Please teach them English

The crack research team here at ELT RRR has uncovered some letters from a language school manager to a new teacher. We thought the emails would be of interest to readers, especially in light of the push for teaching 21st century skills in English classes, so we are posting them here. Please enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments.

 

Framework_for_21st_Century_Learning

Framework for 21st Century Learning from Wikipedia 

 


Dear Susie,

It is wonderful to have you working with us. We appreciate your enthusiasm and energy. It is great that you care about the students and connect with them. It is great to see you have some interests in common with the students, including Pokemon Go and Minecraft. I am sure you will be able to share thoughts and ideas related to computers and Internet Technology. I am looking forward to a nice year (or more!) working with you at Super Happy English Academy for Children. I know that you don’t have much experience teaching English but I think your passion for learning and teaching will be a great asset for you. I also think your artistic background and your previous experience teaching underwater basket-weaving will be useful experiences for you to draw upon in your work here. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you. Take care and have a great year. Best of luck!

Sincerely yours,
John LEE
Academic Manager


Dear Susie,

I hope this finds you well. I have heard good things about your teaching performance. Thank you ever so much for the great efforts you have been making. It is noticed and very much appreciated.

There is one issue, however. We have noticed you are placing a huge priority on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. These are very important, of course, but we need to find a balance between these skills and actual language learning.  I feel I was not clear enough in the orientation. My apologies. Our main focus at SHEAFC is teaching English. We always need to keep in mind that students’ parents are paying a lot of money for them to develop their vocabulary and grammar. Also of utmost importance are speaking and writing skills, which our students don’t get much practice with in their public school classes. We need to focus as much as possible on teaching English. Please be sure to let me know if you have any questions or concerns or if there is anything I can help you with or clarify.

Best regards,

John Lee

 


Hello again Susie,

I hope you had a nice weekend and are feeling energized for another week of teaching English to our students. I am writing again to remind you about your your primary job here, which is teaching to English to our students. Things like creativity and critical thinking are always secondary. I can fully understand why and how you view them as important but I want to emphasize the main aim is always improving the students’ English ability. Thank you in advance for your understanding. As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Have a great week!

Best,

Mr. Lee.


Dear Susie,

I hope you are doing well. Unfortunately I am not doing very well. Many of the parents have been complaining about what is going on in your classes. They expect their children to learn English not website design and programming. I know that you think your students are “digital natives” and this type of work should be no problem for them but this is all very new to our students. They are spending an inordinate amount of time building up their webdesign skills and not enough time brushing up on their English. This is not a coding academy. It is an English school. Also, just in case you are not already aware, our students have technology class at their schools with trained professionals who studied education and technology in college.

I did a bit of research on these 21st century skills you are continually talking about and using as a reason for your pedagogical choices. The criminals at Pearson (who, let’s face it, are not at all interested in students’ development or well-being but are only motivated by the almighty dollar) say,  “Twenty-first century education gives students the opportunity to think deeply about issues, solve problems creativly, [SIC] work in teams and communicate clearly using a varietly [SIC] of media to help develop critical thinking skills. It is less about students getting the right answers and more about students asking the right questions.” I have to tell you, unfortunately, within our current system and paradigm getting the right answer is still important.Students have tests that determine their futures and we need to ensure they are as prepared for these tests as possible.

Also, please use your own 21st century and googling skills to find out about Pearson and what they are doing in the country of your birth in order to decide if you want to align yourself with them and people of their ilk. Alternatively, just have a look at this link: http://fortune.com/2015/01/21/everybody-hates-pearson/
or this one:
http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026
As you know, I have nothing against running a business or trying to make a profit. I think many of those pushing this 21st Century skills are trying to find a new blue ocean and profit for the rest of this century. Since you are a proponent of critical thinking I’d ask you to think critically about the forces behind this 21st Century skills movement, especially as related to teaching English.  I think I am a bit off track and on a tangent here but my point is to remind you to focus on improving students’ English ability.

I don’t want to be too harsh or direct but I want to remind you that you were hired as an English teacher and this is what we hope and expect you will do. Please teach them English. I hope you will consider this message as a first warning. As always, my door is always open for questions and discussion.

Sincerely,

John


Hello again Susie,

I am sorry to always write to you with complaints but when the parents complain to me I have to relay the complaints on to you. The issue is again a lack, or a least a perception of a lack, of focus on actual language learning. I know we discussed the idea of doing a debate in class and I said it sounded like a good chance. I just didn’t know you were going to spend 2 weeks setting it up and choose such challenging and grown-up topics. The  issues of female genital mutilation, gay rights and bathrooms for transgendered people in the United States are not things our students have considered much to date. It is beyond their life experiences and everyday talk. These are not issues our students would likely be comfortable or articulate talking about in their first language. It seems such topics are well beyond their English ability. I realize you could make the case that your English class is the the time and the place for developing these skills but my point remains that you are here to teach English. I’m also not sure if it is appropriate to foist your worldview on impressionable students under the guise of critical thinking. Would you have been completely fine with the situation if students didn’t eventually concur with your views on these topics? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that our students learn English or at the very least that their parents are satisfied with the progress their children are making and the class content. Please, I implore you, use the textbook. It has the English students need for their tests and their future here in this imperfect yet real world we find ourselves in.

Regards,

John Lee


Dear Ms. Smith,
I regret to inform you that we will have to terminate your contract. Even after receiving multiple emails and warnings you still persisted in your pursuit of 21st century skills instead of simply teaching English. I asked you and reminded you many times but you never listened. I tried to be understanding but the last straw was when you spent 3 weeks creating a Justin Beiber parody song and then had students perform a lip dub version of it to upload to youtube which took another 3 weeks. I actually had to hire a temporary worker just to field all the complaints from parents. When I asked you about the educational purposes of this you didn’t really give me a clear answer but just said something about it being something you should do as a 21st century teacher and that it was all about collaboration. Our school is not a proving ground for your status as a 21st century teacher and the focus should be on the students and their needs. Instead of dealing with further complaints I have decided to let you go. I hope you will understand my position on this. I wish you good luck in all your future endeavors and in spite of your early termination I’d be happy to provide a reference, especially for jobs outside the English teaching sector.You are a passionate and energetic person and I hope you can find your niche.

Please do me a favor and avoid Twitter in class for the next 2 weeks before your employment is finally terminated.

Thank you for your understanding. I sincerely wish things had turned out differently.

Yours truly,

John Lee
Academic Manager
Super Happy English Academy for Children


 

In case it is not obvious I must admit these are not real emails (and there is not really a research team for this blog). I just made them up. I hope you enjoyed them and found something interesting to think about. 

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27 comments

  1. Marc

    Smashing post Mike,

    As an English teacher in the 21st century who has to supervise a 21st century teacher there is much to agree with here.

    You know the whole me-and-books thang but it made me think about whether schools plump for books after (mistakenly) trusting (untrained, inexperienced) teachers’ (lack of) judgement when it might be more balanced to just run some initial training instead.

    I think if John wants Susie to teach English and hires her in spite of knowing her inexperience, then the onus is on him to provide enough education to get on with things.

    Thanks

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments/thoughts Marc.

      I think you make a great point about the onus being on the party doing the hiring here.
      One thing I was thinking about as I wrote it was the assumption that Susie would be fine even though she had no experience, which seemed to me to be related to the native speaker fallacy. It also seemed in the early stages that rapport and care for kids where more important than any knowledge or expertise.

      I hadn’t really thought of the books as they relate to this issue of of untrained teachers.
      Thanks for highlighting this and I surely think training could have been helpful in this case.

      Cheers!

      ps- I love the distinction between being a teacher in the 21st century and being a 21st century teacher.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks Geoff,

      I appreciate it. I just now checked out your reading list and added some to my own so I thank you for that as well.

      One thing I noticed about the stats on my post here is that lots of people clicked through to the links about Pearsonm which is nice to spread the word in this manner.

  2. Trinity Kt.

    Oh dear, this does describe what is happening in ELT in some certain country I am at the moment. This writing is a masterpiece and can even be information to initiate discussion in my program.
    I can’t help but wondering who is at fault here… Susie? Mr.Lee? Even both or neither of them?

    • mikecorea

      Hello! Thanks for the comments (and for the follow on Twitter).
      I think I might have figured out which country you are talking about but I will not mention it here. I will say it is a country that I love! 🙂
      I’d be honored if this post could be used as material to promote discussion in your program. Please feel free to use it.

      As for your question about who is to blame… I think it is probably a mix of both. As Marc suggests above Mr Lee should have some responsibility for hiring an inexperienced teacher and not being clear about expectations as well as presumably not providing enough training.

      My view is that Susie could be at fault for a few things including not thinking through her reasons for being so enamored with one of the buzzwords of the moment and for not accounting for the wishes of all the stakeholders involved. Hahah, I thought I didn’t want to blame either of these fictional characters but here I am blaming both!

      Thanks again for the comments!

      ps–Other commenters game some insights on the blame game and I will address these as well.

  3. Hana Tichá

    Great post, Mike. I obviously can’t comment in detail before I read Susie’s replies. One always needs to see both sides of the coin before jumping to a conclusion. 😉 Anyway, what struck me immediately when reading the e-mails was how polite and patient the boss was. And so open to a potential debate! So from the very beginning, I kind of suspected you had made it all up. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hi Hana!
      I loved your comments!
      I thought it was very insightful to withhold judgment without hearing both sides of the issue.
      There is a chance that at some point Susie’s side will be shared. 😉

      I had to smile when I saw your thought that the emails were too polite and patient to be real!

  4. Scott Thornbury

    Hi Mike, your last throwaway line (about hoping you’d given us something to think about) leads me to suspect – hopefully? – that you side neither with Susie nor with Mr Lee – not completely at least, and that both represent an extreme, indeed caricatured, instantiation of two polarized positions, i.e. the teacher who is committed to teaching English through engagement with the processes of using it, on the one hand, and, on the other, the teacher (or administrator) who adheres slavishly to the textbook and the testing agenda. Strip out the cant about 21st-century skills, and Susie is really a practitioner of experiential learning, a task-based instructor, in fact, albeit one with a poor sense of time management. Isn’t she?

    • mikecorea

      Hello Scott,

      Thanks for thoughtful and thought provoking response.
      I think it is safe to say that I don’t really side with either character/caricature here.

      I appreciate your thought that perhaps Susie could be seen as a something of a “practitioner of experiential learning” or “a task-based instructor.” I think that is a reasonable, if charitable, way of looking at it.

      Yet, I would have to suggest that her issues go beyond time management. The more I think about it the more I think assuring “buy in” is an important skill and goal for teachers who are going against the grain. Without seeing her side it is hard to say but I don’t think she did this. I don’t think she had the proof that students were learning that could get her boss and the students’ parents off her case. I suspect that somewhere in my thought is that there is a need for teachers to do this or at the very least to read the context and know what they can (and cannot) get away with! I also think there is something about finding a balance between what we’d love to do in an ideal world and what we can do in the world we are hired to work in.

      I think I’d also add a poor choice of debate topics and not accounting for the backgrounds and knowledge of the people in the room if I were looking for faults in Susie’s performance. I imagined this to mean she fully bought into debate and critical thinking as highly important without thinking through what it could mean for her classes.

      Part of what I was trying to convey here on the negative side for Susie was the blind adherence to the buzzword and all that goes along with it without thinking it through or thinking what it might mean in practice. I wanted to show what it can look like when beliefs are tightly held but not examined or articulated. Maybe I am being too harsh on this made up person but my sincere fear is that there is a trend in the field where teachers choose to follow the 21st century skills trend without truly questioning it and what it means and could mean.

      I think I will dive into a similar point in a few minutes in my response to Alex below. Thanks again for the comments and thoughts!

  5. Hada Litim

    Mike this is great food for thought! It made me wonder which of the two, Susie or John, represented me most. I’m still not sure.
    As Scott mentions, that’s probably because they’re both extreme representations. Interestingly, my experience has brought me close to the opposite of the two characters portrayed in your post.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Hada!
      Thanks for the comments. It is interesting to see how some readers (like yourself) wondered which character they are more like.
      You are the opposite of both of them? That sounds interesting. 🙂

      • Hada Litim

        Sorry Mike I didn’t express my point clearly. What I meant is that I’ve mostly come across the opposite of both of them. The teacher who just wants to do things based on her/his language objectives and assessments. And the school director who wants to experiment with new methods and tools and tries desperately to get the teachers on board.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for the 2nd response, Hada! I think you were clear, it was just that I didn’t imagine directors pushing experiments and teachers resisting. It does make a lot of sense as I think about it now though. Maybe I was stuck in my imagination (and background in Korea!). Thanks for the thoughts and comments!

  6. alex lowry

    Great post, Mike. As others have pointed out though it seems to frame a problem much different from the binary of whether 21st century skills are efficacious. We have an enthusiastic but inexperienced teacher who does not seem to listen/respond to feedback or criticism very well. You could in fact replace “21st century skills” with any other approach that has become popular over the past 30 years, and the problem would still be the same.

    Re: 21st century skills, as the framework you posted indicates, it requires a ton of stakeholders, investment and resources in order to implement effectively (described by the supporting bands at the bottom)–a coordination of both top-down and bottom-up resources and stakeholders. 21st century skills are not really something one rogue teacher could “do” well by themselves.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Alex,

      Nice to see you here. Thanks for the comments and feedback!

      You wrote, that the post “seems to frame a problem much different from the binary of whether 21st century skills are efficacious. …You could in fact replace “21st century skills” with any other approach that has become popular over the past 30 years, and the problem would still be the same.” Regarding the first point, I suppose I agree and I would say that this was not entirely fair/honest of me. Good point. As for the second point, I am not sure. I think 21st century skills are in a special position in the field these days in that they are not questioned at all and are seemingly promoted by big companies. I have never seen dogme or task-based teaching so widely and uncritically accepted throughout a wide spectrum of the field. It seems like 1 out of every three conferences I attend has 21st century something as a theme or sub theme. Perhaps I need to go to different conferences! In any case I cannot think of any approach/idea (not sure I’d really call it an approach) that has gained such widespread acceptance so quickly (though I am willing to admit there might be a variety of biases as play here). I think the 21st century skills racket is unique in a few ways mostly because it sounds so reasonable and appealing. What I tried to do in the post was use a bit of absurdity to show how it can in fact be absurd.

      I think you make a great point about the need for stakeholders, investment and resources in order for this stuff to really work.
      Your sentence, “1st century skills are not really something one rogue teacher could “do” well by themselves” really stuck out to me and got me thinking. I fully agree. I will keep this in mind when I see examples of possible indoctrination of individual teachers to the world of 21st century teaching.

      • alex lowry

        Thanks for your responses, Mike! This is very interesting to me because I haven’t (yet) seen/been in a place where 21st century skills curricula were being widely adopted. (The last four years I’ve spent in Armenia, Chapel Hill, NC, and Nepal).

        I think everyone appreciated the absurdity in your post–it was hilarious! You even managed to squeeze Pokemon Go! into there. The post was also very valuable because we should not accept new trends uncritically. Also, I share your disdain for big publishing (and testing–the bastards…), but I was not aware that they were behind a push for 21st century skills. Now I’m further intrigued and would like to check out these books. Makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing!

        Personally, I view 21st century skills as a step in the right direction, but I also know that it is difficult to move from previous curriculum to a 21st century skills curriculum. It’s a very disruptive change, and can’t be done without total investment. For instance, 21st century skills could not co-exist amicably with traditional testing practices. Show me a culture that is ready and willing to abandon their traditional curriculum and practices!

  7. mariatheologidou

    It’s interesting to read everyone’s comments and see our different interpretations of what Sue and Mr Lee represent. Apart from the 21st century skills discussion and our adherence -or not- to books, I feel that we are all influenced by the framework of the school/country where we teach and the expectations it sets to teachers. As a teacher in an exam-oriented country, I find Sue’s enthusiasm and energy much-needed in our field, probably because Mr Lee -unconsciously- brings to mind this repetitive, teaching to the test approach I see being used all the time. It’s difficult to take sides here, especially since we have no clue of what Sue’s mails were about, but I really enjoyed the way you chose to express your thoughts and concerns on 21st skills and trends in the ELT field.

  8. Brian

    This post raises a lot of interesting questions and issues. I make very heavy use of technology in my own context, but I think too often technology gets used just for the sake of using technology. I’m all for it as long as it has a very specific purpose and, through its use, will facilitate the production of well thought out language outcomes.

  9. Pingback: Please teach them English–the full story | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  10. Pingback: Please teach them English-The full full story | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  11. newbieteacherina

    Nowadays, students won’t be interested in subjects that they find no reason for learning it. If the materials related to their daily life, they will think that it’s useful for their lives.
    and I think that learning language implicitly is the way better than the students learn grammar and vocabulary explicitly (directly).

  12. Pingback: Please teach them English: The even fuller story | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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