Can ESL Teachers Really Make a Difference?


In my second year of teaching IELTS and general English speaking in China I was asked to coach a 17 year old student who had applied to a prestigious German school. Her entrance interview, which she would be attending in person, was less than a month away and she, along with her parents, had high hopes of succeeding and gaining a place. After speaking to her informally I was also confident that the school would be a good choice for her interests and academic ability. However, by the end of our first two hour session together I realized that the cards were not stacked in Grace’s favour and that she was basically facing an uphill battle.

The Chinese Education System

I’d joined her educational journey after she’d been through fourteen concentrated years of following a set formula which compelled her to listen, memorize and reproduce, following standard Chinese learning theory and practice.

Like most ESL teachers I’d encountered this often in students who’d been through the Chinese schooling system and emerged with relatively closed minds which, thankfully, weren’t too resistant to being opened, but I have to admit I’d never dealt with this at the level of Grace’s mastery. It was as if her mind had its own personal great wall staunchly resistant to the enemy named western thematics.

I’d taken Chinese learning methods in my stride up until now, remaining calm at the plaintive cries of ‘we HAVE no imagination,’ whenever I’d asked students to use theirs. I’d allot generous thinking space allowing students to re-set their brain from ‘automatic’ to ‘free,’ but my dear, sweet, intelligent, ambitious, high-flying Grace was a different story. It was as if she had no knowledge of how to awaken and stretch an imagination which had been asleep for so long it sported a ‘do not disturb’ sign. You may think that’s no bad thing, but Grace was about to begin a three year course of study in Europe and her well-developed, analytical, critically responsive mind, overly dependent on knowing things by heart, was bound to encounter serious blocks within a totally different system.

English Language Students Working Hard

Different Countries, Different Methodology

I had come across this before back in England when teaching radio presentation to ESL students. Some of my female students came to my class in tears after failing exams in other subjects because they’d memorized and reproduced blocks of text verbatim. That was the system in their home country and it was all they knew.

I explained to Grace that it was impossible to retain and recall every fact, answer, question, quote, word or phrase needed for future academic success including her upcoming interview. I frequently reminded her that she had a mine of great unused ideas along with an extensive English vocabulary at her command. All she had to do was unearth and express it in a creative, non-parrot, non-formulaic method. In other words just be herself and let her personality shine through. For thirty to forty seconds she’d be fine, but as soon as her well of regurgitated information expired she’d stare at me, a look of mild terror on her face, like a trapeze artist realizing he has no safety net.

Grace was at a crossroads in her learning. Adapt to a new way or retain the old?

You have the knowledge you need, I re-iterated. If you’re asked about your hometown or your hobbies or your family, simply speak from your heart. Again she’d relax before speaking, however as she ran out of pre-learnt words and phrases, her body would grow tense, her shoulders close in on themselves, her chin droop and her eyes lock with mine in a silent plea for help. When I asked her what she was thinking the response was always the same; ‘I should have studied harder, I should have memorized more.’

Grace was bright and eager, a high flyer at school and perhaps with some adjustment she could have eventually overcome her difficulties and done well within a western educational system. But we had less than a month which just wasn’t enough time. She flew to Germany and failed her interview. The feedback was that her answers were too short and she was unable to elaborate when asked follow-up questions.

Final Thoughts

When I have VIP classes or small groups for two or three months at a time I can see the difference in their confidence and attitudes as they become accustomed to the western way of teaching. As all of my students plan to study abroad in high school or university at some point, I think this is a good thing.

However, I must constantly balance this against the fact that I’m up against multi-millennia of Chinese standard teaching. Consequently with someone like Grace, who’s so entrenched in the system, I accept that I won’t be able to make a difference, which leads me to ask myself yet again, which system is better? Rigid yet organized Chinese learning, or the freer, perhaps less effective western ideology? In a perfect ideal world it could possibly be a combination of both.

What do you think?


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