Six Weeks as an ESL Teacher

June and July had me back in the classroom teaching ESL to university students and professionals. It was refreshing to be properly employed as a teacher once more, and not beholden to practicum requirements. It was my first time teaching Hispanic students, and initially I wasn’t sure how relevant my Korean experience would be. I was also curious how my uOttawa teaching experience would influence my pedagogy.

After a few hours on the first day, rusty English-teaching skills sprang back into action after being dormant. They are a different skillset than what I would use teaching in an Ontario elementary classroom (even though I had many ESL students there too). Teaching these kinds of classes were my bread and butter for so many years, and I’m effective in them. It’s a markedly different scenario when you are teaching a subject you know inside and out, compared to one where you are learning as you go along.

It was an interesting teaching system as well. The first three hours of the day, I would spend with my “homeroom” class, and teach them to use English within a Canadian context (basically use their English with Canadians). Then for 90 minutes, I would switch rooms and teach history and culture to a different class. It was my first real chance to teach a dedicated history class (which is my teachable subject in Ontario), and I really wanted to make the most out of it.

Over the course of the six weeks, I had four different homeroom classes, and four different history classes. Their levels ranged from A2, B1, and B2. Fresh from my university practica, I approached my initial classes like I would as an OCT-certified teacher. It was a bit too dry and formal for my tastes, and I knew I wasn’t being as effective as I could be. So I opted for the teaching style I had refined in Gangneung, and that worked a lot better.

That being said, my B.Ed degree had greatly informed my teaching habits. I was able to diagnose students’ particular needs in ways I would never have in Korea. I was able to better assess and evaluate them (assessment for, as, and of learning). I could even identify learning disabilities when I saw them, and adjust my material accordingly (universal design). I found that my unique experiences, having taught EFL in Korea, and obtaining a B.Ed at uOttawa, made for an extremely well-rounded teacher.

Based on the feedback my students would give me, it seemed like they agreed.

One of the things I was proudest of, and was able to carry through my six weeks, was to have my students voraciously consume history. I was able to pull all my knowledge together and deliver content they found ridiculously engaging. I opted to go for the “darker” aspects of history, and present them with facts they wouldn’t find along the more touristy paths of. Murder, mayhem, and ghosts seemed popular.

It was my first time teaching students about the Residential School System, and I am glad I had the opportunity to do so with adults. I found appropriate material that would take my voice out of the equation as much as possible. The storybook I used (Little Butterfly Girl) is something I will take with me for future elementary classes. It really hit home, and brought forth some tears. Canada’s treatment of Indigenous People drastically altered how many of them viewed the country.

I gave the students guided tours at museums, and was able to include historical facts that were (purposefully) left out of exhibit displays. Not being able to be with them all the time, but wanting them to explore the city, I created an RPG based on Ottawa’s history, that used a unique hashtag so I could follow along with their progress. They were able to see spots of the city they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to know about, and would invite students from other classes along for the ride. Inquiry-based learning was the key to a lot of the success.

The only downside was that it ruined a tour they went on in the final week, because my history class already knew everything about all the stops, and could answer the guide’s questions. I guess the guide was perplexed Mexicans knew so much about Ottawa’s local history.

These history classes were such a success, my homeroom classes wanted me to bring some of that into my English Context classes. Many came up to me after the fact and told me I was their best history teacher, which was a nice compliment. History often gets a bad rep for being dry and boring, so I was happy to correct that. I was taken aback by how interested they were in looking at Canada with a critical eye (my previous classes would often demand their other teachers go into the “dark history” as well). I can see a market for ESL-based history classes that use this lens, and I might very well start creating my own content for such an appetite. I need to find the balance between presenting a balanced view of history that isn’t exploitative (one of my concerns).

Like Korea, I was able to do a lot with them outside the classroom. That enriched the learning experience for them, because they were able to use their English skills in a less structured setting. On a whim, I decided they would shoot short films (the next day they would have an evaluated role play, and this was a good way for them to practice). In Daegu and Gangneung, the students would create video content with me as well, as I used it for educational purposes (and they wanted to learn to make YouTube videos like their teacher). So for an afternoon, my class took over different areas, while the other teachers and staff members looked on in bemusement at a fantasy film being shot.

One of the best things about the job was that it afforded the teachers a lot of leeway over what material they taught in their classes. If you were short on ideas, you could basically rely on a bevy of resources they gave us on a USB. Some of the lower level students (A2 especially) needed more structure to the classes. I did end up creating a lot of my own content, though, like I had done in Korea (four years in Gangneung pretty much saw me create and use my own original material). What I created was flexible, and I was able to use it in different classes with different levels (again, inquiry-based learning worked its magic).

It was an overall excellent experience, and it gave me many fresh ideas going forward. It energized me in a way that reaffirmed how much I truly love being an educator. Now I am going through teaching withdrawals, as that kind of deep thinking and engrossing conversation can be addicting!

Posted in Critical Thinking, ESL, Methods, Teaching and tagged , , .