Halfway into the Unknown

Summer Quarter TextbooksHalfway through my Masters of Education program, I just started observing Level 1 ESL classes in the Seattle area. And wow. Boy is there loads I still don’t know. I tutored ESL students for 15 years while teaching occasional stand-alone workshops to them for five years. And I still know nothing about classroom management, curriculum and lesson planning, grading, and all those other amazing skills that teachers have.

The deeper I get into this program, the more convinced I become that teaching is both an art form and a science—requiring careful observation and rigorous testing of one’s methods yet also demanding lightning-strikes of inspiration and strokes of luck. Great teachers, as I’m learning from observing an experienced ESL professor every Thursday night, are both methodical and spontaneous. Meticulous yet brash.

Like anyone new at anything who has even a dewdrop of humility, I find myself sometimes wondering if I can really do this. In just one year, will I be ready to step in front of an ESL class and run the thing from the first day to the last? I don’t know. So I put that question out of my mind. All I can do is my damnedest to get ready.

I know the grammar inside and out because I’ve been tutoring it for 15 years. I know the difference between a participle and a gerund, a noun phrase and a noun clause, a coordinating conjunction and a conjunctive adverb. No problem. What amazes me is how many people think they can teach ESL who not only have zero teaching experience but no grammar knowledge. It’s a little embarrassing. I think that if the U.S. delivered better foreign language education in K-12—more extensive, more rigorous, and led by more experienced, knowledgeable instructors fluent in their subject language—Americans wouldn’t overrun the world with their curious belief that anyone who speaks English can teach it.

But that’s a topic for another day.

My point today is that I don’t know what the hell I am doing–even with my background and knowledge in the field. Here I am on Day 3 of another quarter, with another load of textbooks, and I’m realizing textbooks have some serious limitations when it comes to actually doing whatever it is that you’re studying about. One of my textbooks has “Practice” in the title: Theory and Practice. I know textbooks can tell me stories about practice, print teachers’ reflections on their practice, even offer specific techniques for me to put into practice. But every night I step into that ESL classroom, I feel like everything I’ve read over the last year clatters straight out of my head like someone opened a door and gave the contents a few good knocks, and it all slid out and crashed onto the floor.

I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

It’s a beautiful place to be.

I’m serious. It’s more liberating than I could have imagined. It’s admittedly unfortunate for my students. But they’re adults, too, who also feel that they don’t know what the hell they’re doing, either. So we smile and hug and laugh, and it’s okay. It’s beautiful. Because when you’re that far outside everything you know, every moment is an adventure. We’re all sailing into the unknown together, and what could be more exhilarating than that?

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