In Spring 2009 I volunteered to teach a conversational ESL class without any formal training. My class consisted of 10 students from 7 different countries. All of them tested at the basic level, but their speaking abilities ranged from an Uzbekistan woman who could barely understand “How are you?” to a Chinese man who could explain his chemical studies with minimal struggle. I had attended a single one-hour orientation prior to stepping into the classroom; it explained what potential topics I could teach and how to handle students who failed to show up. That was it.
In my first class I learned why the students had made the decision to pay $20 for a non-credit class taught by someone lacking any formal training. Their reasons varied: “to meet people, my husband wants me to, so I can communicate better with my colleagues, to pass the TOEFL, to better understand the culture, to improve my pronunciation.” The majority of the students were Post-Doctoral Fellows or wives of Post-Doctoral Fellows at Cornell University. I doubt they had hoped for the English department receptionist who looked young enough to be their little sister as an instructor.
I made it through the semester and taught on practical skills like how to ask for a favor, names in the family tree, holidays and traditions, grocery shopping, clothing, and music among other topic. I would have been grateful for some sort of TESOL preparation course, but I survived without it.
Matsuda makes a valid point that TESOL and Composition should be distinct fields, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with him that Composition instructors should be required to take a second language course. If Composition instructors have experience with teaching ESL students, shouldn’t they be able to transmit this knowledge without requiring students to look outside the field? If students have an understanding of English and are deemed adequately competent to teach Native English Speakers, shouldn’t they be skilled and flexible enough to also teach Non-Native English Speakers? As a person in both RTW and TESOL, I’m not trying to discredit the value of TESOL courses, but if someone made a conscious choice to not go into TESOL, should they be expected to take a course in that specialty? If Composition and TESOL are two distinct concentrations, comprised of two distinct sets of instructors, where is the motivation for Composition students to enroll in a second langugae course? With instructors not practicing what this article preached, wouldn’t it be slightly hypocritical for this to be expected?
I managed to tread water in the TESOL sea with nothing but tutoring experience and a B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric, but some sort of TESOL preparation course would have proved valuable a year ago. Because I made it without a required TESOL course, because I was able to explain grammatical concepts when they came up, and help students improve their communication skills—the goal of the class, I am not entirely sold on the idea that Composition students should be required to take a second language course.