Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Tale of Lance Lightning

I've sort of hesitated in writing this post because it forces me to come to terms with my past.

That sounds way creepier than it really needs to, but it probably got your attention!

Back in 2002-2003, when I was living in China, I had a coworker who was teaching at another branch of our small provincial English language center. He had a very memorable name - we'll just change his name to "Lance Lightning" - and was an retired-military Englishman with a grizzled-in-a-wiry-sort-of-way air about him.

We traveled to Kunming and Dali together - this is not as weird as it sounds - we got along quite well (I tend to get along with grizzled-Englishman types, the more sarcastic the better) and generally hung out going to tourist spots together, meeting up after breakfast because I was a poor kid staying in hostels and he could afford proper hotel rooms.

At one point, Lance mentioned something about teaching - some educational concept I hadn't heard of - and I asked him about it and where he'd learned it. It was probably something I really should have known about before embarking on a year of teaching abroad, like classroom management. He said he'd taken a CELTA course before coming and, quite offhand, that he did so because "if I was going to move abroad to do this, I thought I'd better to it right or it's not worth doing at all."

That's just the sort of person Lance was. And although I was a feckless 22-year-old at the time, that attitude appealed to me. It's a part of why we got along - he didn't suffer fools (and I suppose that because he suffered me as his weird pink-haired coworker-and-traveling-companion, that I must not have been as much of a fool as I now see myself as having been, and I probably liked the validation).

 photo jenna5_420.jpg

Me and my weird pink hair in Kunming, late 2002 - it was way pinker than this old photo makes it seem.

Anyway, I remember wishing I'd had the forethought and money to have done it that way.

In Kunming, Lance and I stopped at one of the famous temples - either Yuantong or Golden, I don't remember which. It was cool and overcast, a bit drizzly. So much for the famous Kunming weather! Leading up to it was a very long staircase of marble or granite, really onerous to climb. Being a retired army guy, Lance jogged up at a comfortable pace and met me at the top. I climbed comfortably for some time but was huffing and puffing and pushing myself forward by the end.

"Well, you made it," Lance said. "The key to getting up a long stairway like this isn't how strong you are. It's got nothing to do with muscles. It's all about the respiratory and circulatory system. If those are weak, you won't pump the oxygen you need to give you the energy to get to the top. You're not fat" (at the time I wasn't overweight, now I am), "but it looks like you've got some working out to do."

My first reaction was defensiveness - hey, I wasn't that unfit! - but I tamped that down. He was right (I mean I'm not sure about the exact physiological aspects, but generally speaking, he wasn't off base).

In later years I would look back at that moment - it wasn't just about climbing stairs. I wanted to teach as well as Lance could jog up and down those steps. Confidently, knowing what I was doing and how I should proceed, seemingly effortlessly (though it's anything but). Just as one might work out to improve respiration and circulation, I wanted to work out my mental muscles to be a competent, trained teacher.

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Over the next few years I backpacked around Asia, tried to work in finance, couldn't bring myself to care enough about the field to achieve anything within it (and I did try - I just inherently wasn't interested), got an evening job teaching ESL to Korean immigrants, saved some money and moved to Taiwan where I taught English again without any sort of qualifications or credentials for a few years before finally getting my act together and getting a CELTA, then moving on to Delta and IELTS examiner training. Eventually, I will get a Master's. I need it if I ever want to work in this field in a Western country.

Fast-forward to now, and that offhand comment from Lance is quite possibly a part of why I've since swung so far in the other direction - I have the zeal of the converted. I know the CELTA course is a quality course because I've done it. It won't make you a star teacher, but it will give you the basic competency you need to move on to better performance - something you aren't going to get from experience alone.

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Here's the thing - Lance wasn't a career teacher. He wasn't a seasoned professional. What I respected - and still respect - about this worldview is that he saw a fairly affordable basic course that would allow him to do his "retirement" job with a basic degree of competency, and he shut up and took the damn course rather than construct some unrealistic narrative in which he didn't need it, a narrative that would have insulted teachers, the profession of teaching, and the generations of hard work and research in education, pedagogy and second language acquisition that people have put into the field, all to make himself feel better about not taking his new job seriously. You don't need to be a career teacher to do this. You don't need to plan to stay in it for more than a few years. Even so, you can do better than showing up and pretending your accent and face is enough.

 photo KunmingDragon.jpg

A dragon carving somewhere in the Golden or Yuantong temple, Kunming, China, late 2002.

Now, I advocate pre-service teacher training (as in, taking some sort of English teaching course before you actually begin working as an English teacher), specifically the CELTA, Trinity or equivalent, and will go so far as to say that a.) I think this, or something like it, should in fact be a legal prerequisite for employment in ELT in all countries and b.) I do not view ersatz "English teachers" who lack such qualifications as professionals.

I'll go even farther than that - not only should all English teachers have to get a basic, respected qualification (CELTA, Trinity or equivalent) but that if someone wants to open an English language center, they either need to be, or need to hire, someone with adequate credentials in ELT in order to ensure that the training, curriculum, materials, hiring etc. are all in line with sound educational practice. In short, to ensure that the school wasn't run by businesspeople whose only concern was profit and who were not concerned with the actual quality of the product being provided.

Perhaps it would be acceptable for someone to go abroad and teach English for a year or two without a CELTA if and only if the school in question had a qualified head teacher on staff who trained all new hires, and whose training was examined and approved by a higher accreditation agency or a committee within the Ministry of Education of that country. After a few years, however, it should be required that they either get a CELTA or equivalent (or take the TKT), or leave the field in that country. Government incentives to schools that help sponsor their long-term teachers to gain these credentials would be a solid step forward.

"But Jenna," you're probably thinking, "you didn't do that. You started as a backpacker-teacher! How can you then say that you don't think others should be able to do exactly what you did?"

And you'd be right. So before writing this post I had to think long and hard about why I now feel the way I do, and if it's fair to do so when I benefited from a system that allowed me to get a pretty well-paid job (by Taiwan standards) without having even remotely close to the qualifications I should have had to get it.

Here's what I've come up with: if I could do it all again, I wouldn't have started teaching without doing something like the CELTA first. In 2002, after graduating from college, deciding not to go into Peace Corps (long story), and choosing instead to spend a year in China teaching English, I would have instead delayed my trip by 6 months, saved enough to pay for the CELTA and living expenses in a relatively inexpensive country like Thailand, and done that before moving on to that first teaching job in China.

After all, the CELTA course cost a pretty packet for 2 people to do, with an apartment back home to pay rent on, along with living in a fairly expensive city like Istanbul, but it wasn't so expensive that I as a singleton couldn't have pulled it off in, say, Chiang Mai at age 22.

22-year-old me would have been pretty pissed to learn that she couldn't go teach English abroad without first laying out a few thousand dollars for a basic teaching qualification.

22-year-old me was also an entitled, spoiled idiot. An spoiled idiot who did not understand that she was not so special as to not need basic teacher training before, you know, teaching. That professional fields require, by their very nature, some sort of training to be taken seriously in. That I might have a natural knack for teaching but that's not enough to make one a professional- level teacher, or a "teacher" at all. I was playing teacher, like a kid might "play doctor" or "play firefighter" (or "play lawyer" if kids were inclined to do something that dull to kid sensibilities). That being a native speaker did not qualify me to teach English, just as being "good at math" or even "highly educated in math" does not qualify one to teach math. That being a native speaker of a language is not the same as understanding the underlying systems of that language, and even if you understand those, being able to teach them using sound pedagogy is a different skill entirely. That teaching is so much more than knowing something - knowing how to impart it is equally if not more important.

So yeah, 34-year-old me would tell 22-year-old me to suck it up, save up the extra money and do the damn course. Then she could bum around for a bit, but eventually, if she were to get serious about the job, she'd have to find a job under a real director of studies and improve her craft before moving on to higher qualifications.

With that in mind, reading articles like this bring me back around to that thing about my past that I don't like to admit: that I took the easy route, and that I regret it. I should not have been allowed in front of a class of students who were paying (or whose parents were paying) for the experience. It was one giant facepalm, and I didn't get better until I got some decent pre-CELTA training. My entire professional existence was probably one huge facepalm, in fact, until approximately 2009 when my experience finally caught up with my training. I was doing alright by the time I did the CELTA, but I was not a professional:

"It can easily be the case that native speaking teachers working abroad, in large part because they do not speak the local language, are excluded from the decision making process at their schools. This leads to the native-speakers feeling frustrated because they are not being taken seriously as professionals, while the non-native teachers sit quietly thinking, “Well, you’re not really professionals, are you? You were only hired because you’re a native speaker.”

And that's exactly it. If you're only hired because you happen to speak a language (or in many cases, simply look like you do), then how are you a professional? Professional work requires training and development. It needn't be a teaching license if you're not working with kids. It needn't be a Master's, just as you can be a financial professional with Series 7 and 66 certifications but don't necessarily need an MBA or degree in Finance.

As such, no, I don't think that what makes a good teacher is necessarily the piece of paper to say that they did this or that course - although the content of the courses themselves help. It could be done through more informal on-the-job training, but, honestly, most schools don't even offer that and those who do offer training of such varying quality that it simply cannot be the basis of "professionalism" unless it's either standardized by an accredited authority, or there is a way to show measurable outcomes (in much the same way that a business professional may start out with an unrelated degree but proves themselves through measurable outcomes that lead to promotion). The only way I see this happening in teaching is for everyone, at some point, to take a similar training course just as, say, financial advisors have to do with those Series 7/66 licenses.

22-year-old me would have been butthurt to hear that she was not a "professional". 22-year-old me was an idiot. 34-year-old me accepts it, and is still worried that, not yet having a full Delta, she is not quite professional enough. Incidentally, the end of that conversation with Lance about some aspect of teaching practice entailed me admitting I had no training whatosever, and Lance saying "you're pretty smart. You'll be fine." I see no reason why others can't be "pretty smart" too, and have no problem with kicking those who aren't out of the field.

What worries me is that a lot of these "native speakers hired as teachers" isn't just that they aren't qualified, as I wasn't (and so I can only imagine that in the classroom a large number of them are variations of the walking facepalm that I once was), it's that, like 22-year-old me, they get super butthurt if you say so. They don't like to hear that they aren't professionals, that perhaps their opinions aren't as valid as teachers with training, that there is a reason employers view them as replaceable and interchangeable and don't take them seriously (although I also get the feeling that employers purposely look for "teachers" they don't take seriously as native speakers without qualifications are much easier to "manage". If you are some rando businessman who started a school to make money but you don't know jack about teaching, then it can be quite inconvenient indeed to have a teacher with some training challenging your decisions, most of which are pedagogically crap).

They want to construct a narrative in which one learns to teach by doing it - forgetting first of all that "doing" doesn't mean much if it's not augmented by training and feedback from a professional who can point out where you're going wrong better than you can, and so if you learn by doing without that meaningful feedback (which most teachers at these schools don't get, as most schools don't have a competent, qualified head teacher or Director of Studies), you'll just pick up a bunch of bad habits that you won't even know you have (and will get very defensive about being called out on). Second of all that if you try to "learn to teach by teaching", along your path to learning you've just stepped on a whole bunch of people who've paid you to learn how to do something, and not even gotten a quality product out of their investment. How is that fair?

A system like the ones I proposed above - force English centers to have some modicum of professionalism before they open or to maintain their business, and force teachers to either come in with a qualification or only allow them to work for businesses that can provide training, and even then only for a specified period of time - would not be onerous. The regulations would be quite manageable for any business that takes itself seriously - any business you'd want to have around, in fact. It would get rid of the bottom-feeders and barrel-scrapers, and free up a saturated market so that better quality schools could open, hiring better quality teachers. It would be a net win. Sure, some schools would go out of business but as I see it, good riddance. And sure, some foreigners would find the CELTA/Trinity requirement too onerous and not choose to teach English. Again, I'm fine with that. We could use fewer "native speaker backpacker-"teachers". Open up the market to higher quality. And it would be a definitive step towards improving the profession and maybe those of us who take ELT seriously getting a little respect as teachers for once.

And, come on, all you "native speaker teachers" with no credentials? You can be better than whiny-ass 22-year-old me. Almost anyone can. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. 


Meg said...

I first came to China as a traveler/teacher, and teaching was a nice way to meet people and pay my bills. I definitely didn't expect to like it so much that I kept at it! The job description was basically "be American, show up on time, and don't be mean to the children" which made it such an appealing holiday job.

There's still a place for the totally inexperienced new grad, probably under a skilled head teacher or doing an oral English chatting class in conjunction with more formalizing teaching. But I'm glad that more schools are looking for teachers with TESOL or CELTA certificates, or at least a little experience, and not just foreign faces. It's a good time to be looking for ESL work in China right now, though, because each "extra" qualification means a little bump in salary and a position at a better school.

Jenna Cody said...

I do see a good point in this:

"There's still a place for the totally inexperienced new grad, probably under a skilled head teacher or doing an oral English chatting class in conjunction with more formalizing teaching."

Even businesses hire totally inexperienced new grads - they have to get experience somewhere after all - and that's why I said above allowing that with English teachers, for schools that could provide professional training/guidance, for a few years, would be an acceptable way to go.

That said, I just don't think a CELTA course (or equivalent) is such an onerous expense or time commitment that a new grad couldn't get one first. Most of them are middle class white kids (obviously not all, but most) - I'm sure they can come up with the time and money to make it happen.

(Obviously that's harder for a non-native speaker teacher from a 3rd world country who may not have a lot of money, but to get a job teaching English that teacher would need to be certified and qualified anyway, so such a regulation would make no difference to that market).

Nick Kembel said...

Ideally, yes! But if the schools aren't demanding it, and neither are the parents, and the bulk of expat teachers here, who are of the backpacker-cum-teacher variety, surely don't want it, where is the impetus for a change in this direction going to com from?

Nick Kembel said...

Also, the things you mentioned are the main reasons I've given up "teaching". I was a phony and I knew it. I only had the job because I'm a white guy in a country where they think being white automatically makes you into an English teacher. The kids liked me, the parents liked me, and the schools I worked for liked me. But deep down, I knew I wasn't doing a great job, and the fact that everybody else was too ignorant to even notice that made me into an even lazier teacher.

Jenna Cody said...

Sadly, I have no idea. Parents and students who demand better? A ministry of education that finally starts to care that most buxiban teaching is a joke? Schools who want qualified teachers - and the qualified teachers who won't take such jobs without a better teaching environment? Who knows.

But students (and their parents) have votes too.

I doubt most schools will suddenly start demanding it, but the government could just regulate it into existence (I'm pro-regulation in many but not all cases).

Alton Thompson said...

I'm with you, Jenna. I'd count a master's in any field as another way to meet the certification requirement.

Right now engineering majors from NTU and NCCU are going to cram schools to hear backpackers gab on about Bigfoot and Area 51. It's an embarrassment and totally unnecessary. Anyone who is culturally literate and conscientious can improve the student experience right off the bat simply by bringing those characteristics with you into the room.

You and Lance had that going for you from the start. Everything else followed, and your students reaped the benefit.