06 December 2015

Coursera Teaching English as a Foreign Language Class and My Experience as a Community College Instructor

I'm taking a Coursera class on teaching English as a foreign, or second, language. In answer to homework, the statement (they call it an "essential question): "Teachers Who Work Too Hard Are The Ones That Burn Out," I wrote the following essay:

Teacher burnout (or fatigue, lack of joy on the job, and a desire  to quit) can be caused by several factors that are not mutually exclusive. Dr. Shane Dixon lists them in his Coursera video presentations (TESOL Certificate, Part 1: Teach English Now!).  These factors are (1) being isolated with no network for support and inspiration, (2) lacking a sense of control, (3) not being able to create a balance between teaching and a personal life, (4) not stepping back to cherish the rewards of teaching, and, yes, (5) working too hard. One of the ways to tackle these problems is to find your core value as a teacher and with that, developing a teaching philosophy.

For this essential question, I can use my own experience. I used to teach English composition and research writing at my local community college. Even before I started teaching, I was one of those people who would dream up lesson plans while falling asleep at night and be excited to put them into use if I ever did teach.

My number one teaching philosophy is meeting the students where they are -- that is, not expecting students to be at the same skill level, socio-economic status, and family and cultural background. This is especially true for students in my Saturday morning classes. My students were parents, single moms, nursing students with day jobs, folks just coming off of a night shift, immigrants, ex-cons, struggling teens -- you name it. Without following my core philosophy or value, my teaching could either have gone over people's heads or not inspire them to learn.

That said, it is impossible to meet the needs and expectations of all students. I had a particularly hard time with regular weekday students, most of whom were just out of high school. I found that I was required to take a more disciplinary approach, which was outside of my comfort zone. Students were talking while I was teaching; students engaged in plagiarism even after several warnings, from the syllabus, my first day presentation, and notes on the first drafts of their essays.

It seems I could not reach them. I didn't want to complain to my fellow instructors, especially because I was an adjunct and not part of department meetings and so forth, but finally I broke down and asked another instructor for advice. Wow! That helped. She was immediately sympathetic and helped me come up with a couple of approaches I then used throughout my short teaching career.

I say short because of a few factors: (1) I had put my teaching, grading, and lesson planning ahead of my personal life, (2) I felt an acute lack of control when the textbook and recommended syllabus changed, (3) and, yes, I just plain worked too hard. This was especially true once I started working two jobs: one for the money, and one for the joy of teaching.

In the end, I gave up teaching, but I plan to go back to it someday because I so cherish the rewards of the job. These include being an agent of change and the freedom to be creative. I still remember so many of my students, and I found joy in helping them express themselves and in honoring their individuality. From the young man with 60 tattoos whose anxiety about failure caused him to dive into depression, to the ex-Navy Seal ex-con in a wheel chair who shared openly with the class about his intensely unique experiences, to the young woman who came to the U.S. the hard way: via coyote. Other students made me laugh, like the woman who did a thoroughly researched report about the types of toilets in different countries and cultures, and a young father who wrote with humor about the trials of fly fishing. They are each with me and will always be with me as I dream up new lesson plans and someday, step back into the classroom.