As a teacher trainer/lecturer, freelance author, consultant, parent, I see new challenges every academic year. I never refuse an offer to conduct a seminar, a workshop or deliver a lecture, as well as official and unofficial consultations and meetings with my colleagues, parents and of course students. What can be more attractive than taking part in our traditional Methodological Winter School at -40C, or a request to do a series of lectures at a remote place in our region, with a long exhausting commute? Is there a higher level of satisfaction than the one you feel after you manage to help teachers and students solve their problems? We teachers are sharers by nature.
One of the greatest challenges in many parts of the world is teaching bi-lingual or even multi-lingual classes. Different abilities, interests, motivation and diligence are all familiar hurdles. The necessity to navigate among various languages is relatively new. I am familiar with that one because I have had a very good experience in New York: when my own children went to school in Manhattan, there were ten languages spoken at home, in a class of sixteen kids. Many parents did not speak English; for most students English was their second or third language. At the time I became convinced that young children have no communication problems, no barriers. I observed what is known as non-verbal communication daily; our own daughter easily translated what her Japanese classmate said. We adults could only guess and marvel at the ways all the pupils studied and played, never once stumbling over multiple tongues used. Their teacher had to teach them all English though, and that was quite a challenge. Here is what I learned form her: where there is a will there is a way. Meaning, she greeted her class daily with a smile and a kind word for each child, and they all replied in kind. She used lots of visual aids, toys, presentations, and the children absorbed it all seemingly without any difficulty. When parents or guardians came to pick them up, every child rushed to their family member eager to share the impressions of the day, in their home language, translating everything as a matter of course. The teacher always had time for us parents, and we worked towards the same goals together.
It is much harder with older students, especially teenagers and adults. First of all if they come from another country they may never have had any real schooling, in our sense of the word. So for them the whole experience is new and quite challenging. Attending classes daily, learning a new language, fulfilling unfamiliar tasks, without really understanding why they need to do that, is quite stressful. Everyone involved in the educational process has to learn many new skills. We know English, that is a given. What we have to master on the fly is the ability to evaluate our new classes according to their age, level, background, and we must do it in the very beginning of a course. Quite often we have to learn about their country and culture, in addition to their current status and circumstances. Our familiar methods may not work, so we need to search for the new trends.
One approach which always works for me when I meet a new group of EL teachers is the following. I ask my audience what they expect from a course or seminar, what kind of workshops they would like to have, in short, what ails them. At our first meeting I would listen carefully and take notes. Naturally this may lead to some changes in my own plan, and consequently to some extra work. But it pays to know what your listeners expect, what they need, what they want. If an instructor simply follows their own teaching plan without much knowledge of their class, the said class may quickly become bored and stop reacting. With adults, pair and group work produce very good results. Several people may prefer to get extra training in speaking, they may form one brain storming group. Others wish to listen to recordings and teach their students later how to distinguish the sounds better. Some may like writing and others are avid readers. It is useful to allot some time for every little group so that they present their ideas for the benefit of the whole class. After a session or two we should suggest they swap roles and tasks.
A separate session at the end of a course when all the participants have a chance to exchange their opinions, establish priorities, discuss various challenges and problem-solving, is extremely useful. Sometimes it is enough to know that other EL teachers experience the same problems, face the same challenges as you do. You are not alone, help is only a click away.
Nina MK, Ph.D.