Teachers Stories: Breaking Free

Breaking Free

Teachers’ Stories: Breaking Free

There are several ways to approach ESL and EFL teaching. I am trained as a Communicative ESL Teacher, though I tend to use whatever method may get the job done in the most interesting and expedient way. I do tend to shy away from archaic methods that involve lists of vocabulary without context and direct translation. I might add, I was trained at the University of Toronto and that my certificate is a master’s level diploma. My former professors write texts and are involved on the leading edge of Applied Linguistics. I am fortunate to have been trained to think on my feet and to never throw the baby out with the bathwater!

In the early days of my career as a communicative ESL teacher, I was teaching beginners in a multicultural program in a private school in Vancouver, Canada. It was the 1st week of a 12 week block, which meant that the students were all new. We had exhausted the oral welcoming exercises and I was dealing with ferocious resistance from a man from the Czech Republic, Ignac, which means fiery! This fellow wanted lists of words before he would attempt to read a short paragraph in the reading text called True Stories in the News. This is a beginner text and the stories are rewritten and controlled for tense and very simple structures; the same structures that are explored in the two or three pages of exercises that follow each tale. This text is designed to help the students understand the use of pronouns, plural and tense markers. He wouldn’t try and was ready to commandeer the class! I invited him to sit out while we read the paragraph (I read with them) on one of the chairs against the wall. My training taught me NOT to let him leave the room, since he could interpret this as rejection. He sat there for about 30 seconds and returned to the group but he still wanted control. Another student, a Mexican woman named Gabriela, became upset and ran crying from the room. I followed her into the bathroom to comfort her. I gave her a hug and told her to take the rest of that day off (it was now getting close to the end of the class time and the end of the day). When I went back into the classroom Ignac was a tad smug and looking quite satisfied. His wife, Kristyna, who was also in this class, was wearing a look that suggested I better find a way around his machismo! I believe this look is reserved for woman to woman communication. I took it to heart.

The administration had placed Kristyna in the beginner class, despite the fact that she’d tested at an intermediate level. My guess was that they’d recognized that her husband would need her for his classroom experience. I also guessed that they’d sensed that he might become a pain to them if he was left to fend for himself in the classroom. I moved her to the intermediate class. The administration wasn’t too happy but they were willing to trust my judgment. Past experience with couples in the classroom had taught me that students do better, learn more and have a richer experience if they have more autonomy while learning. I felt that Kristyna would thrive wherever she landed and that Ignac would be easier to manage if he wasn’t able to use his wife as his crutch. I also felt that he would be able to reach his potential more easily without the pressure of performing for her, which was an element of the challenge he was posing in the classroom. It was a bold move on my part, since it could have blown up in my face and doing so had put me on notice. But, I ventured forth, confident in my ability to win this fellow over, though I admit that I was doing so in a state of prayer, for sure!

The next day, I was grateful when Gabriela returned and handed me a note that she must have taken hours to write. It was even longer than the little paragraph we’d attempted to read the day before. In it she explained her emotional response to the macho man with an explanation of her background. She was a Mexican woman. I didn’t need much more information than that but she shared some of the details about Mexican male domination (in very simple broken English). I made a point of showing it to the administrator at lunchtime. A sincere, “Wow”, was their response. So far, so good I thought, as I went back to class.

The Czech fellow was ready to teach me how to teach. He’d prepared a few pages of Czech words he wanted to know in English. I told him we wouldn’t be doing translation in the classroom and pointed to his Czech / English dictionary. Then I went to the chalkboard. I drew a very high precipice with water below and a nest sitting on the edge of the cliff. I put a large and a small bird in the nest and labeled them, Mom and Baby. Then I enlisted the class, asking them; “How does the baby learn to fly? How does the baby leave the nest?” Gabriela mimed the mother pushing the baby out. I then labeled the baby bird with Ignac’s name and student. The Mom, I labeled with Wendy, (my name) and teacher. Below the cliff, I wrote water and English. I looked at Ignac and crossed my heart with hand gestures while I said, I was pushing him out of the nest and I crossed my heart again saying that before he hit the water, he would know English. He laughed. I then challenged him to a mock arm wrestling match. We were all having fun now and, posing as a body builder in the classical strong man stance, I said, “I am the teacher. You are the student. I teach you. You do the work and you learn English.” He got it and settled down ready to participate. Hurrah!

Instead of doing any of the work we’d attempted prior, I began the class with a song and a cloze exercise. I used Bette Midler’s rendition of John Prine’s, Say Hello in There. It is simple, sweet, emotionally accessible and quite penetrating. I had blanked out the words that gave a clue to meaning in each line. They liked it. The task was simple enough that Ignac didn’t balk. In fact, his interest was piqued. He was even keen to answer the two pages of comprehension questions I’d prepared. We did them together to bolster their confidence and show them what I expected for next time. Normally, after we have taken up the aural / listening part of the cloze, and I am sure they understand the meaning of all the words, I have them answer the questions in groups. I always structure the group(s) with no two students from the same language background if possible. This way, the only thing they have in common is English. In true communicative ESL style, there is a natural information gap that the students can only fill by seeking answers to the questions and discussing their findings from the source data (in this case, the lyrics of the song). They can only do this using English if that is all they have in common linguistically! It’s simple and brilliant – simply brilliant, or, as I’ve heard the Brits say, pure brill!

By the end of the 4th week, Ignac was able to tell me and the class an elaborate story about doing business in Afghanistan. He said he felt very uncomfortable in the makeshift camp when the Afghani men made a pot of some sort of pulp porridge made from a local root. He said they offered him his share by scooping it out of the pot with their bare hand. He said he had hoped it wasn’t the same hand they used after defecation.
In the 12th week, I took the class on a scavenger hunt at the Public Market area of Vancouver. It has an interesting combination of shops, galleries and museums that span Art, Culture and New Age consciousness. I ran into a small group of the students just outside a Spiritual shop that had a giant Amethyst geode just inside the front door. Interestingly, it was the same geode I’d seen at the Native art gallery in Ontario before I went to the coast to teach a year prior! The shopkeeper told me they’d bought it from the Whetung Gallery in Ontario several months earlier! I shared this interesting coincidence with the students and told them that some people believe that Amethyst have special properties that promote Spiritual healing.

Ignac, who was among the group of students, was excited to be able to tell me about meeting a Spiritual Healer in the Himalayas who healed him of some dreadful illness. He said the healer cleared his ethereal or energy body by simply sweeping the energy field surrounding his body with his hands.

On the last day, as Ignac and his wife, Kristyna were leaving the school, they came to the office at the end of the day to find me. They had a gift for me and they invited me to their home in the Czech Republic. He cried when he gave me a hug and thanked me for understanding him and teaching him so much English. It was one of those sweet moments you get teaching ESL.

The following week, I was asked to take over as the head teacher and to write curriculum for the school. I was also given a modest raise in pay! Goodness abounds!


1) http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/methodology/teachingapproaches/teaching-approaches-functional-approaches-in-efl/-esl/146492.article

2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloze_test

3) Midler – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KchO6_4i0hg
(Hello in There)

Prine – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfwGkplB_sY
(Hello in There)

4) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=brill

5) http://www.healing-crystals-for-you.com/amethyst-crystals.html