July 2017

Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the Soul Crushing Dilemma of Teachers

It’s not a secret anymore, the curriculum is crap. If it’s ESL, literally millions of learners have graduated (with honors) who can’t speak a word of English. If it’s native speakers, Functional Literacy rates in all English speaking countries are shameful with no improvement in sight. Given the close link between academia and crime, the cost of illiteracy is billions. Yet the system barrels on – unchecked.

According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” For teachers this means if we teach the curriculum we don’t make a difference. If we don’t teach the curriculum we’re fired. What kind of choice is this? Here’s story of three women who managed the unmanageable in three successful ways.

Just to be clear we aren’t talking about the old-school teachers, minions of the status quo, lording over their little class-room kingdoms like royalty. We’ve all had these teachers. They neither know nor care that they aren’t making a difference. These teachers aren’t looking for answers, they are on summer vacation. They aren’t reading this article.

This is for the rest of us who experience teaching as a calling. Personally educated to the eyeballs, some of us came to the sickening realization the first day we stood in front of a classroom that we didn’t have the tools our students needed us to have. Legions more teachers figured out in the days, weeks, months and years to come they had a difficult choice to make. Take the money or make a difference.

Joanne Pettis from Manitoba, Canada was part of the group who realized very quickly that the ESL program she had been trained to teach was not going to get the results she dreamed of for her students. In the short term she sucked it up and dished out the garbage she was paid to deliver but she also created a plan. She decided to work her way up through the politics of the education system and become the decision maker.

Today Joanne Pettis is responsible for developing the curriculum framework that guides government-funded Adult EAL programs in Manitoba and supporting programs on its implementation. This includes activities related to curriculum and syllabus design, TESL training and professional development, Adult EAL teaching, learning and assessment, materials development, CLB, and resource selection. I was proud just to meet her! This is Brenda Sherring – Saskatchewan, Joanne Pettis – Manitoba and me, Judy Thompson – Ontario, three more faces of war lol at the War of 1812 Memorial Peace Garden after TESL Canada in Niagara Falls earlier this spring.

Earth shaker number two is Jennifer England. I learned about Jennifer England through LinkedIn and we met face to face at a Radical English Teacher‘s Summit in 2012. She is another ESL pioneer I felt fortunate to meet. Jennifer moved to Spain in her early twenties, married a sexy Spaniard and they raised their family near Barcelona. She became fluent in Spanish and Catalan. As an Anglophone she was often asked by others if she would teach them English. Jennifer was a first-day girl too. The first day she started to deliver a grammar blah, blah, blah program she knew it wasn’t going to work and as a polyglot (fluent in many languages) she had some very personal insights into how to teach English better.

In her English Laboratory, classrooms, tutoring and online courses focus on what is the same about first language and English, the target language. You know this already. Is an empowering place for her students to stand. Her students achieve startling results quickly. Jennifer began by teaching children but went on to teach business executives and develop online programs using her simple, effective teaching model.
I haven’t forgotten about native English speakers who can’t read. Denise Eide developed the only logical approach to teaching reading I have ever encountered. English is non-phonetic which means letters don’t make sense. How do you make spelling and reading make sense if the basic unit of the system – letters – don’t make sense?

Denise Eide has an answer and her program is called the Logic of English. When teachers who don’t know any better than to repeat thoughtless dogma like “Sound it out” (when it can’t be sounded out) and “Loo ki du pin the dik shu na ry” (when it isn’t in the dictionary) it doesn’t just destroy learners’ confidence and self esteem, it ruins their lives. Non-readers are very likely to spend time in jail. What are their self righteous, badly trained teachers doing? Retiring on fat pensions and patting themselves on the back all the way to the bank. (Don’t worry about their feelings. They are at the lake)

Teachers who continue to teach the way they’ve always taught, content to get the results they’ve always gotten didn’t just take the money, they took it at their students’ expense.

Teachers aren’t going to get better until teacher training does.

Joanne, Jennifer and Denise chose to make a difference like it has never been made before. They found the opportunity hidden between our rock and our hard place. God bless them.

Until next time,

Judy Thompson