Birgunj Conference and Busting of Binaries

Birgunj Conference and Busting of Binaries

Shyam Sharma

The ELT conference that took place in Birgunj on 7-8 November, 2009 was a milestone in NELTA’s progress in several different ways. Attended by teachers from around the country, dignitaries of NELTA, and guests from places like the British Council and the American Embassy, this conference blurred many boundaries. It blurred the boundaries between the regional/local with the national/central; it placed the teachers on the ground in dialog with the experts from the center and the outside; and it challenged the conventional thinking that our job as teachers is to do the practice while someone else will do the thinking, theorizing, and method-building for us. In this issue of Nelta Choutari, which was delayed because we wanted to write about the conference, as well as due to technical reasons, I would like to reflect on and invite NELTA colleagues to share their thoughts and reactions about the discussions that took place in Birgunj.

In particular, Birgunj conference was about the need for Nepali ELT professionals to produce their own theories, methods, and practices based on their own work, not only by adapting the global trends in ELT discourse but also in order to contribute to theory-building from the bottom up. The conference both said this and also did it. Regional level conferences of some size must have taken place in the past, but this conference did something new by blurring the line between the central and the local. Colleagues who attended the event are better able to say more about this, but even as I sit here (at a computer on the other side of the world in the US) writing this reflection, I believe I got to know well enough about this event as one of a national proportion—well, but does it matter if it was national or not if it was useful and relevant to hundreds of teachers? More than 300 teachers participating a “local” event is an issue worth discussion, as is the theme of this conference: “Contextualizing Innovations in ELT.” The challenging of binary oppositions like “national” versus “local”—with one better/superior against the other of each pair—is what I want to discuss further here. My argument is also that we should not just be proud that we did something “national” and wait until next time we do a national event: we should continue to blur the distinctions between this kind of opposition and empower all our teachers to think like scholars, experts, theorists, method-specialists, and educational leaders on all planes. We should not limit ourselves to praising how well five or ten experts talked at the conference but about how we are going to continue to put five or ten thousand teachers across the country to the forefront of such professional discourse and about how we can empower five or ten million students through learning a language as a means to creating new knowledge.

I don’t mean to put a deconstructionist spin on the issue of professional discourse here but I mean to really challenge the all too prevalent belief among teachers like us that there are experts out there and that the rest of us are supposed to just listen to them. We know that without having the experts—especially those who have the tag “expert” on them—we can’t really get people’s attention. We also know that experts are called experts because they ARE knowledgeable people in the field. But a dangerous problem arises when we create a one way communication by letting the “teachers” just listen occasionally to the “scholars”–because that binary of scholars versus teachers leads into the belief that they are separate people. That false distinction also makes us continue to begin and end our discussion of greatly productive events like this in the praise for the experts, and not even stoke the fire that they left behind. Most of us have thoroughly internalized the practice of simply praising the experts, and not even their ideas, and that is really counterproductive and silly. I consider myself as a combination of ELT practitioner/teacher, theorist/scholar, etc, but I would get upset if someone just praised me instead of taking up, challenging, furthering, and using my ideas to do their work or thinking better. We should take the ideas of those whom we call experts, being our own experts for our work, and put them into serious discussion. AND, we should also foreground the ideas of the teachers, ourselves and our colleagues, on the ground against the ideas of those identified as experts, projecting the teachers AS experts.

Yes, we need to remember that the media and the public, as well as we teachers ourselves, tend to pay more attention when there are “national” or “international” experts speaking, or are simply present. Of course, the experts from the center and overseas are known as experts precisely because they are highly knowledgeable and passionate about the ELT profession. And guests are important for a different kind of purpose–for connecting our discourse with the public and promoting our public image and impact. But it it is counterproductive to the professional discourse we want to promote and the empowerment of the teachers on the ground if we pay more attention to the presence of people than to their ideas, and if we pay more attention to the “expert” few than to the teaching many. We need to be aware that there is much harm to our work if we don’t begin to believe that every teacher knows better about his or her own needs, his or her problems, his or her resources, his or her capability to respond to his or her challenges. At the same time as we listen to and praise the few experts from the center and the outside and their ideas, we need to hear about the ideas and expertise, theories and methods, perspectives and intellectual resource of the many teachers. Birgunj conference, I believe, was a move towards such turning around of the table, because in its theme, in the way it put the local teachers in dialog with the experts, and in the way it achieved the scale of what used to be conventionally considered national, it was significant. That was my impression, and as a NELTA member who advocates for the empowerment of the teachers and students at the risk of sounding disrespectful towards the convention of expert-worship, I want to challenge colleagues in Birgunj and around the country to not limit such events to just inviting and listening to the experts but putting the teachers on the ground on the same plane as any expert, then continuing to discuss the ideas, encouraging and creating opportunities for a teacher-first culture in our professional communication.

I am aware that when a “local” English teacher, say Gita Madam, talks in front of an international community of ELT scholars, she won’t sound like she has read the latest ELT theories–and you know what? Gita Madam has not yet read very much of that. But Gita Madam is the most qualified person to talk about teaching English in her class: to share the challenges, the excitements, the successes, and the failures of her work. Instead of the experts first telling her what to teach about, how to teach, and why to teach English, Gita Madam must be doing the presentation, the theorizing, and leading and facilitating of the discussion. She must be in a two-way dialog with the experts, gaining the confidence that she and her work matter most, that she should continue to think and rethink the terms of her teaching and its educational and social goals vis-a-vis the ideas that the experts exchange with him.

Oppositions like central versus local are problematic not because there is no difference between them in the literal sense (yes, there is); the problem is that the difference has made most of us believe that the national is by default better, more beneficial, more significant, and so on, than the local. That is not only logically and practically untrue but also dangerous because professional discourse—conference, publication, training, teaching materials, or daily chat among teachers—is most beneficial when the actual teachers on the ground are taking the lead in discussing the theories and methods in their classrooms. Without turning the table around and putting the many teachers on an even playing field with the few experts, we will forever continue to celebrate the “auspicious” and “gracious” attendance by the “scholars” and “experts” and “mananiyas” who fly in for a day or two, bless us with ideas we don’t know how they connect to our actual work, and go away, leaving a few news reports and a lot more talk about their personalities than about their ideas. No, this is not a critique of our age old culture of praising people without saying why; this is about the need to encourage and inspire teachers by letting them lead and making our professional discourse more productive. The danger I am talking about is that of our conventional habit of not using people’s ideas to prompt serious and professional discussion after an event.

Yes there are material differences between the binaries like global and regional: regional organizations do not have as much resource and expertise as the national and the national organizations don’t usually have the resources of the global organizations. But the problem is that we take that difference to imply that the regional is not capable of thinking, challenging, producing, and changing anything the discourse. We do not even ask what resources already exist, what intellectual caliber we already posses, and what is best for us to do in the unique contexts where we teach. It is dangerous for us to think that the national or global do the thinking and talking for us and that we the local or national can simply sit there listening, or doing little more than clapping hands or writing a three liner to say how wonderful the presenters were. Who doubts about the wonders of highly educated people who’ve given their life to the profession and for creating better opportunities for us, in some cases for decades? Probably no one does. But the problem is that too many of us don’t feel challenged by their ideas to produce our own, to stoke the fire for a thousand others.

In the system of the binary oppositions like scholar and teacher, writer and reader, theory and practice, traditional and modern, technologically advanced and the non-technical, western and eastern, rich and poor, those great thinkers and the rest of us—and countless such other binaries that have permeated our thoughts, education, behavior, and professional lives and relations—we have always placed the actual teachers on the weak, inferior, less capable, and less developed side. At best the binaries turn into continuum where the international expert is on the “best” end and the local teacher is on the “minimal” end. We need to challenge, disrupt, and change that worldview by considering the teacher as more capable of producing theories, methods, and practices that best suit their actual work. That is, Gita Madam is the best and most capable person to create or adapt a theory of teaching for her class than anyone else. If she finds that her students write most intelligently when they can brainstorm the topic of the essay in their own language first, that’s the best theory ever for Gita Madam’s class.

As teachers of English, we have for too long just taken for granted that teaching English is what the average teachers do, and research and publication, conferences  and seminars, training and orientation, and so on is what the real experts do—and while good experts come from Kathmandu, even better ones come from the UK or USA. Frankly, this is a caste system mentality, a mentality that has outlived itself and we need to know. There must be no such distinction between “experts” and “teachers” because teachers are experts. There must be no difference between theorists and practitioners. That distinction between superior experts and inferior teachers is not an idea for the 21st century when democratic, participatory professional collaboration is fast becoming the norm everywhere. Yes, Gita Madam might have read far fewer books and academic articles published in the US or UK; she might have much less knowledge of recent developments in theory and practice around the world; and she needs to certainly listen more and more to the “experts.” But more importantly, she needs to see herself as the expert theorist and method specialist for her class. She must theorize. She must listen to the experts, read the research, and writer herself about her work in the class. It doesn’t matter where she stands as an expert when measured by the standards of Kathmandu, New York, or London. But by the standards of her own class, for her students in the class, for her community and society, she must be the expert, the theorist, the scholar. Only that realization that she can no longer keep listening and saying nothing, that she can no longer see theory and practice as distinctive, that she is not on the inferior side of all the binaries, and that her ideas matter more than anything will help her take the lead. I hope that Birgunj conference has inspired teachers to start thinking like theorists and experts. If we don’t want to call ourselves “ELT theorists,” that’s fine, but what is not fine is to take for granted that we are supposed to teach and not theorize, that we are not experts, that we can’t build our own theories and methods.

I hope that Birgunj conference has started disrupting the binaries; that it has convinced many of us that we can create possibilities; that so-called local teachers among us can really present ourselves as scholars, intellectuals, and educational leaders of the society. Birgunj conference was one giant step towards situating our ELT conversation in Nepal itself, promoting professional communication in local contexts, integrating technological and networked sharing of ideas, and in short blurring the boundaries between the binaries.

I really want to hear a lot from those who participated and contributed as well as those who organized this wonderful event. Let me conclude this reflection with what Sajan, one of the organizers said after the conference in a summary that he shared by email:

The conference was remarkable for many reasons: a. It was the First Regional NELTA Conference hosted in the history of NELTA b. It was the first time that NELTA Conference had incorporated the variety of presentations such as webinar and round table c. Such a big ELT event had never happened in Central and Eastern Terai d. All the presentations were contemporary.

Terai/Madhes is a less aware society in comparison to other parts of Nepal and no doubt ELT of Terai has lagged behind owing to lack of updating: this conference has exposed ELT practitioners to the innovations and also the conference has also been successful in updating their practices to a greater degree, as many of the participants remarked.

I hope that participants and organizers will appreciate the work done by Birgunj conference in this discussion on the cyber ELT Choutari.

Thank you for reading! PLEASE DO LEAVE A COMMENT.

If you are an English Teacher…

IF you are a teacher,……….?

Govinda Raj Bhattarai, Ph.D.
Professor of English, Tribhuvan University

A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others, says Lord Buddha, considering the duty of a teacher. This is an age-old dictum, yet its value has never faded away, nor will it be so even in the distant future. Actually, a teacher practices examples, he should shun away from preaching only. His character and nobility, his personality and perseverance count thousand times, valuable than his degrees and diplomas.  A teacher instills humane values in the learners, not merely does he teach the students the tricks of life, and he teaches them its mystery and beauty as well.

In modern sense, he becomes a facilitator pointing always at the ideal path—without enforcing, without coercing he should direct them, he doesn’t rule their mind, instead, wins thousand hearts.  Psychologically, he attracts the learners towards a world of harmony, patience, love, courage and achievement. See, how the words of Galileo echo until today: You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.Therefore, let our students find the unending treasure  of mystery and possibility lying within themselves, let us help them eschew away from sheer automata and mechanical repetitiveness because creativity has no repetition. The teacher will be truly a facilitator in modern sense.

All eternal messages are inscribed long ago. They echo in the ether time and again. A true teacher should listen to these words. Let us listen to Horace Mann: A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron. Let us stop and think, are we hammering on cold iron or are we stroking the budding flowers that may bear infinite color and smell and touch and feel?

If You and English Teacher

Prof. Gobinda Bhattarai, Professor of English, Tribhuvan University

Teaching is greatest of jobs on earth, a happiest moment to spend; only a luckiest person can internalize these values and thank God for appointing him or her for the noble task of being a teacher. It is the only moment when someone is face to face with innumerable souls with divergent interests and capacity, inclination, and probability. To live with these thriving souls, to talk with them and watch them grow every moment is a mystery, and a great joy.

A true teacher is a sage—performing humblest of duties on earth—of shaping innumerable souls in the mould of humanity, not in the format of an engineer, a doctor, a professor, a business person, a lawyer, or an administrator.

One should first of all learn these immortal values before being a teacher. It they fail to do so, they will justify Wilde’s saying: Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching. Are we also incapable of learning?

Of course, if we fail to understand the mystery of teaching, the glory of being a teacher and the beauty underlying it, we fail to learn, we are incapable of learning.  A true teacher should never fail to learn.

Right Pronciation with Wrong Sounds!

It takes some pain, and sometimes a lot of time, to realize that ignorance hasn’t been bliss. As an English teacher at a high school in Butwal, about 15 years ago, I had a distinct identity due to my relative fluency in English, more specifically, due to the ‘correct’ pronunciation of—well—certain words! Anyway, the secret key to all the great impression I gave many colleagues and students was that I could look up the OALD, and, with the knowledge imparted to me years ago by my English teacher about how to articulate the English sounds represented by the phonetic symbols in the dictionary, pronounce them ‘correctly’. It worked like magic—or so I thought.

As it happens almost as a rule in Nepal, my ‘OALD’ pronunciation of English words elicited two kinds of responses: some admiration from some people and more criticism from others. The admirers were mainly students who wanted to speak better English, and a few math or science teachers who didn’t think they ever could. The criticizers were mainly stick-in-the-mud English teachers, intolerant of anything that is different, especially if they couldn’t do it themselves! They hated to hear me say /phƏli:s/ because they only felt comfortable, thought they should sound ‘natural’, but in reality only say /pu:l:s/. (To give a few other examples: /kΛp/ for /khɒp/, /hЗ:t/ for /ha:t/, /epƏl/ for /æphl/ with a dark /l/, /bΛl/ for /bɔ:l/, etc). Knowing that they were real ignoramus, I did not let their derision hurt my passion to improve my English. Or so I thought.

About five or seven years of being a high school English teacher, I started encountering ‘kids’ in higher secondary schools who had been taught by better trained teachers, native speakers of British/American English, and other speakers of better English. My OALD pronunciation (of now a good range) of English words turned out to be right but extremely funny, because I had been articulating all the basic consonant and vowel sounds of English with perfectly Nepali phonetic features myself! For example, the aspirated /ph/ sound in my ‘police’ sounded perfectly like the /ph/ of ‘phantus’ and the /ɒ/ sound of ‘cop’ made the word sound perfectly like /khɔ:p/ or ‘vaccine’ in Nepali!! It was painful to realize how my ninth grade English teacher, the OALD, books like Better English Pronunciation and Lingusitics for the Students of Literature had only reinforced the basically wrongheaded approach to speaking better English—learn the pronunciation of words in another language without learning to produce the sounds themselves right.

I do not believe that we should strive for ‘accent’ like that of ‘native’ English speakers (‘accent’ in the sense of vocal quirks) but it is absolutely necessary to teach and learn how to correctly produce basic sounds of any language with the unique combination of articulatory features. For example, if someone says the Nepalese word ‘khop’ as /gɔ:p/ it would be hard for us to understand. So, to the extent of intelligibility that Ganga Sir has rightly suggested, anyone who wants to learn Nepalese must try to first learn that plosive, voiceless, velar sound–and practice to produce Nepalese sounds in phonetically correct way, if not learn regional accents (eastern, western, etc), ethnicity or class-based accents (Gurung, Sherpa, Newar; as the former royal family or Rana families would speak, etc), or age or gender-based accents (like young boys in the streets of Kathmandu speak, or the way older women do). I wouldn’t care about speaking in the ‘standard’ South London accent, etc, but I must care to say ‘cop’ with correct ‘English’ basic sounds in it (where ‘English’ implies features that make my basic recognizable for other speakers of the language beyond my own school, city, or country. English is a trans-national language, and the purpose for which we teach in Nepal is only for local communication (in fact, this is not its primary purpose) but more importantly as a language of communication across national borders. That is why I fully agree with Shyam’s points in the earlier post as well.

If we want to save thousands of future teachers and other professionals who are now our students from the kind of humiliating realization that I had after years of confidence in my ‘ability’, we must teach sounds to our students.

Teacher’s Anecdote June 09

In this issue, we have included an article that talks about the reasons behind using an anecdote for language teaching purposes.

This article was published originally in English Teaching Forum (2008). Abstract Anecdotes are stories, usually from personal experience, that people tell to make a point or entertain others during a conversation. These personal stories have a considerablerole in everyday human interaction (Jones 2001), and according to Wright (1995, 16), “the whole world is full of storytellers.” Anecdotes often have an emotional component, such as happiness or sadness, excitement or embarrassment, or amusement or disappointment. Therefore, when we share an anecdote, we share a compelling story with other people. While it is not possible to remember all of the anecdotes we know, we do remember the content of noteworthy ones, and often we pass them on to others. It is well known that inserting anecdotes in essays and oral presentations is a good strategy to attract and hold audience attention (Benson 2000; Lukey-Coutsocostas and Tanner-Bogia 1998). This also applies to the second language classroom; using anecdotes is a good technique to arouse student interest and establish a meaningful and memorable context for learning. This article aims to describe types of anecdotes, explain why anecdotes are useful in language teaching, and suggest how to use them in the classroom. Read the full article…

Teacher Anecdote (NeltaChoutari May 09)

Using Anecdotes Cautiously

Anecdotes are stories, usually from personal experience that people tell to make a point or entertain others during a conversation. Inserting anecdotes in presentations is a good strategy to attract and hold students’ attention. The English language teachers can use anecdotes form various sources.  ‘Using anecdotes is a good technique to arouse students’ interest and establish a meaningful and memorable context for learning’ (Salli-Copur, 2008:34). The benefits of using anecdotes in EFL/ESL class are as follows:

·         Attention grabbing anecdotes may wake up sleepy students, engage unmotivated ones with the task and reinforce a context so it is not easily forgotten

·         Anecdotes reinforce the friendly relationship between teachers and students

·         Anecdotes provide cultural experience if they are about experiences in English speaking countries

·         Anecdotes contain natural language and therefore develop learners’ conversational skills

·         Most importantly, short anecdotes can be used to motivate the students or to make the classroom more vibrant ( for effective classroom management)

Some considerations while using anecdotes

·         Be honest, do not fabricate an anecdote on your own-students may understand it

·         Be careful about local and national culture-students should not feel ashamed

·         Make sure that anecdote is relevant to students’ cognitive and intellectual development

·         Point out its worth and objective

·         Use short anecdotes which do not take more than five minutes

·         Use anecdotes  reciprocally-let students also sometime share their anecdotes (ibid.:38)

An anecdote in my anecdote

“I Can Make It Happen”

History abounds with tales of experts who were convinced that the ideas, plans, and projects of others could never be achieved. However, accomplishment came to those who said, “I can make it happen.” Something similar happened to me as well about a decade ago. I had taken the examinations of M.Ed. and was quite optimistic about excellent result. I was teaching at an English medium school (better not to tell) in Kathmandu but was tremendously disappointed as the return did not correspond to the time and energy I had to spend. It was my fourth school in two years of time (shows the bitter reality of private schools) and I was still endeavoring to get even a better one (that pays more and assigns less work). I had applied in a few schools but negotiations had not been so encouraging. Once I was enjoying my siesta in the afternoon as it was Saturday and therefore, I did not have to make visits of schools for the application. The telephone bell rang (cell phone had not made life so upsetting). I saw the number with a big curiosity thinking it to be from a school that I had applied in. I thought some boarding school owner might have called to negotiate the perks. Contrarily, it was a call from my Guru and my thesis guide Mr. Ram Ekwal Singh, a faculty in the central department of English Education. Presently, he is doing PhD student in the University of Delhi. He had been my internal supervisor too in M.Ed. practicum. He had observed a couple of classes of mine. I think he had seen some potentiality in me. He along with the campus chief (Mr. Kedar Pd. Sah) and head of department of English education (Mr. Jai Prakash Singh) of Thakur Ram Multiple Campus Birgunj wanted to meet me in person. They arrived at my quarter and they offered me a job that I had not expected at all. They were looking for a teacher for the M. Ed. Program that they were going to launch. My heart leaped up with a great joy thinking that I would get rid of working in boarding school. However, I was at sixes and sevens. In other words, I was in a big state of dilemma whether I will be able to teach the people of M. Ed. I myself had not completed my M.Ed., my thesis was still going on. After a week, I arrived at Birgunj for a demo class. I was quite nervous to see the students with white hair and long moustache. Some of them were of my father’s age. Many of them were teachers who had been teaching English for 20-25 years in different schools. I did not know what to do. My heart started beating faster. My demo was scheduled at 3 pm. I had carried a couple of books, lecture cards and some flash cards in my bag. Unintentionally, I had happened to keep a magazine in it. I just glanced over its contents and found an interesting topic-‘I can make it happen’. The anecdote read as:

The Italian sculptor Agostino d’Antonio worked diligently on a large piece of marble. Unable to produce his desired masterpiece, he lamented, “I can do nothing with it.” Other sculptors also worked this difficult piece of marble, but to no avail. Michelangelo discovered the stone and visualized the possibilities in it. His “I-can-make-it-happen” attitude resulted in one of the world’s masterpieces – David.

The experts of Spain concluded that Columbus’s plans to discover a new and shorter route to the West Indies was virtually impossible. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ignored the report of the experts. “I can make it happen,” Columbus persisted. And he did. Everyone knew the world was flat, but not Columbus. The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, along with Columbus and his small band of followers, sailed to “impossible” new lands and thriving resources.

Even the great Thomas Alva Edison discouraged his friend, Henry Ford, from pursuing his fledgling idea of a motorcar. Convinced of the worthlessness of the idea, Edison invited Ford to come and work for him. Ford remained committed and tirelessly pursued his dream. Although his first attempt resulted in a vehicle without reverse gear, Henry Ford knew he could make it happen. And, of course, he did.

“Forget it,” the experts advised Madame Curie. They agreed radium was a scientifically impossible idea. However, Marie Curie insisted, “I can make it happen.”

Let’s not forget our friends Orville and Wilbur Wright. Journalists, friends, armed forces specialists, and even their father laughed at the idea of an airplane. “What a silly and insane way to spend money. Leave flying to the birds,” they jeered. “Sorry,” the Wright brothers responded. “We have a dream, and we can make it happen.” As a result, a place called Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, became the setting for the launching of their “ridiculous” idea.

Finally, as you read these accounts under the magnificent lighting of your environment, consider the plight of Benjamin Franklin. He was admonished to stop the foolish experimenting with lighting. What an absurdity and waste of time! Why, nothing could outdo the fabulous oil lamp. Thank goodness Franklin knew he could make it happen. You too can make it happen!

The anecdote energized me; all my nervousness and fear vanished in a moment. I felt as if I could climb up Everest, I could get a mandrake root; I could catch a falling star. Altogether, I felt as if I could do everything, lest teaching. I became audacious adequately. I stepped into the campus premises with bold and dashing temperament. I was supposed to teach psycholinguistics. After I had addressed the class of 25 college teachers (who were the judges) for about 25 minutes, the campus chief stood up and congratulated me saying: ‘Thank you very much, you are selected’. This magnified my happiness. Today, I have been teaching there satisfactorily and effectively (I believe and my students often say) for the last six years,. Today I remember the same “I can make it happen” whenever I have to face any challenge in my personal as well as academic life”

REFERENCES
Salli-Copur, D. 2008. Using Anecdotes in Language Classes. In English Teaching Forum. Vol.46.No.1. http://www.liraz.com/Anecdote.htm

Teacher’s Anxiety

Nelta Choutari April 2009 Issue

Prithvi Shrestha

Most of us don’t want to talk about our lack of confidence, our teaching nightmares, our bad moments–as if we won’t be good teachers if we are less than perfect, from day one, every single day of our teaching lives. Gosh, that’s too much to expect from mere human beings! But here is a colleague who is helping us rethink how anxiety may be helpful, may be dealt with, may be something that we must talk about in serious ways. It’s such an interesting issue I didn’t know until I read this part story part scholarly article (if there’s any distinction like that). Well, anyway, I will let Prithvi tell the story, and let you share what you think about it. (-Ed. Shyam Sharma)

My first English lesson in English: Foreign language teaching anxiety by Prithvi Shrestha (NELTA Life member), The Open University, United Kingdom.
Affective variables have recently been researched quite widely in foreign language learning particularly in the context of English language teaching (ELT) in relation to learners (e.g., MacIntyre 1995; Spielmann and Radnofsky 2001). This move was inspired by the theoretical assumption that language learning should be viewed from the humanistic perspective (Arnold 1999). However, the research on affective variables, especially anxiety of ‘novice’ foreign language teachers, is sparse in the literature whether the studies are quantitative or qualitative/ ethnographic. Therefore, my attempt in this anecdote will be to share my anxiety that I experienced when I embarked on teaching my first English lesson in a comprehensive Nepali-medium secondary school in Gorkha, Nepal. Where appropriate, I will refer to other studies vis-à-vis my reflection here.
First let me define what I mean by foreign language teaching anxiety (henceforth, FLTA). Drawing on Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1991, p. 31), FLTA is “a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours related to classroom language” teaching that arises from the uniqueness of the language teaching process. Of course, a whole raft of other factors also do contribute to FLTA including institutional practices, learner perceptions and beliefs and the classroom dynamic.
Now how does this concept of FLTA relate to my experience? When I was about to complete my Intermediate of Education (IEd) in 1987, like all IEd students, I had to go for ‘teaching practice’ (as it was called) for 45 days. This effectively involved teaching two or more lessons a day in a middle school in the subject of the student-teacher’s choice such as English, maths, etc. I think I do not have to spell out how this works in general but I will focus on my experience of being a ‘novice’ English teacher, especially reflecting on my ever first English lesson.
There were six student-teachers including myself allocated to the secondary school I mentioned earlier. Only two of us were English teachers. I had to teach class six and seven in one of the sections in each class which had at least 60 students of mixed abilities. In Gorkha Campus where I studied, we had an ‘orientation session’ prior to going to this school. It was just to explain what to do and what not to do during ‘teaching practice’. None of us had any peer teaching experience or anything of this kind before. Therefore, all of us were very anxious, particularly, because this ‘teaching practice’ was associated with 50 marks, and hence test/ exam anxiety (see Aida 1994; Kitano 2001). I was under a huge amount of pressure because I wanted to perform really well so that I could enhance my aggregate marks. Anyway, I did my best preparing for my first English lesson. For example, I made my lesson plans, and some pictures, flashcards, and charts that I thought would be useful for the lessons and because these materials are often associated with communicative language teaching (whatever the definition may be!). However, my body was experiencing a strange surge of fear and anxiety from the night before I was going to teach. I did not know anyone in the school except that we were introduced to the head teacher and the regular English teacher whose class I was going to teach.  I had a kind of butterfly feeling in my stomach as I entered the school compound that day. At times, my body was shaking as I thought about speaking in English for 45 minutes in the lesson which I had never done before in my life! In the school, I met with other classmates who also were going through the same experience as I did. But sharing our feeling helped to alleviate our anxiety to some extent although the whole idea of facing 60 students in the classroom kept on coming back to my mind.
I had my first lesson (first period) in class six. The classroom was on the ground floor which was dusty and had a big blackboard on the concrete wall. As soon as I entered the classroom (that is on my own), I was greeted with ‘Good morning, sir’. I went red and the blood in my body surged through my veins and I started sweating but I greeted back ‘Good morning class, sit down’ as a programmed robot does. Well, some students were smiling to see a new face in the classroom whilst others looked anxious like me. I forgot what I wanted to say, that is, real communication with students such as ‘how are you today?’ Some students were puzzled as to what I might be doing. I gathered myself and started speaking in English slowly. I tried explaining what I was going to do and what I wanted them to do. I often looked in my lesson plan to ensure that I am following the steps that I am supposed to. Well, miraculously, I could talk in English, eureka! But could the students understand me? I don’t know! As the lesson moved on, I realised that I was teaching to the first two rows – five girls on the left and five boys on the right! Then I walked along the passage between the two columns of desks in the hope that I would be able to get the students at the back involved in my lesson. I noticed that these students did not know what I was doing nor did they understand my English! What a shame! I changed my strategy: explained briefly in Nepali what I wanted them to do. Suddenly the penny dropped! Then I realised that teaching English does not mean that I talk in English all the time even when my students do not understand what I am saying. But on reflection, I can see what caused me to do what I did: foreign language teaching anxiety. I was too anxious about my speaking English and teaching the language. As a result, my pedagogic strategies were not appropriate to suit the needs of the students. In other words, I failed to notice the socio-historical context of the classroom and its participants. These participants including myself were not used to learning/ teaching a foreign language like English as I tried to do. As a result, both the teacher and the students had foreign language anxiety which was compounded by the fact that both the teacher and the students were new to one another.
As language learning necessarily involves human beings and the interface between their beliefs, attitudes and perceptions, such factors need to be seriously considered in any sustainable language learning programme (Tudor 2003, p. 5). Hence, it is obvious that we should be sensitive to FLTA in our classroom so as to make our teaching ecologically sound. We can do so by being a reflective teacher as I tried to be here (but of course not after 22 years!).

References

  • Aida, Y. (1994). Examination of Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope’s construct of foreign language anxiety: The case of students of Japanese. The Modern Language Journal, 78, 155-168.
  • Arnold, J. (1999). (ed.). Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Horwitz, E.K., Horwitz, M.B. & Cope, J.A. (1991). Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70, 125-132. Reprinted in E.K. Horwitz & D.J. Young (eds.). Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 27-36.
  • Kitano, K. (2001). Anxiety in the college Japanese language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 85, 4, 549-566.
  • MacIntyre, P.D. (1995). How Does Anxiety Affect Second Language Learning? A Reply to Sparks and Ganschow. The Modern Language Journal, 79, 1, 90-99.
  • Spielmann, G. & Radnofsky, M.L. (2001). Learning Language Under Tension: New Directions from a Qualitative Study. The Modern Language Journal, 85, 2, 259-278.
  • Tudor, I. (2003). Learning to live with complexity: towards an ecological perspective on language teaching. System, 31, 1, 1-153.

Acknowledgement
I would like to thank those students of class six (1987 batch) in Shakti Secondary School, Gorkha, who inspired me to become a reflective teacher as I stand now. And also my ‘heart-felt thank-you’ to Shyam Sharma who continually ‘nudged’ me to write something of this nature, which I kept on putting off due to my inability to find ‘some free space’ in my schedule.

Teacher Experience and Teacher Development

Nelta Choutari: Intro to March 2009 Issue

All teachers have some sorts of experiences and stories which have inspired them to improve teaching or encumbered their professional development. When an intellectual interacts with 10, 20, 50, 100 or more intelligent youngsters everyday, there is a lot going on than first meets the eye i.e. the ‘routine’ of teaching. Now, if we pause to reflect on a striking incident in the process of that interaction, we will have stories to tell that are as serious and important as we find in the scholarly articles or books. A teacher story may be based on very ordinary everyday classroom activities like trying to get students’ attention, or it may be about some serious difference of perception on how to approach teaching a lesson with colleagues. Apparently, insignificant incidents might become the basis for innovative approaches or philosophical ideas of great significance in the field of teacher education–if we take the time to reflect and if we value the experiences.
Aagainst  this backdrop, this issue contains two scholarly articles, one teacher’s anecdote and one classroom humor.

Techer Experience as Professional Resource

Introduction to Scholarly Articles: Nelta Choutari March 2009

Jin (pseudonym), a teacher from Singapore, as described in Farrell (2006), faced many complications as a newly qualified teacher (NQT). The first complication was the conflict between his approach to teaching English and expectation of the school. His second complication was related to the conflict between what he wanted to teach (i.e. content) and what he was required to teach. He has many other complications. The important thing to mention here is; how did he solve these complications and establish himself as an English language teacher? Jin’s story can be downloaded in the form of a .pdf file here.

Minfang (pseudonym), a teacher from China, has also faced similar complications. Minfang got no personal satisfaction. He did not want to encourage any discussion in case his “disgraceful past” has inadvertently revealed in the course of discussion. Nor did he want to be a popular teacher, because in Chinese culture, a teacher who is popular among students is perceived as a teacher of little substance and one who has nothing but relationships to win the students’ hearts. He found working in a hierarchical institution oppressive with so many powerful people above him. He could not apply CLT into his classes and so on. However, he established himself as the best teacher in the school. Mingfang’s exciting story can be downloaded as a .pdf file here.

1 15 16 17 18