Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sowing new seeds for 2010 with TEFL

It feels like a beautiful coincidence that the sunniest weekend of 2010 is falling on my first free weekend since January.

Some folks may be aware that I've dropped off the radar to take a 100-hour TEFL certification course, which had me sitting inside for nine hours a day every Saturday for the last 12 weeks. TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Many people, including me, get this certificate so that they can teach English abroad. (More on this later.) But I had other goals, too. I wanted to build on the teaching experiences I've had as an editor and volunteer, and to truly learn how to do this thing right. I wanted to have a meaningful, intellectual experience. And I wanted to meet other people who also wanted these things.

So, I sought out a TEFL course that would not just leave me with a slip of paper but with a new lease on life. And as luck would have it, I found it around the corner from my house.

The Boston Language Institute (BLI), located on the third floor of a nondescript building in Kenmore Square, is a groovy little institution. It was founded by a Sikh devotee named Siri Karm Singh Khalsa. It employs a rotating roster of well-traveled teachers who teach an alphabet soup of languages, from Afghani to Zulu, to a similarly diverse crowd of students. When I first entered this warm, bustling space at BLI's open house last November, it felt like home. And when Siri Karm assured me that their TEFL program could turn me into a "mean green teaching machine," as I put it, I took him at his word.

I am so glad I did. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this TEFL program has changed my life.

In the company of a dozen amazing women, I spent my Saturday mornings teaching real English classes, provided for free to the Boston community, and spent the afternoons learning how to teach difficult grammar (I can now define and explain an auxilary modal verb) and business English (so many sports idioms!).

There were definitely some rough days (which we got through together with raucous lunches at Eastern Standard and many, many coffee breaks). But overall, I learned so much from my students and fellow teachers, and fell in love with the English language all over again. I have a feeling that what I experienced in this class will be paying dividends for the rest of my life.

Graduation lunch with my ladies -- compliments of India Quality, yum.

I also find that when you are learning a new skill you must unlearn other things, and this has been interesting as well. It turns out that many of the behaviors I have cultivated in order to be successful as a journalist worked against me as a teacher.

For example, when interviewing someone, I find that I am softspoken, and I rarely interrupt people. My interview subject is the one onstage, so to speak. But in a classroom, you are the focus, and you must fight to stay that way. You have a carefully-planned lesson containing crucial information, and you have a limited time to impart it. You must interrupt the fascinating Russian physicist mid-story so you can move on to the silly exercise you have planned about cookies. You are always barking words, shuffling papers and playing ridiculous tapes, like some bizarre vaudeville actor. And you are always watching the clock.

If it all sounds overwhelming, that is because it is. I have so much newfound respect for teachers who can do this with grace. (Mr. Reeves, Mr. Lillywhite, Mr. Ginsburg, and especially SeƱora Curazon, wherever you are--thank you.)


Doris Day, schooling journalist Clark Gable about the wild world of teaching in Teacher's Pet

However, if you have a big heart, teaching is the ultimate high--and one by one, I watched us all get hooked.

Here is how it happens.

One moment, you have a class led by a shy new teacher, who feels as naked as a new-hatched chick in front of all these strange faces, and she knows that her hair isn't quite right and her shoes are uncomfortable and she's got a bit of a cold. She's struggling to get her students to guess a complex word, and receiving only blank looks from the entire group, including her fellow teachers at the back, who are writing down every mistake she makes.

And then suddenly, something shifts.

Someone cracks a joke, an exercise strikes a chord, and now the English words are flowing, the Argentinian housewife and the Latvian music teacher are clicking, and everyone is laughing and writing things down and saying things like, "Ahh! Now I understand."

Boom. HOOKED.

There is nothing better than this feeling. It is like watching the sun come out from the clouds, or watching the first shoots of crocus poking up from the ground in the spring, or falling in love. It's magic.

And so it is fitting that during this season of rebirth, a dozen new teachers are now taking their acts on the road, ready to plant new seeds of language in places as distant as Senegal, Norway, Siberia. It's so exciting.

First daffodils of spring!

So now that the class is over, I'm going to go outside and enjoy the sunshine, for the first time in a long time. 'Cause it turns out, teachers are real people too, and as one fellow teacher said to me recently, "I think I look forward to the weekends even more than the students do now."

To all my teacher friends--most of whom are far more experienced than me--do you have any wisdom to share on this subject? Any good teaching stories? Any moments of magic? I'd love to hear about them.

3 Comments:

Blogger johnvill said...

i like reading your blog posts

7:47 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Very interesting ... I'm also planning to go into TESL/TEFL, so it's nice to read your blog.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Joe, Amber, Ken and Ellie said...

That's awesome you are doing that! Ahhh, to think back on the days of Lillywhite and Curzon...so much fun!

2:57 PM  

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