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I am a self-taught ESL teacher. I was teaching adult education at a local junior college and when I went to a state meeting with other adult ed teachers, one new friend said that I had the personality to teach ESL. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I learned that my vivacious personality and habit of gesturing when I speak are probably what she meant.

When an adult ESL opening came up, she offered me the job. She took me to the basement of a local church, showed me the keys to the book cabinets and came back a year and a half later. She was also teaching and supervising and was very busy. I took it upon myself to contact the teacher before she moved on and visited a few times to see what I had gotten myself into. It was a multi-level adult ESL situation. We had three classrooms in the basement of a church. Luckily, there was an aide and she was continuing.

First impressions matter

I quickly learned that the first few minutes, when students came to the classroom for the first time, were crucial to the learning curve for the student. To be comfortable with me and to know that I was non-judgmental was very important. I would allow students to join immediately in my class as they came to visit without making them wait for a three-week enrollment session, because I wanted to take advantage of their enthusiasm and motivation at the moment.

I realized that it might have taken them a long time to just walk into my classroom and to send them away to wait was not advantageous for them or me. I welcomed them enthusiastically and quickly introduced them to the others to help them feel comfortable. I knew that that initial meeting was so important. They were mostly Spanish speaking students from Mexico, but over the years I have had many other groups of students.

Minimize responses to mistakes

We all make mistakes and it is so important for the teacher to take the lead and not make a big deal. The students will take your cue and do the same if you make the effort to lessen the embarrassment of mistakes. It is a common practice to call upon students to speak in class in America, but this isn’t the case in many foreign countries.

In many countries, classes are very large and teachers don’t have the time or privilege to call on students individually. Also, many students are never asked their own opinions in a classroom setting. As part of my effort to make my students feel comfortable, I soon learned to refrain from calling on them. As they became comfortable with me and my classroom manner, they might offer comments.

Encourage students to embrace their unique accent

Many of my students agonized over the fact that they would never sound “American”. I quickly told them that, since they had not grown up here, their pronunciation of certain letters would always have non-American sounds. I told them to appreciate how they sounded. To me, the important point is how well and successful they communicate. If they were able to express themselves well, that was the most important point. The accent of a foreign-born person gives their language it’s particular “flavor”. My grandmother was from Romania and there were certain sounds she couldn’t make. That made her English so beautiful, to me.

English is a mongrel language, not a pure language. Because we are a country of so many immigrants, who brought their languages to our country and lifestyle, the words are a mix of sounds. An Israeli friend living here told me that her mouth hurt at the end of the day, after speaking English all day. We use our mouths for so many sounds absent in other languages. Nobody expects a foreign-born person to sound perfectly ‘American”. Again, if one is successful communicating, that should be enough to feel self-satisfaction.

Plan lessons that are relevant and practical

A favorite lesson expanded on colors, numbers and clothing. I’d bring in a bag of clothes from my house and we’d “role model” returning the items. Some of the students were from cultures that didn’t “return” purchased items. In our culture we return everything we can. In our simulations one person would be the customer and the other would be the cashier.

I would encourage conversations like, “I want to return this shirt. It’s red and I want green. It’s the wrong size. It’s a medium and I need a large.” They always enjoyed the lessons and reminded me later how much they had learned. I think we have to focus on making lessons “real”. Sometimes we have to get out of the books, drills, and use the language in real life situations.

Acknowledge and value other cultures

Over the years of working with ESL students I have learned to appreciate their cultures and keep that in mind as I am teaching them. Our cultures are different, sometimes our religions, our manners, or our ways of showing appreciation, etc. It is so important to keep these things in mind as a teacher. Just as I am proud of being a Jewish American, they are proud of their ancestry and culture. We must honor and accept their differences. They have come here to make better lives for themselves and their families. We must acknowledge that and let them know that they are valued.

Teaching ESL has changed my life in so many ways. I know that I have a greater appreciation of my students’ differences, their goals and their attainments.

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