with writing, spelling and grammar. I again felt incapable. I had to hit the books and cram for entrance exams. Has anything changed since I was in elementary school? Not much. This transformation from a fluent speaker to a struggling student wasn’t easy and unfortunately my experience is not unique. Many returning students have to learn how to adapt to different educational systems and expectations and they have to do so very quickly.
“A contemporary teacher of English in Russia is less educated theoretically and more pragmatically oriented” Ter-Minasova (2005)
When I graduated from university, brand new diploma in hand, I was a trained teacher. What that really meant was that I was, as Canagarajah writes, filled with a “blur of confusing terms and labels” (Canagarajah, 2012) of theories, methods, and approaches all mixed in together with extensive knowledge in literature, linguistics, history of the UK and the USA, comparative pedagogy, but little teaching practice. For me, having a solid theoretical knowledge in linguistics, psychology, theories of language acquisition, approaches to teaching, and classroom techniques was crucial to becoming a teacher. Recently, however, the increased mobility of many Russians, the possibilities of travelling to English speaking countries, and the influx of native-speakers have weaken the positions of theoretically trained, but less proficient professionals. This brought other issues to light, such as the quality of materials used for teaching, native-speaker privilege, and high labour turnover. I had two jobs: as a university instructor and as a teacher at a private language school. At the private language school where I worked, my students explicitly expressed that they needed to learn “survival English” for communicative purposes. I had to play the role of an English speaking, ever-happy entertainer, and a guidebook for tourists. At university, I had to project an image of a serious, scholarly, reserved lecturer. Important lesson here – while the private sector of the EFL world in Russia was moving towards a client-service provider model in education, the formal education sector still valued “correct” British English, a “correct” way of teaching, and teachers’ authority in class. Learning to navigate between these two diverse communities was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I have lived through the turning point in English language teaching in Russia and had to learn to navigate from the periphery to the centre of the community of practice at the same time when the community itself was undergoing a major change.
…and starting over
After 12 successful years as a teacher of English in Russia, I decided to come to Canada for a doctorate degree. I left my job, family, and friends to start a new chapter of my life in one of the best universities in the world. And again I am learning: new words, new literacies, and new ways of being. This learning process brings new questions. As a former teacher, I wonder if those of us, who return to the “battlefield” of teaching practice will ever be recognized for trying to implement all of our complex theories in their classrooms. Nevertheless, I am hopeful. I have been fortunate to experience different teaching systems, styles, and methods. The fact that as a child I had been exposed to different styles of teaching, allowed me to develop my own teaching practice by calling on all my lived experience. Therefore, my learner’s story can provide yet another argument in favor of the exchange of experiences and the collaborative search for best practices. Had my teachers been exposed to other teaching philosophies or given freedom to experiment with alternative approaches to teaching, my learner’s identity would have been formed in a very different way. However, years of formal training in linguistics, history, and literature are helping me in my studies in graduate school. This is another message I am hoping to send by sharing my story: learn from your students; talk to your colleagues, especially those who come from other countries, and most importantly don’t be discouraged if you find yourself at the starting point again. Never stop learning and this transformation will be a ladder you can use to climb up again.
Canagarajah, S. (2012). Teacher development in a global profession: an autoethnography. TESOL Quaterly, 46(2), pp. 258-279.
Labov, W. (1982). Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor. Language in Society, 11(2), pp. 165-202
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Rossabi, M. (1991). The ball keeps rolling. Independent School, 51(1), 25.
Ter-Minasova, S. (2005). Traditions and innovations: English language teaching in Russia. World Englishes, 24 (4), pp. 445–454
From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Natalia Balyasnikova was a doctoral student in Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada at the time of this article. Originally from Russia, Natalia moved to Canada in 2013 to pursue her degree in TESL with a focus on adult education, community-based research, and intercultural communication.
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Original reference information:
Balyasnikova, N. (2016, Winter). My Experience with English: The Game of Chutes and Ladders. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf