I Feel Like a Fraud.

Sometimes I just have a little moment where I look around and think, “Holy Cats, how did I land here?”

I had one of those moments this evening, tutoring my newest student. He’s going into grade three, and is much calmer about it than his father is.

The kid can recognize and say a large number of words in English. His dad has been working intensively with him and now I know why: The guy’s a visiting scholar at UBC who has a degree in the pedagogy of language. Of course, he specializes in Korean, but his English is pretty close to flawless. I can say ‘phoneme’ to him and he knows what I’m talking about. The kid can read ‘airplane’ and ‘monster’. He’s got a ton of sight words.

So while it’s really cool to have a parent understand why I’m teaching what I’m teaching, this particular parent knows more about it than me.

I’m not really a language aquisition expert in any way. Well, okay, I’m more of one than, say, most stockbrokers, lawyers, or even the raccoons outside, but I don’t have a degree in it, fer Chrissakes! I specialize in reading and writing, I never did a course about learning to speak!
Most of what I know comes from common sense and living in the trenches. Sometimes people say that it must be hard teaching when I don’t have a degree in teaching ESL. But anyone who teaches anywhere near Vancouver these days learns to teach ESL on the fly, because so many of their students have English as a second (or third or fourth) language. I never took any courses telling me how to teach ESL, and I don’t think they’d have done me any good if I had.

Teaching English to ESL learners is the same as teaching anything: Find out how big the knowledge base is and take it from there. We can call it ‘extending the lesson’ or even ‘redefining the parameters’, but what it is is getting people to see how this thing they know is related to this thing they don’t know. See how easy?

Okay, there’s more to it than that, but in the simplest form, what I do is help kids make connections. Okay, I also do it well in many cases. Kids manage not to hate my classes. And here’s what’s cool: The kids who have the most fun are the ones who learn fastest. Again, back to what I always thought: A relaxed and happy student learns faster.

I couldn’t do it as well as I wanted in the public sphere, but I’m making a big difference privately. One of my summer students went up two—two! grade levels over the summer. I have a student in Grade six whose ability to write about details surpasses mine.

Okay, I’m not a fraud, after all.

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