Teaching ESOL from Experience

by Caroline Hazelton

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLI wonder how you found this page? Perhaps you found it by Google, by social media sharing, or by mere coincidence. Good for you! Either way, I bet the only way you’ll keep reading after this is if you truly care about teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages. Even at that, because I said the word “experience” you are probably in need of such, AKA “teaching ESOL from experience.” 

Right now I’m on Year 7 in teaching languages. I’m always improving my teaching craft. I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it a certain way. Yet as I handed in my lesson plans this past Tuesday, I realized that teacher jargon doesn’t explain what simple experience can. And yet so much of the way I teach and have been successful from Year 3 onward is because of… experience — that is, “teaching ESOL from experience.”

I originally started this article with a list of teacher advice, but quickly realized you can find that anywhere. Instead, I think it’s best to reflect on the four institutions where I’ve actively taught ESOL and what each ESOL school taught me… through experience. I’ll list each school as “School A, B, C and D” for the privacy of each school.

School A: Finding Your Place as a Professional in School

For Pete’s sake, if you are a new teacher DEMAND A CURRICULUM. You’ll need one to stay organized, maximize learning, and follow the natural flow of language acquisition progression. Furthermore, set boundaries on students. Don’t accept their Facebook requests, don’t let them use their native language in class (even if it is the other language you teach and love) except for emergencies, and if any student starts to cross professional boundaries you must immediately but respectfully set them straight for the sake of your classroom control. Also, especially if you are a young teacher, you must especially look professional at all times.

Professional in School

School B: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions and Set Boundaries

Now that your demanded curriculum is in hand, ask the director/principal specific questions about the curriculum or the school they might be too busy to explain. Make sure to ask questions such as “When does the semester end?” or “How long is the book to be used for?” As much as you love your students, don’t be afraid to correct their English. However, know the goal of each activity and make your corrections specific (like adding a preposition).

Give general critiques (like encouraging students to add more information) so the students aren’t overwhelmed by their mistakes. Again, make sure you set professional boundaries. You love your job, but don’t work for free — make sure you are fairly compensated for your time. If you are not paid on time, immediately contact HR. And finally, always overestimate how long it will take you to arrive to class so you can breathe when you get there.

Ask Questions and Set Boundaries

School C: Use Your Own Experience When Teaching

Own your cultural identity and what it can bring to the classroom. I was the only white teacher in my ESOL department at School C. I owned it. At the beginning, I demanded my intermediate level students only speak in English. I made my students weird American things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I taught them how Americans butcher Hispanic names in English and hate kisses on the cheek.

Make sure to hand the mic over to your students every once in a while. Let them voice both their cultures and the saddening situations that brought them over to the United States. Let them use Spanish… but only in emergencies or during non-instructional time. And finally, as important as that curriculum is, do not underestimate the importance of authentic cultural material that is relevant to the topic. Bring in the country music, clips of The Office, and Super Bowl commercials.

Experience Teaching

School D: Give Yourself Structure and Take Time to Learn

As an unorganized person, having an organized curriculum pre-planned for me each class helped me see just how learning can be maximized with the right pacing and assessment. I tend to get off task, but staying on topic is crucial for the learner. However, the ability to learn and quickly memorize facts about each student builds a good rapport with students. Finding a balance between staying on task and learning about your students should be found. Finally, students need to hear ways to improve their English. Working with a Chinese crowd at this school, I found it helpful to study common mistakes Chinese English Language Learners make, identify them in the student, and quickly address them with go-to examples. 

Teaching ESOL from Experience

I don’t think there isn’t a day where I’m not learning from my experiences. Just tonight, an argument broke out between two students over a political issue (Venezuelan dictator Maduro seizing and selling homes abandoned by Venezuelans fleeing) and a personal issue (these two students did not get along). After resolving the argument and further discussing with another Venezuelan student about the emotional state of those fleeing, I would like to do some further reading about helping refugees process their emotions. Situations like these help shape my responses to future tense situations. After every day that I teach, I make sure to do a nightly reflection. This helps me know what I’d like to repeat for next semester but also steer away from.