I have been working on my TESL certification for the past few years through part-time online learning. For my practicum, I recently had the opportunity to observe and teach in a level four EAP class. Writing this blog post has posed an opportunity for me to reflect on the practicum experience and comment on the foremost challenge I faced when moving from TESL student to TESL teacher: balancing the theory learned in the TESL classroom and the realities of the classroom to provide students with the best possible learning environment.
The Perfect Lesson Plan vs. The Clock
Since I have taught in the college classroom before, I was already aware of the challenges of time. Instructors are responsible for following a rigid course outline and syllabus, regardless of the specific needs of the class. However, I felt that this was an even greater challenge in the ESL classroom.
ESL students need ample opportunity for practice in order to master language use, and this practice requires support and ongoing feedback to avoid fossilizing erroneous language use. Further, so much of language learning relies on the building blocks of previous lessons to make sense of new information. However, the instructor is acutely aware that by the next week, the class is expected to move on to a new topic or skill. As I could not let the class fall behind the schedule of the syllabus, I found myself having to give up planned practice activities to keep on schedule. There is an ongoing pressure, on both the students and the instructor, to keep up or be left behind. Thus, finding a balance between student needs and the needs of the institution seems to be one of the greatest driving factors of a class’ routine and lessons; it is therefore likely to be one of the greatest challenges for teaching and learning.
Preparation vs. Flexibility
Any teacher will tell you that careful planning is critical for an effective lesson. While this is true to some extent, I feel that the time and focus placed on creating effective and detailed lesson planning for student teachers can, at times, overshadow the importance of flexibility in the classroom. It is impossible to predict how a lesson will be received from students. A great lesson may be a flop because the students are particularly tired, distracted, or frustrated. Regardless, we need to be able to switch gears and adapt the lesson accordingly. As such, I would argue that a student teacher needs to plan, but be careful not to over plan. In other words, use a lesson plan as a guide rather than a script, and allow students to drive the lesson in a way that is meaningful to them.
The TESL program has certainly been a positive experience for me as it has provided me with an arsenal of invaluable tools to help me teach English language learners. While it is no surprise, the practicum has been the most valuable part, as it has been a testing ground to apply language learning and andragogical theories, see what works (and naturally, what doesn’t), and realize that so much of teaching in an ELL classroom is instinct.
After years of working with ELLs, Naomi is finally in the process of completing the TESL program at Conestoga College. She currently works at Conestoga as a Writing Consultant where she spends her days helping students develop writing skills and thwarting writing-related crises.