Hiring New ESL Teachers

Somebody recently asked me what to look for in ESL teachers, during the selection and hiring process. I've heard that question over and over for years, one way or another, and have started thinking back about my own experiences managing, supervising, hiring, training, observing, and best of all, being an ESL teacher. It reminded me somewhat of the criteria for friendship. We can make long-term friends out of people who are like us. We can make long-term friendships with persons who think differently about some things and are always good for a friendly argument. We can make friends with people of the same or different ethnic backgrounds, interests and proclivities. So ask me what I look for in a friend. I've thought about that one too and the only answer is that I can recognize a good friend when I have one! I can also recognize a good language teacher when I see one. Language teaching, by its nature, is different from other subjects. It's an entire communication system enhancement that never stops growing. So what are some of the things that I notice?

I keep remembering a story that I heard many years ago about Roberts College in Turkey.

This institution had always sought to have the best ESL program they could buy. Even the term "ESL" hadn't been coined when all of this started, decades ago. The directors of Roberts College were not having consistent results recruiting competent English instructors from overseas. They always used native speakers of English as instructors. They also required university degrees, the more the merrier. Still, they were not getting consistent results with their students, who needed English competence, to study the academic subjects, which were taught in English.

I believe that I remember the sequence of their efforts. At first, decades ago, they gave preference to teachers with degrees in English. Some of these individuals were good. Their students were happy, and most importantly, acquired communicative competence in English in a reasonable length of time. However, quite a few did not fall into this positive description of what was expected and some were sent home before their time. Basically, these individuals who had degrees in English, had mostly studied grammar and literature. That didn't necessarily prepare them to pass a new language on to their students, or to even know where to start.

Next they heard about that newer field, linguistics, which was the scientific study of all aspects of language; structure, phonology, history, semantics, social implications, neurological factors and almost anything else that we can think of, that would be involved in knowing everything worth knowing about language. The same thing happened. These enlightened persons, who knew so much about language, were not necessarily able to pass on communication skills in their own language. That was a different game. This is comparable to asking an aeronautical engineer to fly a Boeing 707. He may not know how to fly or teach flying at all. However, he really does know how airplanes are put together.

Then came the new degrees in ESL. That was it! Or was it? It seems that many of the curricula were primarily devoted to language acquisition theories. The neurology, cognitive processes, monitor theories, and everything else of academic interest in language learning were presented. The problem was that many of these graduates went on to teach without much useful information on what to actually DO in that classroom. Many had general information about methodologies such as suggestopedia, community language learning, cognitive theories, and an abundance of other ideas from persons, who in some cases had not been in the classroom trenches much, if at all. Graduates of these programs often didn't prove all that satisfactory. Persons who had spent their careers in the "publish or perish" academic community, and perhaps not enough time in the real world, where their students went to teach, passed on whatever was currently fashionable in their ivory tower universes. Some students, who went into these ESL degree programs FROM the trenches, often gained a lot of insight into why they were doing what they did. Many others did not have an adequate practical background to USE what they were learning, or more importantly to apply it.Finally, the administrators of Roberts College got together and pondered their problem. They decided the following. If they hired native speakers of English who had majored in, and acquired any foreign languages other than English, as adults, they might get instructors with a real and personal insight into the total language acquisition process.

They did that and had a larger percentage of competent instructors than had been achievable previously. Some of these instructors were Americans who had majored in Russian, Chinese, various European or Asian languages and others. This worked. They had finally found persons who knew firsthand, what went on in the minds of grown students, really getting new languages. My understanding is that the college, most of the instructors, and the students finally lived happily ever after, learning from persons who had experienced some of the same language struggles that their students were having. I'm NOT saying that this is the only way to find good instructors. As we have talked about before, competent teachers are probably born and not manufactured by education departments.

So what are some of the features that seem to show up in competent language instructors?

1. Good language teachers tend to have pleasant and flexible personalities. They also take a certain amount of real pleasure in dealing with other cultures. "Tolerating" other cultures is not enough. Toleration means, "putting up with." Those of us who live in Texas learn to tolerate our hot summers. We should really enjoy our students from elsewhere. We also need to learn as much as possible about other cultures and develop the ability to explain our cultures to our students, as accurately and objectively as possible. They really want to and need to know about us.

2. Good language teachers need to have deep personal insight into what it takes to acquire another language later in life. If they haven't achieved this, they are at a disadvantage.

3. Good language teachers need to create an atmosphere of DEPENDANCY on the target language. If we use the students' native languages as the media of instruction, we are hurting our students. Translation is a skill that should be taught to translators and interpreters, AFTER they have acquired the new language. It is a separate game and not a suitable ESL methodology. I have successfully taught English to students with zero background in English, when I didn't know their languages. It can be done, and sometimes these students are better communicators than students inherited from some other teachers, who have learned "a little English," the wrong ways.

4. Good language teachers need to know as much as possible about the target and native languages in order to make practical explanations of how our language works. In the case of ESL teachers, who are native speakers of English, they may sometimes be at a disadvantage. What a native speaker of English has learned in an American school, about his or her own native language, is often not enough. Most of our real language SKILLS are acquired in early childhood as a medium of communication. There are many surprises when we start realizing how the 3,000+ languages in the world differ conceptually and function so differently from our own language. This insight process never stops and it can also be a great source of pleasure for the inquisitive teacher. This doesn't mean that teachers have to actually speak or understand all of their students' languages. However, they need to have some idea of how their students' languages work. Does language X have plurals? How are they formed? Does language Y have consonant clusters at the ends of words? Does language Z have infinitives? These facts are available from many sources and can be very useful insight factors into what is causing your students particular problems in listening, speaking, reading and writing. To cure anything, you need to know the cause.

5. Good language instructors are trainers rather than educators. They concentrate on all of the natural skills that go into language comprehension and production. They lecture and give technical information about the target language, only as much as they absolutely have to. Native speakers of English are amazingly fluent at age four or five. They know almost nothing about their language.

6. Good language instructors have nice clear voices and speak at normal levels and speeds. Exaggerated speech is the enemy of comprehension in the real world. Students should also be exposed in language classes to different regional speech patterns, as much as possible, as they will be in the "real world."

7. Good language instructors really like what they are doing and are not in a classroom only for a paycheck. People who want big paychecks should be coaches or teach in an MBA program.

8. Really competent language instructors are hard to find anywhere. If you find one, grab him or her, pay as much as you can and respect a good teacher like a rare jewel!

9. Good language teachers don't mind being observed in class on a regular basis and sometimes being given new suggestions to make the whole process even better. Techniques are far more useful than theories. Language teachers and language students are never "finished" with their learning missions. Exchanging ideas with other instructors can be a major source of useful information.

10. Useful language-teaching TECHNIQUES can be taught.

Theodore A. (Ted) Klein, Jr.