Behind the Scenes of an ESL Classroom Part Three

Learning ways to teach in a different country when the rules of the game are not the same.

By Tom Duda

Girl in classroom

It was late September 2010, almost a year since my wife and I first came to Izmir, when her job forced us to move back to Ankara. I gave notice to my last place of employment that I would no longer be teaching for them. I had hoped that the valuable experience I gained teaching children would travel with me back to Ankara. Unfortunately, I would discover that in the capital city of Turkey, primary schools were held to a higher standard and my skills were not up to par. Therefore, I had to look elsewhere for work. 

The Education System in Turkey

In Turkey, there are countless exams imposed by the ministry of education that all students are required to take. It can be a very stressful situation for a young person because it is imperative they score well on the exam in order to get into a good university. However, high schools and universities do nothing to aid students in the preparation for these exams. This is where the Darshani, or lesson houses, come into play. Darshanis are a huge industry in Turkey. It is almost unheard of for a student who plans to advance his education to not attend one of these schools. Fortunately for me, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is one exam aspiring Turkish pupils are required to take. Therefore, I focused on looking for work at the English Darshanis.

What’s in a Degree?

The first Darshani that I worked for claimed that they had the highest standards and best education system. Almost every school claimed that they only hired a teaching candidate with a bachelors degree. When I explained that I did not possess a bachelor’s degree, nor a certificate to teach English, they found a way to let me teach. I was hired as an educational consultant. This made it okay in the eyes of the education ministry should they decide to investigate. The system that was established by that school was that Turkish teachers were only allowed to teach grammar. They did this by using the Turkish language to explain the rules. I was to teach speaking classes only. 

This left me with another problem: How was I supposed to get a room full of students, who never spoke English in the past, to talk to me and to each other in the classroom? Once again, I was on my own. I was told that under no circumstances was I to admit that I had no degree in English and that if students were to ask, I was to lie about my credentials. As a class, we all had a great time talking about culture and I really developed a bond with my pupils as I avoided discussions about my past endeavors as a graphic artist and a programmer. I was never a good liar.

Learning a Language Requires Speaking the Language

We had great discussions, and thankfully, I didn't have to lie. The only problem I had, that I realized only in hindsight after I got my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, was that I spent way too much time talking. A good speaking teacher should speak only twenty percent of the time, and pupils should speak eighty percent of the time. I tried to entertain too much. That was fine with the school, and the students did not complain. However, I now know that I should have pushed my pupils to speak more English.

New School and New Internal Culture and Methods

After I earned my TEFL certificate, I started working for a new school that conveniently overlooked the fact that I did not have the government-required bachelor’s degree. The owner of the school boasted that he had a tunadik (friend who does favors) from the ministry of education, and the school would never be audited. Also, this school liked to boast that they only had native English speakers as their instructors. This was a slight stretching of the truth as well. There was only one other person from America—the other twelve teachers were from Turkey, Poland, and Iran. I found it most entertaining listening to them with their broken English and heavy accents saying (as the administration instructed them to do) that they were from places such as Canada, Australia, and the US. Fortunately, nobody could tell the difference between real English and broken English. 

The Joke Was on Me

When I began to teach at this particular school, I was humbled. This school had a very heavy focus on grammar, and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the grammatical rules of English. The foreign teachers, as poorly as they spoke English, knew grammar inside out. This is where I was faced with an oxymoron. Students began to complain that they thought I hardly spoke English because I fumbled with the rules on tenses, quantifiers, uncountable nouns, and may other rules. During this time, I fought to keep my job by spending a lot of time educating myself on everything I could about grammar. The irony that one of the only native English speakers was being accused of not speaking proper English was not lost on me.

Over the course of my next few years, I moved to two different schools. I was able to get in the doors without a bachelor’s degree because I was American and a native speaker. Each school had very different teaching methods. One relied heavily on computer time, and the other relied on complete repetition of speaking.

Conclusions Regarding Teaching English Overseas

When teaching overseas, one may find that honesty can be rare, and that everything is not always as it seems. Now that this chapter of my life is over, I would have to say that preparation is the key to teaching English in a foreign country. And also, regardless of the country in which you choose to teach, friendships will play a huge role in the way things are done. One would be wise to remember that the American way of life is not the same as the way of life in a foreign country.

Additional Resources:

Vocabulary Bingo

Foreign students love to learn about American culture. Bingo is a game that is not played everywhere, yet it is widely known in the lexicon of the American people. Trying to keep my speaking time below twenty percent, this is a great activity to not only to get my classes to speak, but also to learn some vocabulary along the way.

EFL/ESL: Using Dictation to Improve Your Students' Listening, Spelling and Grammar Skills

Dictation really forces a student to listen to every word and pay attention to words they may not necessarily hear otherwise. Also, it forces them to see the grammar rules in action. This is an interesting article that will show how to incorporate dictation into your lessons.