Last year, I defined myself by what I didn’t like about ESL — comparing our industry to a pyramid of sh*t. The binariness of methodology debates in ESL had left me exhausted, much like a computer that can only work in zeros and ones. There are a whole lot more numbers out there and each number/methodology have made valuable contributions to how we teach English.
So, inspired by Tim Minchin’s graduation speech, I have left behind my shitty pyramids and taken on a more positive view of our profession — and yes it is a profession! Tim bestowed nine life lessons upon his audience. The standouts for me were ‘define yourself by what you love not by what you hate. Be pro-stuff!’ He also said "be a teacher: the most admirable and important people in the world."
Now I know the title ‘Bring Out the Gimp’ doesn’t seem that positive, but if you can hang around till the end I’m sure you’ll see the sunnier side of this analogy. This post is an ode to teaching languages; it’s pro-stuff about all things ESL. Without further ado bring out the gimp and let’s get started!
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 1: We impact lives
Tracy Kidder said “Good teachers put snags in the river of children passing by and over the years they redirect hundreds of lives.” With language teaching it’s not inconceivable to think we support big dam changes in students’ lives. We can create waterways that didn’t even exist for students before. Sure, there’s small changes, like giving the functional language to a student so they can find a toilet in an emergency situation. There’s also the big ones as well, the life changers.
Let me give you two examples from my own teaching journey. The first, a student who wanted permanent residency in Australia but kept just missing out on the ‘golden number’. I coached her in the art of IELTs, she worked hard and got the score she needed: a life changed forever. Instead of having to return to her country she got to continue her life in Australia. Or a kid who didn’t want to read, but slowly over time a seed was planted that maybe reading was a good thing. Then his dad bought him a set of English readers, and he left the school with this big smile – clutching onto his new books like they were the latest Lego toy. Who knows where this passion for reading might now take him.
So I say, let’s aim higher than snags, and build big frickin ESL dams like the Nine Gorges project. How many more kids are we going to catch that way?
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 2: We get to crumple a lot of paper
You can crumple a lot of paper in this job. Worksheets, lesson plans, scribblings of madmen…. The power to create and destroy is all in your hands. Now, that’s job satisfaction: the feeling of an imploding planet of ideas smashed between your palms and drop punted into a bin. It doesn’t’ get any better than that! Every crumple is a form of free and cheap therapy to help keep you sane.
Crumple away, my friend, crumple away.
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 3: Use the force
Paul Kalanithi saw “language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.” If communication is a form of communion then we are the high priests of syntax, lexis, phonemes and coherence. As vessels for these supernatural forces, we can bring people together and help create a world of understanding. Or, at the very least, a common language in which to debate differing ideas.
And as my instructor from a recent affective teaching course said “When life meets language it gives birth to a language that is alive.” Use the force and make something alive in your classroom today.
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 4: Credibility
“Credibility depends on using language effectively” said Garner. Well, we help people wake up every day and put on beautiful, shiny, coats of credibility. That matters.
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 5: Sharing the good luck
Geffory Pullum said “I think it is rather important that people should realise if they’re English speakers, that this is their great piece of undeserved good luck.” English teachers therefore get an even bigger slice of the undeserved good luck pie. Our whole vocation wouldn’t exist if English wasn’t adopted as a global language.
The good news is, we aren’t keeping this good luck to ourselves; we are actively out there sharing it with as many students as possible. We are a cohort of leprechauns guiding each and every student to their own pot of fluency found at the end of their personal language learning rainbow.
Pro-stuff in Teaching Point 6: Mapping new parallel worlds
We get to try and make some sense and order from the ‘the glorious chaos of language’ by mapping new continents of language with our students. Recently researchers created an ‘atlas of the brain’ which shows how words bring to life different areas of our most important organ. One word is not just correlated to a single area but rather a network that represents the different aspects of semantics.
This brings me to a series of novels I recently read called the ‘Long Earth’ by Terry Prachett and Stephen Baxter. The series is set in an infinite series of parallel worlds; the closer worlds are near identical, while the worlds further out differ in more and more details. The only similarity is that they haven’t been impacted on by humanity, until a simple stepper device is discovered which allows people to hop between worlds.
Set in this fictional world, then teaching a second language is mapping a parallel world of vocabulary. Some of the land masses maybe identical but at other times there aren’t any direct matches and new lands must be found to house these unmapped words. Teachers ‘step’ students to these parallel worlds and create new places for English to live in.
We are like the explorers of old – not the bad bits like bringing disease, annihilating indigenous populations etc – but instead, bringing a sense of wonder and excitement; helping our students find these new lands, or parallel dimensions without crashing on some rocks or 'stepping' into a mass of incomprehensibility.
See you in Part 2.