Steve Schertzer

Teachers and learners as one

towards a new theology of TEFL


"Give to the world the best you have and the best will come back to you."

----- Madeline Bridges.

It wasn't a very good class. Not many of them are in Korea. But one student stood out, and, occasionally, I still think about him. He was in his 50's at the time, a child of the Korean war, who, with his six year old brother, crossed the Bridge of No Return in 1950 into South Korea never to see his parents again. He called himself "Peter", after the Biblical Apostle. A born again Christian, he spent a lot of time in class trying to convert the teachers and get them to go to church with him. Being Jewish, I wasn't too crazy about his method of communication, but I did have dinner with him on occasion and met his family.

For those who have taught TEFL in Korea, most of the adult students are not necessarily a stimulating bunch. But Peter was different. Besides the Bible thumping he was not your garden variety Korean student. He was, for the most part, calm and reflective. Kind and introspective. I once asked him why, after all he had gone through, was he not bitter or angry. Why was he so calm and pleasant to be around? Why was he so seemingly accepting of life's uncertainties? Why did he seem so much at peace? He replied, (and I'll never forget this), that "God is always watching me."

Imagine that. Imagine going through life feeling, (or knowing), that God is watching you. Would you behave differently? That would be frightening to many people, but it was comforting to Peter.

I've been a non-believer for as long as I can remember. I would like to think there is a higher power looking after us and protecting mankind. Then I turn on FOX News or the BBC, and quickly realize that mankind is in a hell of a lot of trouble. It quickly becomes obvious that we're on our own.

But what if there really is a Supreme Being looking over us? (Or looking down on us? It's tough to find a preposition for this situation.) What if God was in our classrooms observing our teaching? Would that change the way we teach? Should it? I've been thinking about this lately. Even a non-believer like me. I would like to think that we would teach better if God were watching us. Would we come to class more prepared? Would we be more compassionate, more caring?

This month many in the Thai TESOL community will be attending a conference in Chiang Mai, a conference that will attempt to discuss ways to teach our students better. This is all well and good. We need discussions and debates on ways to improve all aspects of TESOL. According to the Thai TESOL website, some of the issues that will be discussed on a formal and informal basis are teacher education and development, curriculum development and syllabus design, innovative approaches toward learner-centerdness, new ways of teaching grammar and vocabulary, IT applications, and more! This is fine, but there's a problem here. Unlike Peter, who honestly felt that God was watching him, who is watching these pseudo-intellectuals while they pontificate the latest TESOL theories? Who is questioning their comments and findings? Who will be there to keep these people honest?

There are many problems with the TESOL business. One of which is that it's a business, not a profession. And it's still a very long way from becoming a full-fledged profession with all of its benefits and responsibilities. Another problem is that this business tends to be run by greedy and unethical people who are far more concerned with making money and seeing their name in lights, than they are with really improving the lives of teachers and students. But the problem that this column is concerned with is that the TESOL business is Godless. And in a Godless business, there is a tendency for those running a business to think they are God's replacement. This, of course, is dangerous.

It's dangerous because of the tendentious nature of people, especially those in positions of authority, to view things as an either/or phenomenon. We tend to dichotomize people and their experiences, and the TESOL business is certainly no exception. We pigeonhole teachers based upon our perceptions of them, and, to a greater extent, on their beliefs and behaviour. We have doctors and their patients; lawyers and their clients; taxi drivers and their passengers, and TEFL teachers and their students. In the case of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, a dichotomy between the professional and the people they serve may be warranted for a variety of work related reasons. Even a university professor and his students may, at times, have to be seen as two distinct groups for professional purposes. But there is neither a professional purpose nor a work related reason that TEFL teachers and their students should be viewed and perceived as two distinct groups. Hence the title of this column: The Teachers and Learners as One.

While the language school directors, managers, and pseudo-intellectuals at TESOL conferences tend to perceive and treat teachers and learners as two distinct groups, we TEFL teachers can't. By dint of the fact that we have left out homeland and have travelled to faraway countries to live and teach is a testament to our courage and goodwill, and proof of our willingness to help others. We are on a journey. Call it an educational journey, a psychological journey, or a spiritual journey. But the truth is, we are on a journey. And by dint of the fact that our students are attempting to learn English to better their lives, means, to a certain extent, that they too are on a journey. It may not be the same journey, but it's a journey. And so we TEFL teachers and our students are on a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. We are ONE, working together for the betterment of each other, one another, and the societies in which we live and teach.

This may sound Pollyanna or pie-in-the-sky education, but it really isn't. By seeing ourselves and our students on a similar journey of self-discovery and self-improvement can only help us in succeeding and reaching our goals. You won't hear this from the educational theorists at TESOL conferences.

Author Neal Donald Walsch talks about a theology of separation. A theology of separation produces a sociology of separation, and a sociology of separation produces pathology. Separating our journey from those of our students simply doesn't work. According to Walsch, we have created and are now living in, a pathology of separation. Separation from God, separation from each other, and even separation from ourselves.

Peter chose not to separate himself from God while learning English in my class. He truly believed that he became a better student because God was watching him. This raises a very interesting and important question: If some students truly feel that they are better students because God is watching them, can this work for teachers as well? Can TEFL teachers become better teachers because God is watching us? If a teacher truly feels that he or she is a better teacher because God is watching them teach, then who is anyone to object? As long as the teacher does not overtly push an agenda, then what's the problem?

In his classic book, "The Power of Positive Thinking", Dr. Normand Vincent Peale advised people to make God your business partner, a radical piece of advice when the book was published. This is an interesting idea. Imagine having God as your teaching assistant! Assuming that God is a pretty good teacher himself, how can that not make you a better teacher?

In his book "What God Wants", Neal Donald Walsch puts it this way. "Creating a feeling inside you can create an event outside you." In other words, by believing that God watching you makes you a better teacher can actually make you a better teacher. If this is so, then who is anyone--- be it language school directors, managers, or supervisors--- to tell you otherwise? At the slightest sign of trouble in the classroom, simply take a step back and ask yourself, what would God want me to do? Then do it.

Now there's a good question. What does God want us TEFL teachers to do? We have travelled to strange and faraway places. We are employed in schools trying to teach people with very different customs how to speak our language. So what does God want us to do? Surely God wants us to treat people the way we ourselves want to be treated. He also wants us to help the poor, share ourselves with others, and to be kind and helpful whenever we can. This may be tough to do even under the best of times, but isn't that what most of us TEFL teachers are doing a lot of the time, day in and day out? Aren't we sharing ourselves with others? Aren't we helping many of the world's poor by teaching them the English language so that they and their children can at least have a chance at a better life? If this is so, then we are doing what God wants us to do. We are doing God's work. This is logical. If God wants us to do A, B, and C, and we are doing A, B, and C, then we are doing God's work. We are doing what God wants us to do.

Ahh, I can hear you say. This all sounds nice, but I'm no Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. I can't even begin to walk in their shoes. The good news here is that you don't have to. Walk in yours. Just do good.

This brings me to the theology of TEFL. Some of you may be asking what is this new theology of TEFL? Actually, it's not new. But it's theology. The Theology of TEFL. At TESOL conferences, there's a lot of talk about the psychology of TEFL. But there is precious little about the theology of it. Pontificating the latest TESOL theories about how language students learn is little more than a pop-psychological analysis and interpretation of how educational theorists think the mind works. It becomes little more than a pseudo-intellectual commentary about education, second language acquisition, and culture. Interesting and somewhat informative, no doubt. But not something to be taken very seriously.

Here is the theology of TEFL. If you want to succeed as a teacher, make sure your students succeed first. That's it! If you want to achieve your goals and objectives as a teacher, first make sure that your students achieve their goals and objectives. If you want to be the greatest TEFL teacher on earth, make sure that your students are the greatest students on earth--- FIRST.

The psychology of TEFL is quite different. What the psychology of TEFL tells us is to concentrate on the teacher first and foremost. It tells us that the students can't succeed until the teacher first becomes successful. It tells us that the students won't learn anything until the teacher first teaches. The psychology of TEFL divides the classroom into two distinct and very different groups: The teacher and the learners; the active giver, and the passive receivers. This is separation theory, in this case, separation between the teachers and the learners. And as Walsch puts it, separation created pathology. It simply doesn't work.

These pseudo-intellectuals and educational theorists who peddle and favor a separation theory in the classroom--- whether they realize it or not--- are doing far more harm than good. They don't allow the crucial emotional, and at times, spiritual connection between the teachers and learners that is necessary for true learning to take place. They don't allow for that "magic moment." A moment that lets the learners and teachers know that they are on a wonderful journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. If these educational theorists don't watch themselves they may end up becoming the Dr. Phil of the TESOL industry! Their theories may end up on a bumper sticker!

Dr. Phil McGraw, the American pop-psychologist du jour, loves to counsel couples by saying things like, "you can't give away what you don't have." In other words, you can't love another until you first love yourself. That's wonderful, but it's not entirely true. It's probably not even mostly true.

The BEST time to give something away IS when you feel you don't have it. This is the time when it comes back to you in a multitude of ways you never expected. This is the theology of TEFL. If you want to be the best TEFL teacher make sure your students are the best FIRST. In "What God Wants", Walsch puts it this way:

"If it's true that the fastest way to experience that you have something is to give it away, then if you want to experience having something, you'll immediately cause another to experience having it.
If you want to experience that you have power, cause another to experience that they have power. If you want to experience compassion in your life, cause another to experience compassion in theirs. If you want to experience that you have more companionship, cause another to be companioned. If you want more humor in your life, bring more humor to the life of another. Try it with anything! Try it with everything! It works." (Page 110.)

Walsch sums this up in three words: BE THE SOURCE. Gandhi tells us to "become the change which we seek." However you choose to phrase it, it comes down to one thing: Successful students make successful teachers. Not the other way around.

The psychology of TEFL tells the teacher to impart your knowledge, then wait and see if the students learn anything. Give and wait to receive. The theology of TEFL tells the teacher to "give what you wish to receive." Giving and receiving become so intertwined that at times we don't know who is doing the teaching and who is doing the learning. And we really don't need to know. In this journey of self-discovery and self-improvement, we are all teachers and learners.

I invite all my students on this wonderful journey. I also invite the language school directors and managers. Whether most people take me up on this invitation remains to be seen. I fully realize that this is not for everyone. Some students will be uncomfortable with this. They may be from a society that has never allowed them to take a proactive approach to their own learning. And many language school directors and managers may have absolutely no interest in this theology of TEFL. (Although they might, if they see more money in it for them!)

Having the teachers and learners sharing a similar educational and spiritual journey will also cut down on many of the misunderstandings and disagreements that plague the teacher/learner relationship. As long as they both know, realize, and accept what they are getting in to, then disagreements and complaints should instantly and dramatically decrease.

So why not try this? What do we have to lose? After all, God may be watching us!




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