Switching Gears

I have recently been struggling in my efforts to learn Korean and it has resulted in a lot of inner conflict. Language is an important aspect to every person’s life whether they are aware of just how much. My field of study in university was applied linguistics. The program was geared towards teaching (hence applied) and this worked perfectly for me. I have wanted to become an EFL/ESL teacher for a few years. In my time in university I have asked myself over and over again a few questions:

  1. What makes a good teacher?
  2. What can I do to become a good teacher?
  3. What are some of the best ways to teach students effectively (and what exactly is ‘effectively’)?

I have tried to answer them through my studies (and I won’t try to answer all these questions now), but then it hit me: what did I personally deem as a good professor/teacher personally? The aspects of a classroom are very complicated on many levels. Those who participate in this elegant push and pull of dynamic features are not always aware of what is actually the forces at play in particular situations that occur between teacher-student or student-student interactions. With this as the basis of my answer, I also realized something else: “teacher-student” is made up of two parts. I have been thinking of what makes a good student and how do I tend to that as a teacher, but there is the other end of things that a teacher must be mindful of; teachers must understand their students along with their expectations. I returned again to my original question of what makes a good teacher. At the basic level, students always remember the teachers from whom they learnedsomething (this something is not limited to the constraints of classroom content, but also can extend outwards toward life perspectives or inwards to becoming aware of something about yourself). This makes teaching complicated, but I believe just as much rewarding and a goal to work towards.

I actually read an article lately on the qualities of a good teacher. There were three common characteristics which I refer to as the three Cs:

  1. Competence
  2. Compassion, and
  3. Character.*

The first and third qualities are what I have always assumed. I wouldn’t want some surly teacher who did not know the material they were teaching. What student (or school/parent) would for that matter? The second, “Compassion,” made me think a little more deeply. I personally interpreted this to mean more along the lines of I need to empathize with students and they need to know that I do. Keeping this in mind (and referring back to my personal woes with learning Korean) I felt I should look at what things are at the root of my own struggles, understand them, find ways in which to fix them, and keep track of them. In university, I had an insatiable hunger for any and all information I could get my eager hands on when it came to language acquisition. I personally have become to align myself with the philosophies of Stephen D. Krashen. Thinking from the perspective of a student trying to learn a language, I was all too strongly aware of what Krashen refers to as the “affective filter”**. This idea that our emotions do indeed influence the language learning process. If we are nervous or anxious in the environment of language learning we almost certainly will not be able to acquire or learn anything.

This has been my own case with Korean. I have been learning for three years with only slight success. My pronunciation is good. I have a firm understanding of beginning grammar (mistakes are a natural part of language learning so I accept them). My lexicon is humble but workable. Despite all this… I cannot produce any Korean (I painfully struggle with writing and speaking strikes a fear that has brought tears to my eyes and blood rushing to my face). I have been close to giving up many, many times.

What does this all have to do with teaching in Korea? I feel that many people go there to teach for the wrong reasons, and I have determined not to let students be the victim of a bad teacher which can hinder (or even destroy) their progress in English. English is tested in Korea, and as any American can tell you, high-stakes testing causes unbelievable stress (remember Krashen’s “affective filter”?). A language teacher has a responsibility to his or her students to make the language learning process as enjoyable as possible. As such, I plan to go forward and continue exploring second language acquisition and use what I learn to help me be cognizant of the process (as both a teacher and learner).

I am currently reading Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use by Stephen D. Krashen. Krashen is well-known in the field of linguistics for his concepts of Monitor Hypothesis, Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, Natural Order Hypothesis, and Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (i+1), and he is a supporter of free-reading. Krashen asserts free-reading is an effective tool to help students move from the beginning level to the intermediate level and addresses the issues of having input that is accessible to students (controlling the level of the material) and reduces environmental stress (making it enjoyable and interesting).

I will start to explore this option for my own personal language journey in regards to Korean and report my progress here.

*The article that I referred to is from Traina,  R. P. (1999). What Makes a Good Teacher?, Education Week, 18(19), 34.
**Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use, (p. 6) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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