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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 30, 2013

Teacher Identity and Re-thinking the Idea of 'Teaching the Language'

I've noticed an enormous increase in the number of presentations and research papers in ELT focusing upon 'teacher identity' recently. To be frank, I find a lot of this enterprise dubious, the epitome of navel-gazing narcissism. It's particularly ironic that this research cottage industry flourishes in a world where 'teacher-centered' is the equivalent of a curse word. I mean, you won't see Nuclear Engineers writing papers and giving academic talks on how they, members of the nuclear physics community, have furthered their self-concepts and images as scientists. They research and write about science, dammit!

If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners...then I'll entertain it.

Sure, there are Studs Terkel-like tomes observing the habits of working people in their particular communities, but these are invariably written from a detached sociological perspective, not as the spawn of community onanism. 'Student identity' research- yes, I can certainly digest that type of academic endeavor-- but you won't see me writing a manuscript on "The Self-Imaging Concept of 50-Year Old Male English Teachers Who Think They Still Look 'Sprightly' in Cargo Shorts" anytime soon.

But, ok, there is one aspect of the teacher identity mirror-gazing brigade that I can accept as legitimate. If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners-- such that a Copernican shift in our 'teacher' mindsets causes us to revise a curriculum or fix a methodology-- then I'll entertain it. And so, in this light, I have a confession to make...

I've been teaching English for twenty-five years. And in all that time I can't say that I've ever really successfully taught one person English. Not. A. One.

Sure, the neighbours admire my kids' English skills and complement me on how well I have 'taught' them but both you and I, dear reader, know that I didn't really teach them. No more than their mother 'taught' them Japanese.

And sometimes, a particularly skilled student of mine engages with foreigners in English well and the foreign visitor compliments me on how well I've trained my charges. But I know that they are almost never 'good' due to my pedagogical input (nor are the 'bad' students poor for the same reason).

The fact is that most of my 'good' students inevitably come in to the university as 'good' English speakers. Many developed their English skills before by living abroad or spending substantial time outside Japan. Some come in with an intrinsic love for, and/or knack in, the subject. Some got it from simply hanging out with foreign friends or acquaintances in Japan.

And many choose self-study because they find languages intriguing or because they have always been aware that English skills will open a few more doors. In fact, while I don't know one Japanese student who mastered English solely through school lessons at any level, I know of many whose advancements came from self-study. Good, meaningful, proper self-study (more on that later).

Part of this is due to the fact that I work at a university, the tertiary level, so the foundations have already been set (and this is why making English look attractive from an early stage is essential). I am not set to be a lifelong teacher of the sort who might tutor musical prodigies. And the classes are generally large, required, officially administered, and contained within a once-a-week, fifteen-weeks-per-semester framework. It is not conducive to language teaching.

So-- and here's where the teacher identity theory kicks in-- maybe we should drop the notion that we are teaching English to university students. Give it up. It's a dead end street. It's an exercise in Sisyphean existential anguish. We are 'waiting for good-o' but he ain't visiting our classrooms.

A lot of non-teachers hold the false belief that university teachers must be of the best quality, feeding higher in the teacher pool, because we are teaching 'harder', 'more advanced' stuff (as if neurosurgeons must be better doctors than pediatricians because of what/who they treat) but the reality is that we are probably the least effective, the least influential teachers in the education system. At least, if we persist in trying to 'teach the language,' that is.

So, am I saying that my students have gained absolutely no benefits from my teaching, that it has all been a charade, a wasteful endeavor? No. Although I cringe at using New Agey words like 'enabling' and 'empowering', this is really the area into which my teaching identity has shifted. Let's look at what this implies, piece by piece:

1. That teachers should enable learner autonomy.

If most learners acquire languages largely through their own efforts, giving them the skills to do so-- showing them the most helpful corridors and passages-- should be a priority. Creating a classroom and related activities that foster autonomy is paramount.

2. That teachers should enable effective and productive self-study skills.

Many students view study as memorizing lists, slogging through textbooks, or dense professional-level texts where every unknown word is marked and looked up. Giving students helpful, productive, realistic, and meaningful study targets and hints on how to maximize efficiency will allow for real advancement. Just telling students to read English books or listen to DVD movies is not really helpful unless you offer up some strategies on how to manage this study method.

3. That teachers develop curricula, assignments, or individual lessons that cause students to reconsider what language involves.

As every schoolchild knows, most Japanese high school students believe that English is a combination of the mechanics of grammar and the slotting in of memorized vocabulary items into that formulaic framework. Most view the other side of the foreign language coin as 'conversation' and believe that what they are lacking is this 'conversation' ingredient.

It's actually far more complex and interesting than that. University is the time and place where students should come to understand that language involves management strategies (openings, closing, managing turns, register, dealing with breakdown, negotiating meanings), and the university teacher would do well to sensitize students to these elements-- that this may in fact be the missing fluency link.

Another feature university teachers can inculcate is an awareness of pragmatics. No, they don't need a formal linguistics primer, but they should develop some sense as to how expectations, uptake, and indirect forms make up a large percentage of discourse. (It's not so hard-- a three year old knows that if a caller says, "Is your Mommy home?" he/she calls for Mom rather than simply saying 'Yes' and standing there.)

Once students are liberated from the stifling grammar/vocabulary slot 'n filler schema and the false binary of grammar vs. conversation, some real skill development can start to take place.

4. That teachers be able to identify those areas and occasions in which chipping in, polishing, and refining are most beneficial and what the fix priorities are.

Rather than trying to teach or fix everything, guidance and repair should focus upon what is most necessary to complete the classroom task or carry out the activity. Preferably, this guidance should be transferable-- meaning that learners can apply the principle to other situations, to enhance the learner's existing language system. Allowing students to struggle and make errors by themselves and then offer a few select fixes to aid revision will allow for better internalization.

5. That teachers stimulate students at a cognitive, content level.

If the students aren't connecting the language to their major or something of intellectual value or interest, advancement will not be sustained. If, for example, prospective travel agents at a junior college see how the English language is actually working to achieve relevant, meaningful real-world travel ends there will be a corresponding positive cognitive jarring.

And the most interesting thing is that while none of these mean that you are teaching the students English, you'll certainly be helping them learn better. Maybe that's the teaching identity we should strive for.

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