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10 Tips I Learned from a Decade as a TEFL Volunteer
Written by: Michael Dishnow
Last Updated: October 5, 2020
I am a retired educator. The past decade I have been a volunteer teacher for the Taiwanese Educational non-profit, My Culture Connect (MCC). MCC provides English education and cultural exchanges support to underserved rural schools in Taiwan. I live in Wisconsin, USA, and travel regularly to Changhua County in central Taiwan for 4-6 weeks at a time. When there, I live with my Taiwanese colleagues and we volunteer/teach in schools five days a week. When home in the USA, I regularly teach Skype lessons to Taiwanese schools.
Here are my 10 tips from over a decade of volunteer-teaching ESL:
1. Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity
Learn to introduce yourself. “My name is Michael Dishnow. I am a teacher from the United States. I am pleased to meet you.” Learn a few courtesies. Struggle with Chinese, as I have, and you will quickly come to appreciate your student’s difficulties. Learn the basics of the culture. The differences between their culture and yours. You will make mistakes. Just sincerely apologize and adjust your behaviors. There are short online classes, and books are available.
Patience is the prime virtue, especially with children. Focus on being student centered. Realize the attention span of students is short. A simple rule of thumb is: 5 years - 5 minutes; 6 years - 6 minutes. Children are active. Stand up, turnabout, walk, sing. Watch a successful elementary teacher. "Less is more." If you focus only on completing the day's lesson plan, you miss the most important element, student learning. Have a PLAN B in case something goes awry. What if the Internet is down?
3. Speak Slowly, Michael
A couple of years back a good friend in Taiwan invited me to video-conference with him and a Japanese friend. After the conference, Huck told me the Japanese fellow had asked him: "Why does Michael talk so slowly?" Huck told him I was used to teaching English to Taiwanese children. I had become so accustomed to speaking slowly and distinctly that it had carried over unexpectedly. Listen to a native speaker speak the new language you are struggling to learn. Is there a difference if he/she speaks slowly?
Do not fear and/or reject "rote learning". It works very well in language learning.
"Practice makes perfect". I often repeat short Mandarin phrases like mantras. If I am writing characters, I do so over and over. I am not suggesting throwing out other teaching methods. Goodness, no! Variety is the spice of life (in education, too).
5. Functionality is Primary
My biggest insight is focusing on functional English. Language is foremost a means of communicating, one person to another. We usually teach English in a classroom. The practicum occurs outside the classroom. An example I experience regularly when in Taiwan: The night market. Being a tall white-haired Caucasian makes me stand out. It is common for young Taiwanese to approach me and say hello. They want to practice their English. “The more they talk, the more they will talk - the more they will learn.” - Mickey DesCheneaux (my pen name).
6. Grammar and Syntax Secondary
Grammar and syntax are important, in due time. You will develop an awareness of timeliness with experience. I do lots of English editing for Taiwanese students, colleagues, and friends. First, I edit their sentences as written maintaining almost all their wording. I add the plural (s’s) and small connecting words, correcting obvious mistakes. My goal is to maintain the integrity of their writings.
Second, I will rewrite their paragraphs as I might have written them. This provides them food for thought - how a native English speaker might say it.
7. Accent is NOT important
Most English conversations globally are between two or more non-native English speakers? The language of choice, in the global economy, is English.
Most data bases and repositories globally are written in English. It is communications, the ability to talk and understand, not the person’s accent that is important. When traveling in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, I sometimes do not understand waiters/waitresses in local restaurants. I have more issues understanding clearly than when speaking to Chinese, Taiwanese, Egyptian, or Indian colleagues. A question arises, can a non-native English speaker effectively teach TEFL. My answer is resounding, “YES”. If they are competent in grammar and syntax, yes.
8. Team Teaching
“Two heads are better than one” is a common refrain. I sometimes use an odd mathematical model. I suggest: 1 (individually) + 1 (individually) = 2 and 1 (together) + 1 (together) = 3. First, if your student or classroom has a local teacher get to know he/she. He/she will understand the students and local environmental better than you. Develop and plan lessons together. Team-teach some lessons. Second, this helps you understand the expectations of the local school.
9. Leave Your Door Open (figuratively)
Do not expose yourself to the most common virus impacting teachers. Do not become “an island unto yourself”. It is quite common for teachers, especially new teachers, to enter their new classroom, close the door, and keep it closed. They invite no one in except students and seldom venture outside. Effectively shutting out potential avenues of growth. Other teachers, principals, and community members. There is much to be gained by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, be viewed and critiqued by others. Your schoolhouse is a huge library of teachers and teaching skills just waiting to be shared with you and by you.
Last Christmas I offered to play Santa Claus and read "The Christmas Story" to a close colleague’s two English classes in Taiwan. She is an English teacher whose native tongues are Taiwanese and Mandarin. The classes were scheduled two days apart. The first session was a little rough, did not go as planned. We were a bit disappointed. The following day we Skyped and discussed our experience. WE REFLECTED ON WHAT WE HAD DONE. We developed a modified plan for the upcoming session. The second session was a rousing success. It went extremely well.
Ask yourself three questions:
- What worked?
- What did not?
- What is next (changes)?
Good teaching is a learned behavior more than an inborn talent. The goal is: be a little better today than yesterday, a little better tomorrow than today. My biggest lesson in 50 years of teaching has been my willingness to say , "My mistake, I was wrong, I was nervous today".
Try my ideas. If they work for you, use them. If not, try other ways. You are, in the final analysis, the teacher. Trust yourself.
Michael is a retired educator from Wisconsin. At the age of 76, he has spent the last decade volunteer teaching for the Taiwanese educational non-profit, My Culture Connect (MCC). MCC provides English education and cultural exchange support to underserved rural schools in Taiwan. Michael travels regularly to Changhua, Taiwan from the USA to volunteer and teach in schools five days a week. When home, he teaches English online over Skype to Taiwanese Schools.
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