Matt Smith

The burden of being fun

Why many ESL environments are so nightmarish

At its best, ESL teaching is a job that provides tremendous intellectual satisfaction. And, you get to travel the world, and meet all sorts of interesting people and have all sorts of interesting experiences. At its worst, however, it is the kind of job you wouldn’t wish on your most hated enemy – when the students couldn’t care less about what you have to say, and even worse if they are determined to make fun of you, the ESL classroom can become a living hell. Which begs the question, for me, of why so many ESL environments are so nightmarish – sure, there’s definitely the element that many of the Western people managing them are only nominally teachers, or that they often lack experience and that, in terms of their professional practice, this shows (and of course, there are the ‘ring-ins’, or the people who lack any type of qualification even remotely relevant to the job, and/or who couldn’t care less about teaching other than it being a means to some other end). But, considering that when a class is interested to learn, or has an appropriate attitude towards learning, even the most poorly conceived of lesson plans can come off just fine, and that something meaningful can usually be salvaged for everyone, I think there’s a lot more to it than simply wetness about the ears. In other words, there are in my experience all too many occasions in the ESL world where the teacher’s practice is good enough for the job they’re doing, but where the students’ reaction to them is stultifying to say the least – I get the feeling that a major factor contributing to this situation might be something along the lines as follows.

Basically, there are a lot of cases where you’re sold to the students as fun. ‘Yes’, the native conveners say, ‘learning English with your regular teachers requires you to concentrate, and by comparison to the things you might otherwise be doing demands rather a lot of effort – but we’ve got a native speaker now, there’s going to be no more grammar or language points, no more writing exercises you have to do, all that they will ask of you is that you go into their class, speak with them, and play a few fun and interesting games.’ By this means they seek to suffuse their occupation with a little bit of glamour to which the students might be attracted. And/or (depending on whether it is a public or private institution in question), they sell a few lessons to students whose interest levels might not otherwise be sufficient to make their worried mothers part with the money for the course.

And to be frank, there is some truth to what they’re thinking; at last, with a native speaker, the students are presented with a context in which they can use English that gives what they’ve been learning a real purpose, or that lifts the words out of the limbo of being sounds you’re told people use somewhere to communicate their ideas into a dimension where the only real way you can get across is to use them (i.e. they shift from being mere gobbledy gook that supposedly represents something in your own language to become the only real means you can respond to someone, and to get them to respond to you, which lends them a new weight of seriousness). There’s the element too that, in some places, it’s exciting to have the Westerner enter the classroom – the rural Thais amongst whom I work are a classic example of that, it’s interesting for them to suddenly find one of the figures they’re more used to seeing represented in print or on screen suddenly become manifest, in a real and interactive form, in front of them. Unfortunately, however, when you sell the foreigner in this way, you’re invariably doing them rather a disservice; if the students don’t want to engage with language learning in an established fashion in the first place, or don’t want to put in an effort to try and learn something, to promote the entrance of the Western instructor into the learning environment in this way is purely an invitation to compound the problem.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that if motivation, attitudes towards language learning and classroom management were issues before the arrival of the foreign instructor, to suggest that a foreign language is something students will acquire from merely being in the presence of and having the opportunity to say something to a foreign teacher, or to chuck all your hopes and expectations for improvement on their ‘foreign charisma’, is to toll their death knell – even given all the advantages of being a Westerner and native speaker of English in the classroom, it seems ridiculous to expect, particularly in an age where the novelty of Western-ness and the idea that teachers should be respected are wearing rather thin, that these attributes are sufficient to command the attention of the less than interested learners. And, that it is indeed possible to teach the English language in a way that is as cognitively effortless and un-disturbing as, say, a computer game, or sitting on the couch in front of the TV (which, unfortunately, is what a lot of students in the present day equate with the concept of fun, or think of as the comparable feeling they will get when they hear lessons with the foreign teacher being described as such). What I found in Korea, which is the last place I experienced a nightmarish teaching environment – and I would wager that any of you that have been plying this trade for any span of time would have reached the same conclusion – is that it is impossible to conduct any sort of meaningful activity or play any sort of speaking game without first reviewing the language that will be used in the activity, or without at the very least providing the students with the instructions on what to do, otherwise the activity will simply fall apart (because so many of your students, while the content of their current textbook might suggest otherwise, won’t have a clue in regards to the language the activities or games use, or, even if they know the words, won’t recognise them when spoken by the native speaker –furthermore, if they aren’t clear about how to do the game or activity, it will be a flop on every occasion). And if the students come into the classroom with the attitude that there is no way they have to do anything but relax and, at most, speak when spoken to, or that all the serious aspects of language learning have been left in their native teacher’s classroom, this is invariably what is going to happen. The swift follow-up to activities falling apart being that, if you’re teaching compulsory English, pre-adult learners, they monopolise on the situation with a quick reversion to their most unpleasant personas – your goose becomes, to put it simply, well and truly cooked.

Now the solution is obvious. Students have to know, before they come into the foreign teacher’s classroom, that developing real communicative competence in the English language is a systematic process of examining and practicing various features of it. And, that while you have tried your best to make this process as engaging as possible, and to minimise this ‘disadvantage’, there can be no fun, and most definitely no results, without just a little hard work. Of course if you haven’t tried your best to learn the process, and if you haven’t tried to make the activities that engage the students with the various features of English fun and entertaining, you’ve really cooked your own goose – presuming that you are a good teacher, however, or that you read up on what you’re teaching, and on English teaching in general, accepting their responsibilities becomes the students’ obligation. Which is where what I’ve been saying all along becomes relevant – if the students have been disavowed of the notion that they have such responsibilities before you meet them, it’s very dubious as to whether you can ever really enjoy your job and stick at it, and as to whether doing it is really ever that fruitful for the learners either. The people who persist, in my observation, in the face of these dilemmas tend to do so firstly because they’re keen on the salary what they’re doing provides more so than whether their method of teaching has any really beneficial impact, and in view of these priorities tend to make getting what they want out of the situation as bearable as possible by distancing their professional practice from any of the things we might consider to have maximum effect when it comes to teaching and learning foreign languages. Hence of course, I would argue, when it comes to ESL continuums like Korea, and just about any cram school in general, the massive amounts of capital that are spent on English teaching that provides such minimal gain (i.e. we all know that they could do a lot better for their money).

The responsibility for improving the situation, in other words, by this line of reasoning we could now say in so many miserable cases falls on the shoulders of the native administrators who are misrepresenting what English learning with a foreign instructor is really all about – if I step now into the realms of purely theoretical argument, however, or into a domain of purely hypothetical surmise, it would be pointless to imagine that said administrations are flippantly tossing us into hell, or that they are bungling things through purely oversight. The education systems in many countries that offer such unsavoury teaching environments to the unwitting ESL practitioner, that is to say, are faced with considerable difficulties, or in fact under extreme duress are betting such enormous amounts of money on the flimsy hope that bringing foreign instructors into the classroom is going to increase the students’ propensities to learn – for further evidence that it is indeed desperation, and not ignorance that drives them, look at all the other corny stuff a lot of countries waste their time on hoping that it is going to bring about real change. One of the classic examples that springs to mind here is something I heard about from a friend of mine, where there’s a particular school that gets their teachers to dress up like doctors, and where they consider the students to be ‘patients’ – tell me there that the learners don’t have serious metacognitive misconceptions of what learning is all about, if they think that this, and not some change of practice on their own behalf, is going to bring about an improvement in the amount of English they are going to take on board. Chuck in with this all the other stuff that I have talked about here previously, the clown shows, the puffs of smoke, the magicians and so on, and you get the real drift of what I mean – these are all the symptoms, boiling to the surface for our perusal, of a deep-rooted inability to learn effectively that, in the panic of dealing with how to negotiate it successfully, sparks such far fetched solutions.

Hypothetically, I mean, I think I can see what’s going on here. In a lot of parts of Asia, the learners are passive learners, which doesn’t really lend it self to the teaching of English – particularly, that is, with the communicative methods that, when you understand them properly, really are in a lot of ways at the cutting edge of teaching methodology. But the solution to the problem is anathema to the social structure and function of the countries in which this passive learning dilemma exists – as soon as we get students to get seriously involved in learning, and to seriously think for themselves, they start to think in ways that threaten the fabric of tradition (tradition, it takes but little nous to see, that continues to be the dominant social influence in a lot of Asian societies). And of course, as in Western society, the lion’s share of most Asian social systems’ efforts are actually directed at preventing this, or as our critical traditions point out the majority of features of the prevailing social systems around the world are actually geared towards raising sheep and not people - to go against this would be to go against the main thrust of what near everything else in society is intended to achieve, and thus is not something we would be likely to see eventuate. So it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation – one of its unfortunate outcomes, from our perspective, or from the ESL teacher’s perspective, is that the problem gets passed along the line from social movers and shakers to native educators, who then, at the end of that line, fob it off onto us. Personally, although this is the escapist solution, I prefer to avoid situations in which I now know I will be the victim of this paradox – perhaps, however, there are those amongst you who can successfully subvert its causes.

If there were, it would be nice to see you write a little bit about it – I guess my musings this month could be summed up in the statement that wow, if students were always keen to put in the minimum of effort to learn a bit of English, ours would universally be one of the best jobs around.


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