A few weeks ago, the crack research team here at ELT RRR reproduced some emails from a language school manager to a new teacher. Since then, we have also managed to trace the replies made by the teacher to the manager. In the interests of balance, we are now able to post the email discussion in full, showing the emails from both parties. Below you can see the original emails followed by the responses.
As always, let us know what you think in the comments.
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!
Dear Mr. Lee,
Thank you very much for your email and for the warm welcome to your school. I also hope that I will be able to make a positive contribution to your curriculum and to the students themselves. It is true that I have only recently completed my initial TESOL certificate and I did find this course challenging, particularly the apparent need in language teaching to identify specific language aims prior to every lesson. However, I feel that the TESOL course allowed me to learn some very practical techniques for classroom management, giving instructions and clarifying language, which I will use to enhance my classroom practice.
There may be some confusion about my previous teaching experience, which I feel I should clarify. I have previously worked on programs for young adults, mostly focusing on the development of what are often known as 21st Century Skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking and digital literacy. While this work included a project involving basket weaving and another that required students to visit the local swimming pool, I have never actually taught underwater basket-weaving, as you mentioned in your email.
I look forward to getting started at the Super Happy English Academy for Children.
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.
Dear Mr. Lee,
Thanks for your email. I am pleased that you are receiving positive comments about my teaching. I am certainly putting a lot of work into planning my lessons, as I learned on my TESOL course that this is very important, so it is good that my efforts are being acknowledged.
I am sorry if you feel I am working on some skills more than I should be. It’s just that the first thing that struck me with the students here is how they have problems completing tasks that involve working together; these kinds of activities seem to be unusual for them and they are often unwilling to talk to each other about anything. As you mentioned, the students need to develop their speaking and writing skills in English, and I have been trying to set communicative and collaborative tasks to allow them to do this, but it is taking time for them to become confident in using English.
I understand though that the priority is to focus on language so I will certainly try to be more explicit about these stages of my lessons in future.
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 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!
Thank you for your email and for the reminder about focusing explicitly on English in my lessons. I am trying hard to do this, and I always try to incorporate some explicit focus on grammar or vocabulary into my lessons. However, my understanding about language learning is that it is important to introduce new grammar and vocabulary items within a meaningful context. This means giving students an authentic reason for using these items of language, and it seems the most obvious way to do this is to get the students to work on tasks that require the students to think critically, about the language they are using as well as the lesson content. The students seem to be quite good at telling me English grammar rules, but they are not so good at actually putting them into practice. This is why I am doing a lot of work that involves creativity, as it requires the students to speak to each other as they develop their ideas, and work together to produce spoken or written texts that include the target language.
I am very aware of the expectation here to focus on language, but I don’t thinking this means I should avoid developing other important skills at the same time. In fact, this seems to be an effective way of motivating the students to use English.
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:
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.
I am sorry that the parents seem unhappy with our latest class project. You are right that I had expected the students to have better ICT skills than they do, particularly because they receive separate classes in digital technology. This has meant that the project, which involved the students working in groups to set up a website giving information for visitors to their city, took rather longer than I had anticipated. However, I feel I should point out that during the project we focused on, clarified and practiced the following areas of language:
- Understanding oral and written instructions, including contrastive analysis of sound-spelling relationships.
- Vocabulary for local places of interest and/or cultural significance.
- There is/are and expressions of quantity to describe places in a town (“there’s a big park”, “there are a number of museums” etc.)
- Modality in persuasive language (e.g. “you really should/must/ought to visit the Museum of Culture”).
- Language for making suggestions (Let’s/Why don’t we + short infinitive, How about + verb+ing).
- Language for agreeing and disagreeing (e.g. “That’s a/an great/interesting/terrible idea!”).
With each of these items I have included some overt language focus in class. However, the overall focus of each lesson has tended to be on the content i.e. the project itself, with the language focus embedded within this project work to provide a genuine, authentic context in which to present the language. This, along with the fact that they seem very motivated by the project, may be why the students are talking to their parents about the non-linguistic skills they are developing rather than the linguistic input.
I am pleased to see you are now researching the concept of 21st century skills, but I would advise you to look beyond what you found on the Pearson website. I am relatively new to EFL but not to the Education profession, and I agree that publishing companies such as Pearson are likely to be motivated more by profit than by the pedagogical value of their products. But it is my belief (based on a considerable amount of critical reflection) that in advocating 21st century skills Pearson are merely jumping on an already popular bandwagon and trying to subvert it so it can become profitable for them. 21st century skills can easily be focused on and developed without using Pearson materials or following their guidelines.
Having said that, I found your point about students being required to get the “right answer” interesting, particularly because we are operating within a specific paradigm where students have to pass tests. I understand this, but at the same time, is it not important for us as educators to give students the skills to question this paradigm? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to simply carry on making the same mistakes as us, or to be able to transform society for the better? You may argue that this is not our role and that we are only supposed to teach language, but language is meaningless without a context, and it is hard to think of more motivating contexts for young people than those which encourage them to engage with and challenge the status quo.
If you would like to read more about 21st century skills I would recommend the following links:
http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/RotherhamWillingham.pdf (which stresses the importance of retaining a strong focus on subject knowledge while simultaneously developing 21st century skills).
http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/5ks5f2x078kl.pdf?expires=1470319257&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=D7D8E20345D7E7EE1BED94D45B471769 (a research report on 21st century skills for young people in OECD countries, identifying challenges regarding implementation and assessment).
http://www.designshare.com/images/chap6_designing_new_learning_environments.pdf (which includes a section on how project-based work can be used to develop 21st century skills along with subject-specific knowledge).
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.
I am bit confused. In your last email you were very critical about Pearson. Now you are telling me I must use a textbook that is published by this very company. I’m afraid I don’t see the logic here. Big publishing companies that produce ELT materials for the global market are often criticized for selecting bland and inoffensive topics which fail to develop critical thinking skills, precisely so that they can be sold anywhere in the world. As you seemed to disagree with Pearson’s commercial motivations, I thought you would be pleased that I was avoiding such materials.
I was unsure about choosing topics that might be too culturally sensitive, and I certainly didn’t want to be accused of imposing my own cultural values on the students, but at the same time I want to create contexts that students can relate to, and which allow them to engage with and challenge existing values and norms. This, along with a desire to expand the students’ capacity as global citizens, is why I chose topics that are more prevalent in cultures outside this country.
I do not feel that the topics I chose are “grown-up,” as you put it; FGM is performed on young girls, and while the students do not have first-hand experience of it, they were able to relate to the notion of having such a thing imposed on them by an older generation and how this would make them feel. Similarly, while LGBTI issues are rarely discussed (if at all) in this country, this doesn’t mean that there are no gay or transgender people here, so these topics also have relevance for the students, particularly those who happen to be LGBT themselves (please don’t suggest to me that none of them are).
You are right that the students were unused to discussing these topics, so we did spend a lot of time researching the concepts and generating some factual information before structuring their arguments for the debates, which explains the two weeks of preparation. I would like to point out though that the grammar content in the textbook for this period was:
- Expressions of quantity (A few, about a third, more than half etc.)
- Indirect questions (I’d like to know, I wonder if, Could you tell me etc.)
- Reporting verbs (say, tell +object, ask, suggest etc.)
I can safely say that all of this language was focused on and practiced during the debate project. The textbook introduced this language along with vocabulary related to food (“A few of us like potatoes,” “I wonder if she likes potatoes,” “I asked her if she liked potatoes” etc.) but this didn’t seem to replicate anything that the students would ever use in real life. In any case, we had previously covered food vocabulary in our Recipe Book project.
I assure you that I am not neglecting the language required for the students to pass their assessments-I am merely trying to find ways to introduce it within meaningful and engaging contexts. The parents may have problems seeing this but the students are very aware of how their language is developing; I know because I have recently introduced Reflective Practice Journals, where the students document their thoughts on how they are progressing in their learning.
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.
Super Happy English Academy for Children
Dear Mr Lee,
I have to say I am not surprised at your decision, based on how you have responded to the work I have done with my students. I insist that I did listen to your warnings, but I felt they were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my classroom practice. You and the students’ parents seem convinced that unless grammar and vocabulary are presented front and center as the main focus of a lesson, they are not being taught. I feel certain that the project work I have done in my lessons has been very effective in developing my students’ knowledge and skills in English. In addition, we have also focused on and developed skills which are absolutely essential for young people growing up as global citizens in the 21st century and which, I may say, were sorely lacking when I first arrived at the school.
The idea for the Justin Bieber parody project, for example, came from the students themselves as they were criticizing occasions when Justin Bieber treated the media with disdain despite having initially gained popularity through social and traditional media. I saw this as a great opportunity for students to express their views on the role of the media in celebrity culture, while at the same time introducing them to the concept of satire, which is essential in understanding so many popular texts in English. I tried to explain to you the inter-connectedness between these skills and linguistic content, and how important all of this is for 21st century citizens, but you seemed unwilling to listen.
I can say with confidence that my students have made tremendous progress in critical thinking, working collaboratively with others, creative thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and digital literacy. When I taught my first lesson in your school the students acted as if they had never been asked to give their opinion about anything before; it was almost as if they didn’t understand the question. Now, they are able to formulate their own critical questions and are developing a healthy sense of skepticism, which can only be helpful in their future lives.
I enjoyed working with the students in your school, and I am pretty sure they enjoyed my classes too. However, I feel the expectations of parents and the resulting parameters that the school chooses to work within are limiting to the development of the students, on a linguistic level as well as a broader, educational level. It is clear that you are looking for staff who can merely demonstrate an understanding of linguistic forms and meanings for the purposes of passing tests, rather than developing any ability to use language meaningfully or authentically. I can’t help feeling that such an approach does not prepare the students adequately for the situations they are likely to find themselves needing to use English in when they are older.
Like you, I also wish that things had worked out differently, but I fully understand your decision. I will of course comply with your request to avoid using Twitter and other social media while I complete my contract. I wish you luck in finding a replacement who is able to work towards the goals of your organization.
In case you missed it from the original post, these are not real emails. The first round of emails from the manager were written by me (Mike) and Susie’s replies come courtesy of Steve Brown (@sbrowntweets). If you’d like to know more about what Steve thinks of 21st century skills (usually referred to as Essential Skills in the UK) and other ELT-related issues, you may want to visit his (excellent) blog: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com. Steve will be happy to respond to any comments below. I am grateful Steve took the time to write up the other side of the story and thrilled with how it came out. I hope readers enjoyed Susie’s responses as much as I did.