Behind the Scenes of an ESL Classroom Part One

A computer science degree, a stack of textbooks, and a room full of English language learners is sure to bring excitement to one's day.

By Tom Duda


globe of flags

It was November 3rd of 2009, in Izmir, Turkey, and the autumn air had a bite to it. I knew it was getting colder, and although I was a long way from where I used to call home, I was cognizant that the season was changing. With the nip in the air, I also had on my mind the New York Yankees and the fact that they were one game away from winning the World Series. Of course, I had every intention of staying up all night and watching them win. After all, I was unemployed once again, due to my wife’s job change and subsequent relocation.  

Bringing American Culture to Turkish Children

Several weeks earlier, I had proposed the idea of my teaching some of the local children baseball. I wanted to keep myself out of trouble, and if I couldn’t make necessary income continuing my IT career in a new country, I at least wanted to share some of my culture. I discussed this idea with the owner of a local charter school. She was somewhat interested in my idea. Before I left her office, she asked what I had been doing for work before I came to Izmir. I told her of my IT position in Ankara, and that I also had taught a computer class at Cankaya University. We shook hands politely and I left, never expecting to introduce baseball to her school or any other place in Turkey. The game had proven to be too complex and slow for Turkish people, who fancy soccer.

Exploring the Possibility of Undertaking a New Challenge

My phone rang as I was searching through the pitching match-ups for the night’s World Series game, and very broken English came through the handset. A representative of the above-mentioned school was on the line. I was informed that they would like me to come teach English at their school. I was confused, so I explained that I was looking for something within the sports program of the school, and that I was grossly under-qualified to teach English to children. The gentleman explained that their English teacher resigned without notice and he needed someone to fill her position immediately. I adamantly explained that I was not a certified teacher, and I definitely had no experience working with children. My degree is in computer science. I was further surprised that there would be no background check or validation of educational credentials. Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation to meet him, as jobs are a rare commodity in Turkey.

Entering into a New Career

With the dawning of a new day and one hour of sleep, I headed to my appointment buoyed by the fact that the Yankees were this year’s champions. As I entered the primary school campus, it had the distinct smell that school’s carry. Children’s artwork decorated the corridors, and it almost covered the pale green paint-chipped walls. The first bell rang. I was met by the gentleman who had telephoned the previous day, “Hello, Mr. Tom” he said, with an outstretched hand. When I reached out and shook it, he gave me the traditional kiss on each cheek. He progressed, with his hand perched my shoulder, to show me around the school. Apparently, I was going to have a school tour.

Over My Head

As we toured the campus, one thing was apparent to me, they didn’t know me. I was greeted by future colleagues like a rock star. People overseas watch a lot of American media. Consequently, when an American is in their presence, their enthusiasm manifests itself in some intriguing ways. All of my future colleges approached me as if I were a Nobel Prize winner. I constantly reminded them that I was not a teacher and had no experience with youngsters. I just received a wave of the hand and was told, “You’ll be all right, Mr. Tom.”  The next thing I knew, I had signed up to be an ESL teacher of children. I had no experience, no training, nor did I even have my own children! The tour stopped at the office, and there was a pile of textbooks ranging from kindergarten to 6th grade. Then they had handed me a contract in Turkish and proceeded to translate it for me. The only caveat was that I was required to give a one-month notice before I resigned. I signed the contract. I was now officially a primary school English teacher. Warmly welcomed and supplied with books, I went home not realizing that my next day would include baptism by fire.

Finding Something to Teach

Finding a good, solid, and multi-level lesson plan was a challenge. Ultimately, one would hope to have a previous instructor from whom to draw direction and information. Obviously in this case, it was not an option. I was to teach kindergarten to sixth grade. For the younger children, I found vocabulary was a good idea. I just started off with introductions and it was a matter of taking their Turkish words and translating them into English. It actually turned out to be  a good lesson, even if it was truly the blind leading the blind. From there, it was just repetition. They had the books, and we went from telling time to dates, to colors, to fruits and vegetables. I also found that some noises and facial expressions worked well. For animals, I would mimic the animal sound. They loved when I turned my nose up with a finger and said, ”Oink, I’m a pig!” 

For the upper-level classes, lesson planning was more of a challenge. First through third grades were more of a situation of discipline. We spent a considerable amount of time working on the words: sit, quiet, and shut up. Yes, I was allowed to say that to children in Turkey. However, after finding some common ground, we were able to talk about cartoons. I found out that Sponge Bob was a favorite among boys, and power puff was the girls’ favorite. I had to make games of everything, and the boys spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain in English why Sponge Bob was stronger than power puff. 

For the fourth to fifth grades, discussions were more cultural. We compared our countries and talked about whose leaders were stronger. They were interested in discussing things like, "If the US went to war with Turkey, who would win?"

The sixth grade was my greatest challenge, yet I used it as a learning opportunity. We translated the Turkish National Anthem into English, and that led to a whole discussion about political eras and cultural eras. It was such a fun challenge! I will never forget it.

Sometimes Rules Can Be Bent or Broken

From speaking with other foreigners in Turkey, I learned that there really are no standards with regard to my teaching English. Laws are in place that require training and a degree, but things are often done through connections. This attitude is so unlike the United States, where we have things like the Common Core standards in place, and everyone is expected to follow them. In Turkey, often things are done in the moment and for an individual’s needs. A little obstacle like a law can be remedied by a phone call. However, poor me. I was not equipped, nor did I know how to handle the job I had been given. I managed to pull off lessons for day one of teaching English at my new school. However, there were many more days and challenges ahead of me.