Changing roles of teachers in the ESL Classroom

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I attended an in-house professional development workshop given by a colleague who had been teaching for decades.  She was very excited about the idea she was presenting to us, and had spent a long time researching and preparing.  In the middle of it all, it dawned on me that she was talking about student-centered learning, something that was a given when I took my TESOL training at VCC.

In light of what I have been studying in the PIDP 3100 program, and recent research on topics such as the flipped classroom and gamification, I have to reflect on my own trajectory as an instructor.  Have I kept up to date enough?  Are my own ideas about teaching outdated and in desperate need of an overhaul?  Have I become a dinosaur?   Bearing in mind that a teacher’s most important function is to support the learning of students, it follows that there should be continuous exploration and examination of how best to do this.  Part of this reflection would be a good, hard look at the instructor’s role in the classroom and how it is impacted by changing technology and industry best practices.

The greatest change in the fifteen-plus years that I have been an ESL instructor has had to do with technology.  Because this PIDP 3100 program has been fully on-line, I have been continuously challenged with new ways of being a student.  Navigating the Moodle platform and creating this blog have taken me outside my comfort zone as a digital tourist.   This is a reflection of a new reality in classrooms these days.  In Canada, at least, students and instructors alike must be prepared to embrace technology.

For ESL teachers, this will be felt more acutely in classrooms where instructors are dealing with immigrants and older students.  International students generally come prepared with their electronic devices and a better knowledge of how to navigate them that I likely ever would.  For immigrant students, however, introducing the basics of digital literacy is often necessary, and must be incorporated into an ESL program.  When I first started teaching, the school where I worked had a computer lab, but there was no internet.  At that time, “literacy” had a very specific meaning and was related to pre-beginner level students who were not literate in their first language.  The word literacy has now been expanded to include digital and cultural literacy, and as ESL instructors, our role has expanded to introduce or enhance our students’ skills so they can participate in an increasingly tech-dependent classroom.

According to an article by A. Syam Choudbury, traditionally a teacher is viewed as someone who is, “…the organizer and controller of all classroom activities, but also as the evaluator of the learner’s performance.”  (Choudbury, 2011)  In 2015, this is still true, but the meaning of each word and the method by which these tasks are fulfilled has changed.  The teacher is still responsible for planning the curriculum and activities, but “control” of a classroom has shifted.  While an instructor may set a task to be in line with expected outcomes of a course, it is more likely that students will contribute and collaborate, often reaching their own conclusions instead of sitting passively.  The means by which students are assessed has changed to include more holistic assessments such as a portfolio in place of standardized tests.  Measurable outcomes are in the form of “can do” communication-based statements, rather than separate testing of reading, writing, speaking, grammar and listening.  In the late nineties, the “U-shaped” classroom was standard in most ESL classrooms, a throwback to more teacher-centered times.  Nowadays, most classrooms are configured into pods, to facilitate easy conversation and collaborative task-based learning.  The teacher’s role has shifted from “all knowing” to “facilitating”, encouraging students to make realizations on their own.

The ESL teacher is becoming what Vygotsky described as, “…a true facilitator of learning for the language learners, guiding them through dialogic communication as they co-construct knowledge with the teacher.”  (Vygotsky as cited by Choudbury, 2011)  In addition to being more in line with the ruling ideas behind andragogy, this better reflects the process by which we learn our first language.  Realizing this ideal in an ESL classroom is a work in progress, but one worth pursuing.



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