I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language for about 15 years now. It’s a natural choice for people living abroad looking to work. We always have our mother tongue as a fallback, and since I was teaching before our move to France it wasn’t a big leap. I was teaching Spanish in Houston before picking up the ESL gauntlet here in France and running with it! After an intensive year of French classes I felt ready to integrate into the work force, teaching my own language. It is different than teaching a foreign language that isn’t your mother tongue. Your own language is rooted deeply in your life experience, learning, growing up and culture… in who you are. You share all of that when you teach your own language.
I sit across the table from people for hours every week, trying to assess their progress, their comprehension and give them a sense of encouragement. After all, we’re in the same boat, me with French and them with English. It’s actually much more important than I would have thought to have a good grasp of French in order to communicate with my students, and I’m so grateful to all the hours of French class I have had and to all those teachers who shared their language and culture with me.
You learn so much about people in a language course. Conversation warm-up topics are all about getting to know someone and encouraging them to speak. Sometimes the questions can have deep answers or light ones, depending on the person sitting across the table. One of my favorite starters is “Name three things that make you happy”. Now, the responses are vast and their level of English can be perceived rather quickly. You also get to know things about who they are. After hours with a student, you know their favorite weather, seasons, colors, food, holidays and … why. When it’s time for the conditional tense, you get close to their hopes, dreams and regrets. (By the way, 99% of people when asked what they would do if they won the lottery say….TRAVEL). I’ve asked “if there’s one one thing you would change about yourself, what would it be?” I’ve actually had someone say, “nothing”. That’s some pretty good self-esteem, and unfortunately doesn’t help me as a teacher to have them work on grammar structure! I help them along when they mutter that they think they can’t answer the question in English, “Tell me in French and I’ll tell you”. I grab my little white board and write out what they’re trying to say and make them repeat it back to me, working on their accent at the same time. Sometimes they don’t understand my accent in French and I don’t understand their accent in English and we laugh and laugh. It’s a real human experience. I just try to make sure it’s not a humiliating one for them. To be a good teacher, your students have to perceive you as someone that is helping them.
During the holidays, I asked my students conversation questions like “What was your favorite Christmas tradition as a child” or “What was the best Christmas you ever had?” I had one of my students tell me a beautiful story from her childhood and afterwards she was smiling from ear to ear and so happy to have remembered that time and to have expressed it in English. This sort of exchange is so rewarding for me and for them, and makes me so happy to be doing this job. One of my students once said that sometimes it’s like sitting across from a therapist. I agree, English therapy.