Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Exceptions to the Mediocre Rule

by AJ

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The most common word my Japanese friends use to describe their English education experience is "trauma". They speak often of the "trauma" of English classes. They cite this "trauma" as the cause of their hatred of English and their low confidence.

Its a good word. Though "trauma" is too powerful a word for me, I realize that I too have many negative experiences with traditional language education. These bad experiences relate to both my language teaching (English) and language learning attempts (Japanese, Thai, Spanish).

In general, my encounters with the language education industry have been overwhelmingly negative. Most schools and most classes, quite simply, are overpriced, ineffective, boring, wasteful, and demotivating. At worst, they are "traumatic" for the learner, and for the enthusiastic teacher as well.

But I have found a couple of exceptions. One is my current school in San Francisco. While it is certainly constrained by some of the challenges that face all schools/classrooms, on the whole it is an excellent place that I have loved working at.

Due to prior negative experiences, I admit that I have constantly been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I've had a nagging feeling that things were too good to last, and eventually my school would turn a corner and become just like every other ESL/EFL factory.

In my last post, I bemoaned the hiring of a new teacher supervisor and predicted that this was the feared moment-- when the school's energy, enthusiasm, freedom, and innovation would die. Time will tell, of course, but I'm happy to say that my dread appears to be unfounded. Today I talked with the new "head teacher" for the first time and she turned out to be a delightful person with interesting and creative teaching ideas. She in no way struck me as a typical grammar-analysis textbook slave. Quite the contrary.

Which just goes to prove that however bad our past experiences with learning or teaching, we should not let them destroy our present attitude. We've got to let go of those experiences and start anew. We've got to have faith in our own abilities. We've got to find renewed enthusiasm for the language, and for learning & teaching.

After today's meeting, I am cautiously optimistic that my school will continue to be a great place to teach. And while school is never enough by itself, I'm optimistic that it will also continue to be a great place for English learners.

I base this optimism not so much on the new coordinator's linguistic background, or teaching methodology, or experience... but rather on the far more important attitudes that she seems to radiate: enthusiasm, flexibility, curiosity, energy, and creativity. For teachers and learners alike, these traits are FAR more important than so called "linguistic factors".

The second exception to traditional schools that I've found is the AUA Thai program in Bangkok. This program is as close to an "ideal language school" as I can imagine. To my mind, the program is exactly what a school should be-- a fun and interesting source of comprehensible input. In my observation journal for AUA, I criticized some of the weak points of the program.

However, I've rethought many of those criticisms. I now believe that most of those weak points were my own, and not the school's. My problem was that I relied solely on the school. I showed up with a passive attitude. I sat there and expected the AUA teachers to "teach me Thai".

But a school program, however good, is never enough. You must take control of your own learning. I should have been reading and listening to Thai outside of class. I should have been listening to interesting content repeatedly. I should have taught myself to read Thai, starting with baby books. I should have had Thai friends create audio versions for those books. Instead, I went to AUA and became frustrated at the slow progress. If I'd taken responsibility, the AUA program would have been much more powerful for me. It would have been a more effective learning resource.

Someday, I plan to return to Bangkok to finish what I started-- and do it right. Until then, I'm applying the lessons I've learned to my current Spanish learning plan. This time, I'm taking full responsibility for learning the language. I understand that I and I alone am in charge. I understand that no one can learn this language for me.

I am the one who must put in the listening hours and reading time. I am the one who must find content that interests me. I am the one who will make the process interesting and fun.

I, and I alone, am responsible.

San Francisco, CA