How Native English Learners Differ From Non-Native Learners: My Personal Experience
I taught my first class when I was 22 and just entering graduate school in upstate New York. I had graduated from college in 1991, took a year off and decided to go back for my Master's degree in Theatre in 1993. Looking back, it was one of the best choices I ever made. Not only did I get a full teaching assistantship but I was given the opportunity to teach--something I had never done before but something I definitely wanted to try.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Alyssa T.
Teaching English to native speakers
When I taught my first class (which was an acting class for non-theatre majors), I was not much older than some of my students. In fact, one or two of my students may have been older than me! I got around this hurdle by remembering something that a friend had said to me, "Just remember, you know more than you think you do." That sentiment, coupled with my intense preparation for the class, gave me the confidence I needed to stand in front of the class and teach.
Because this was an acting class, we broke the ice by playing a lot of games, which may have seemed silly at the time, but which allowed the students to get to know one another and allowed me to get to know them. I did have an advantage in that English was the native language for 99.9% of my students BUT acting was new to most of them, so I did have to teach them theatre language, and to some extent, theatre history, so that they could watch their peers perform and then give them feedback that was appropriate.
English and Drama
It was a number of years before I found myself in front of the classroom again and this time, the circumstances were slightly different. I was working in the Theatre office at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and I was asked by the Chair of the Theatre Department if I wanted to teach an Introduction to Drama class. I jumped at the chance for two main reasons: 1. Because I wanted to get in front of a classroom again and 2. Because this was very different from teaching an acting class; it would require a different set of skills which I wanted to hone. The preparation for this type of class was different because the textbook we were using followed a particular trajectory.
in short, we were moving from the 'old times' of Greek theatre to the more recent 'modern' theater era so the course had to be mapped out in a way that made sense to the students. They needed to grasp the concepts from the Greek era to understand how those influences affected (and continue to affect) the modern era of theatre. Because lecturing for 3 hours a night is not conducive to anyone's understanding of the material, I made an effort to get the students involved either by having them teach a portion of the lesson, engage in group activities, and show video clips when appropriate. To be an effective teacher, you need to think outside the box and you also need to put yourself in your students' shoes. How would you feel if you had to sit through a lesson that just reiterated what was in the textbook? You would quickly lose your students. It's hard enough having to compete with cell phones.
English as a tool
For the last 12 years, I have taught a variety of courses, including Yoga, Theatre History, Performing Skills for the Classroom and Public Speaking. Each type of class requires a different method of teaching, but the learning outcomes remain the same: You want the students to walk away with an understanding and appreciation of the material and as a teacher, you need to be prepared, organized, passionate, patient, and engaging. You have to be flexible. If something doesn't work, you don't repeat it. You listen to your students, and many times, students will tell you exactly what they are thinking without saying a word. If you watch their body language, you will know whether something is working.
If you listen to the questions they ask or the answers to the questions you ask, you will know whether they are engaged. I have found that my students who are not originally from America tend to listen and take notes more effectively because English is not necessarily their first language. They tend to be more diligent than American students. Again, this is in my experience. I would not venture to make a sweeping statement about the American educational system -- except that most teachers work hard and do want their students to succeed.
What this experience gave me
If there is anything I have learned during my years as a teacher (albeit not full time) it is this: Experience has made me a more confident person and therefore a more confident teacher. I am nervous every time I step in front of a class but I don't let it stop me. I use my nervousness in a positive and productive way. I know that I am not perfect and I will make mistakes. I know how to laugh at myself if I do something wrong. I think if students can understand and see the humanity in a teacher, they will be more willing to take risks. And in taking risks, they learn something new about themselves and what they are capable of. And isn't that what education is all about?
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