What is the way to improve your English teaching? The answer might surprise you.
Don’t teach English.
That is it. That is the way to improve your English teaching.
Now, this is not one of those
trite things where I tell you to teach the people in the class and not the content. What I mean is teach something other than English and it will positively impact your English teaching by giving you insights onto your English teaching practice. Guaranteed.
I have experienced this phenomena a few times in the last few years and I think there is something to it. My experiences teaching things that are not English (or TTTANE, pronounced Tayne) has been limited to teaching politics and Korean studies to (mostly) international students at a university in Seoul. Well, that and teacher training. I often think I learned more in 6 months doing teacher training than 6 years teaching.
Last year at this time I was teaching Korean politics to international students and I was thrilled the course was winding down. Here are some thoughts from my ridiculously titled blog post from that time, “Politics, comfort zones, confidence, arrogance, shots of courage, scattered thoughts, a bit of bragging and burritos.” Even a year later I can still remember those stressful but ultimately enjoyable Sundays of research and Mondays of waking up early and planning a lesson, I mean lecture. I feel like there were so many key insights I gained from this process and experience.
One way my teaching outside of English impacted my thinking about teaching English was related to the idea of helping students develop skills or gain knowledge about certain things. My non-English teaching self was much more concerned about ensuring students gained the required knowledge and were able to show it. My English teaching self is/was typically more focused on helping students develop specific skills in terms of their English use. From stepping outside my usual teaching I was able to question what that even means. It gave me a lot to to think about and gave me some nice confusions about what knowledge and skill really mean to me. Update: I am not really sure what I think at this point.
When I think about teaching courses other than English courses the idea of pairwork is something that jumps to mind. Specifically the utility of it and what I hope to accomplish when having students do it in class. I think in regular English classes I have at times been too easily swayed by the logic that students don’t have chances to use English outside of class (Korea being an EFL context after all) so just letting Ss run with discussion tasks for extended periods of time was seen as completely acceptable and even advisable. You know, something about fluency something something. But in this politics class that need was not present or even helpful. While some students in that class could have benefited from a bit of English practice, a large percentage were L1 users of English. Organizing discussion tasks for the politics class helped me see my regular English classes in a new light. I like to think I was able to make changes to the types of speaking tasks I gave in my English classes based on the insights gained from teaching non-English classes.
Another of the big takeaways is the feeling of not being an expert and not even seeming like one or playing the part. In an English class there are surely things I don’t know or am not fully comfortable with but I can almost always find the answer in an acceptable amount of time. I know where to start and where to look and how to give a decent placeholder answer. By continually providing reasonable answers (and yes, also by being a White “Native Speaker”) I easily build on the credibility that is instantly afforded to me. When teaching politics I didn’t get this instant credibility (and in fact might have lost any hope for it when I announced in the first class that I was not an expert.) What I am trying to get at here is that for the first time in a long time I felt a vulnerability attached to not knowing what the hell I was talking about and also being seen for not knowing what the hell I am talking about. This brought me back a bit to when I was first teaching English and I found it helpful to revisit these feelings of vulnerability and a lack of confidence. In terms of my “regular” English classes I think this lack of confidence helped me see some questions were I might have previously felt quite confident in my choices. I think I benefited greatly from jumping back to being a naive beginner.
I truly think my experiences teaching things that are not English was incredibly helpful and I’d recommend it for every English teacher. So, in order to become a better English teacher what are you going to teach? My experiences were more about politics and Korean studies but I think teaching another language could be great. Or a sport. Or an instrument. Or a computer program. What ideas and experiences do you have?
In case you are not convinced this one way will work for you or you don’t see how it is possible here are 20 Ways to be a Better Language Teacher by Martin Sketchley and Professional Development now and in the Future by Vicky Loras.
I sincerely apologize for the click-baity title and introduction.
I probably should have said “a way” instead of “the way.”
As you might know, there are no guarantees.
I say teaching something other than English “will” improve your teaching. “Will” is a strong word here. Please feel free to replace will with can/could/might/might just in your mind at your discretion. Your mileage will vary.
In an early line I call it trite to say “teach the student not the content.” That is not strictly fair because lots of people miss this lots of the time. I guess that might contribute to the reason it is for frequently stated by well-meaning folks.
Of course the types of insights and changes I talk about might not require actually teaching something else but it was helpful for me and I hope I have been sufficiently convincing.
Lots of Two people on Twitter wondered/suggested that my advice is only or more applicable to native speakers. I think this is an interesting point and one that I wondered about (especially in the section related to confidence and the beginner mind). My current thought is that the experience of Teaching Things That Are Not English can be beneficial for teachers of all experience levels and L1s. I think stepping out of the comfort zones we inhabit can help us see our regular situations from a different angle, thus potentially providing insights. What do you think? Why exactly would it be different for so called native speakers? Because they (we) are more likely to feel comfortable with the content? I am not so sure about this (but I am willing to hear more) as I think the reason for my relative comfort mentioned above is because I have been doing this for many years and I have put in the time and effort to have answers and explanations for the type of questions that come up. Of course I might be missing something because I only have the experiences and background that I have. I often think of my brother when considering questions like this. He is a well-read monolingual English user who works in business. I think he’d be, pardon the expression, totally screwed when faced with esoteric or challenging questions about English. Is this a relevant point? I am not sure but it seems like it from here.