Teacher Identity, pt. 3 – fellow travelers and possible selves

This post will draw somewhat heavily on Markus and Nurius’ (American Psychologist 41, 1986) possible selves, which I mostly learned about via Dörnyei.  Briefly, the ideal self is the best possible future version of yourself according to your own goals, the ought self is judged well by one’s peers and works to avoid shame and other negative outcomes, and the feared self is a failed, to-be-avoided future self, the opposite of the ideal self.

What coworkers from your career do you see as role models?

A lot of the teachers I worked with seemed to have something like professional Shark Syndrome (which may or may not have a real name in psychology), in which a need to always be in forward motion propels them to devote every weekend to professional development, and every Facebook post is from a train or plane en route to some international TESOL convention or another.  I actually don’t see this as realistic for people who (hope to) have families, or even friends, but their level of commitment to PD and to each other is inspiring.  Unlike me with my occasional metal posts, every thought that occupies their minds seems to be a reflection on practice or a new lesson idea.

The presence of coworkers and fellow ELT writers around me tends to cattle-prod me into following a similar path at least some of the time, leading me to do things like publish, make presentations, familiarize myself with common jargon, change the toner in the copy machine, etc. more than I normally would.  This effect seems to me much bigger than providing a role model in the same way as my high school teachers, possibly because my relationship to them was quite different and I’m seeing high school through 20 years of rose-colored fog (per recent EPA research findings, this is not a mixed metaphor).

As such, my coworkers usually inform my ought self rather than my ideal self, in that I associate my interactions with them more with the minor feeling of panic that comes from not keeping up than with feelings of wanting to be just like them when I grow up. The fear of not understanding some term (often an acronym, MBOH) that my coworkers are apparently all familiar with, or not having read some book or attended some conference strikes me as more characteristic of my interactions with other teachers.

This is in addition to the actual job requirements of knowing how to use that district’s chosen LMS, how they fill out time cards, what medical checks are necessary to begin working, how assessment is required to be conducted, and what acronyms the district mandates we use for things like “wrong preposition before indirect object” (WPBIO).  These threaten not just my ought self but my employed self.

Of course, doing all the PD and training that my ought self tells me to do is responsible for most or all of the career growth I’ve experienced, so I do owe my coworkers a lot for letting my ought self facilitate my ideal self.  It’s hard to be an inspirational and universally lauded senior tenured faculty member if you don’t know the procedure for adding and dropping students.

As for a feared self, the prospect of resigning myself to a lifetime of teaching uninterested students while my superiors only grudgingly tolerate my presence because they need Native Speakers, while making payments on a 30-year mortgage on a house that is never comfortable to be in except when I’m in front of my computer complaining about my life functions for me as a skeleton in a cage hanging at a crossroads.  Yes, I’ve seen shades of this in coworkers before and I shall be sure never to set foot on that path (again).  That is the feared self I hope I left behind when I quit my Japanese university gig.

For Californian ESL, my feared self is only just now starting to take shape, but he looks to be a functionary of the credit system, a servant of the district-wide synthetic syllabus funneling reams of immigrants through an established program readying them for transfer, relegating high-minded notions of interlanguage development to the trash heap of the un-rigorous and un-academic.  Check in periodically to see if I’ve managed to stave this boogeyman off.

If you see the greatest swordsman who ever lived in a cage on the path you’re meant to take, don’t take that path (even if it leads to tenure).

What about students?

Well, students don’t usually represent any of my possible selves as a teacher of course, but certain types of students are associated with the types of people I imagine interacting with as my possible selves.

(Actually, a few students of mine have been teachers themselves, and they were admirable in their willingness to continue learning their subject matter.  What stops me from considering them inspirations for me are the motivations they had for coming to me.  In one student’s case, she saw her classes with me as hobby-like, completely irrelevant to the mandatory English classes she taught at a local (Japanese) JHS.  The fact that she made this distinction speaks to the problem-to-rule-all-problems in Japanese ELT, the dichotomy of “communication/eikaiwa vs. grammar/eigo“, which rules that education from NESTs is a priori inapplicable to the serious business of public schooling.  In her mind, I taught the former to hobbyists and she taught the latter to real students.  Actually, this describes my problems with the second JHS teacher I taught as well, although in her case “communication English” wasn’t even a hobby, just a cosmetic concern for her application essays for the EAP programs that she needed to graduate college with a teacher’s license.)

Anyway, some other students have greatly informed the choices I make in teaching milieux these days, as I imagine what types of students I may interact with in those schools and how closely they will conform to my “greatest student hits” of the past.

I’ve had students who from day one embraced communicative methods and were able to draw discrete points from indiscrete (hmmm…) presentation, building a rich statistical and formal interlanguage system.  Until 2012, I didn’t know what “focus on form” was anyway, and my students who succeeded with me up till then mostly had to make do with either grammar classes or communication.  Demographically, these were generally socially deviant but intelligent people who were actively trying to succeed at a common goal through alternative methods, i.e. eigo innovators (see the strain theory post above).  Nowadays, I would incorporate more formal grammar into classes like those that we had, but these early encounters showed me what my MA would later feature as a major theme, that language learning must be a process of building implicit knowledge through some means, and purely implicit methods can be one of them.

On the other hand, I’ve had students who really needed the trappings of teacher-centeredness in order to feel comfortable in the classroom, and were quite eager to absorb formal grammar, practice it, and try to incorporate it into a living interlanguage system.  That sounds like I’m describing “all Japanese students”, but in actuality most students in Japan skip the 2nd and 3rd steps.  Sometimes, this yielded fruit in the form of insights that were worth having and probably couldn’t have come about but through metalinguistic means.  The most memorable example of this for me is when a hobbyist English learner in her 60s articulated the difference between 「ほとんど」hotondo and “almost” in terms I hadn’t heard before, that hotondo was fundamentally a positive word while “almost” was a fundamentally negative one.  I think this kind of summary can only come from a lot of conscious reflection on language, not merely acquisition.

Addendum: Since I started writing this post I’ve realized that a lot of my ESL students are completely starting their two-decade educations over.  That is, they sometimes have advanced degrees from countries that US universities don’t recognize, and are essentially doing university and graduate school all over again in a new language.  Until now I’ve been almost entirely teaching people who had less education than I do.  Teaching this new (to me) demographic of student is inspiring and humbling.  It still doesn’t inform my ideal self but certainly tells my ought self to do a good job.

What other people have directly influenced your classroom style?

I’ve been very influenced by the evolutionary arguments against “traditional” classroom styles, the type that point out that it’s totally unintuitive for us to sit quietly with non-kin, face the same direction, and listen to someone 5-20 meters away impart information verbally for hours at a time.  Some people have the knack for doing this, but most of us don’t, and it’s absurd for us to make it a prerequisite for all academic success from age 7 onward.  Like the printed word, it seems justifiable mostly for the neat bell curve it produces in achievement, which makes sorting students into careers relatively simple, not for being the most effective means to put ideas into the heads of millions of people at the same time.  So being a good critical thinker, I have to consider other contexts in which people put themselves in these unintuitive circumstances, and wonder why they would seem to do so happily, even paying for the privilege, in certain cases.

One of these is stand-up comedy.  Almost every argument one could make about “traditional” education could also be made about comedy, and sort of has been made by Louis CK.  People sit for hours with strangers listening to another stranger.  Yet they not only pay attention but pay money in order for the privilege to pay attention.

Not the quote I was thinking of, but a good one.

The point is, transmission-style education isn’t a sin if you really can hold people’s attention and bring them on a journey with you.  Even if it’s not immediately relevant to their lives, there is power in rhetoric and public speech that can negate all the artifice of the “traditional” classroom.

That said, if you adopt that teaching style and DON’T keep the students’ attention, you’ve failed just as much as a comedian who can’t get a laugh.

The luxury of the long game in EFL

The conflict between short-term and long-term goals is a big one for ELT.

In most subjects, teachers work with a batch of students in something called a “course” in 3- to 5- month intervals.  We tailor our expectations of the course to that time frame, generally not asking students to do something impossible like master the complete works of Puccini or lose 20% body fat in the 18 weeks between handing out the syllabus and proctoring final exams.  Instead, we find a way to subdivide the task that we know we want them to have mastered within the next 4 years into semester-long segments, and call that our course. Not all the works of Puccini, but 2 of them.  Not 20% body fat, just 5%.  Not all of a foreign language, just 500 words and the first 10 grammar points.

There is a problem that many language teachers see in taking that approach to planning a foreign language curriculum, which is that learning another language is less like learning musical scores and more like learning to walk (or in anti-evolutionists’ favorite gambit, evolving an eye) – there are no sensible partway points at which to divide the long and error-ridden process into 4-month units.  Like walking and eye-volution, all successes are prefaced by many more instances of clear failure, and progress may look exactly like failure until it suddenly doesn’t. Half an eye doesn’t do its owner 50% of the good of a complete eye, and there is no reason to think that 2 years of college Spanish is 50% as good as 4 (or 1 year 25% as good, or a semester 12.5%).  Assuming (yes, assuming) a full college Spanish curriculum does its job of producing competent Spanish speakers, chopping it into semesters may work against this goal rather than helping students towards it by inducing short-term-goal myopia in course planners and students alike.


(I recognize that evolutionarily intermediate eyes actually did have utility – but half of a modern human eye certainly doesn’t.)

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I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.


Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #2

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving around Orange County and LA interviewing and giving teaching demos for ESLs large and small, and therefore haven’t had much time or motivation to blog.  Most of this entry came from a brief lull between a demo lesson and feedback (which was positive, hooray), sitting in a hallway outside a row of classroom doors and occasionally nodding at passing students.  It won’t be one of my 3,000-word monster posts, but it’s the best you’ll get given the circumstances.

Enclaves of 10,000 or enclaves of 130,000,000

In Southern California, finding a good match for your skill set or teaching style is sometimes a matter of finding an ESL in the right city or neighborhood.  Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population outside Saigon (or so the legend goes), mostly concentrated around Westminster, a bit west of Disneyland.  Working in south Orange County, however, places you in the middle of large Korean and Iranian enclaves.  Classes in the middle of Orange County, in Santa Ana, would give you classes of almost entirely Spanish speakers from Central America.  Parts of Los Angeles feature different likely breakdowns of student national demographics.  Teaching part time in two ESLs even in the same town would expose you to two possibly very different populations of students.

Teaching reactively means trying to bake wholesome loaves from the grist that your students bring in, and in that sense students’ backgrounds and expectations can greatly affect the flow of the class.  Not that teachers need to completely modify their teaching styles to work with students of different L1 or educational backgrounds, but some adjustments do need to be made, especially when the proportion of students of one national background reach a critical mass of (say) 60%.  I demo-taught a class of almost entirely Chinese students, and the scene where I asked them to do a worksheet in pairs and they proceeded to do it silently themselves and then show their “partner” the completed worksheet was achingly familiar.  I had seen it almost every class back when I was teaching in Japanese university.

This tailoring of classes to students’ backgrounds was never an issue in Japan, where the proportion of students born, raised, and educated in Japan hovered around 100%.  Or rather, it was never not an issue; almost all students were from one background which was different from the teacher’s (if the teacher was in a NS job), requiring a retooling for or to address the deficiencies of the specific class style that virtually all students were coming out of.  A major sub-industry of ELT exists specifically catering to the Japanese market, its unique traits, and the parts of it that insist on being treated as unique even if they aren’t.  English learning guides or textbooks, particularly from Japanese publishers, play up the “especially for Japanese” angle with the knowledge that their students either have specific needs or want to be treated as if they do.  If there is a Taiwanese/Iranian/Thai version of that phenomenon, it undoubtedly has a market somewhere in Southern California, in a bookstore whose name is written in that language on a street whose name might also be in that language.  The city’s name on the other hand is probably Spanish.