Are You An EFL Expert?

by Roger on January 15, 2008

by Roger | January 15th, 2008  

teflexpertsCan your relative “green-ness” as an English language teacher ever be an advantage? According to a recent article in the New York Times – yes.

This article discusses the theory that as people become more “expert” in their fields, it is harder for them to imagine not knowing what they do know. They may use jargon and more importantly, have trouble relating and explaining to those who don’t have their expert knowledge. They get things done the way they “should” be done, meaning the way they have been done in the past, and innovation is “stifled”.

To some extent, I think that people tend to do things in a certain way because it is effective, and I believe it is a skill to know when to break from tradition and when to trust it – especially as a new teacher. But I do think there is something to this argument that there are times when it can be a disadvantage to have extensive experience.

I remember how unpleasant I found my symbolic logic class taught by a full professor in college, and how much I preferred the TA-taught class.

With the TA, we covered what we needed and did the work, instead of dwelling on how exciting it was to have three different ways of reaching a solution to the same problem. I liked philosophy, and did well in both classes, but symbolic logic wasn’t my passion by any means. It occurs to me that English students abroad are often in the same boat as I was in that logic class. They may like English well enough…but unlike people who opt to study languages in English-speaking countries (where some study is required but most of it is on personal initiative), they have to take it for many years whether they like it or not. In this way, a teacher who is also not swooning over phrasal verbs may be a better match than one who is, and one who really can’t fathom why students wouldn’t be thrilled with particles too.

As a native speaker, you are an “expert” in speaking the language, but many EFL teachers do not have a love for grammar. I think that is okay in many cases – and this article explains why.

Obviously you do need to know something about what you’re teaching, and I wouldn’t want to imply otherwise. I do think training and reflection and building one’s experience are all important. It’s not an excuse to shirk on training, but lack of grammar expertise doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.

[Uh oh. I guess this article could also explain why non-native speakers of English might be better teachers too…]


{ 7 comments }

David January 16, 2008 at 10:15 am
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Wow Katie! So glad you featured this and my neurons are just afiring!

I think what is also being communicated is it isn’t so much “actual” experience/years that can have a detrimental effect on teaching performance but rather the qualitative “sense” of those years.

A teacher that always stays fresh and young (through so many means) and is always learning and developing professionally, always trying new things and changing will always be much better than a “green” teacher. Any day of the week. New teachers have an advantage in that they try and continually try out new things. Experimentation. Teaching in my opinion should always be that though, first or last year.

Studies of teachers bear this out. A teacher that always learns is a teacher that will always do a good job. I always try to set one goal for each 3-4 months. One thing I WILL change. I force myself to and in the stream of that change, I think I become a better teacher…..

I once has a very untalkative class. So I came to class with a gag. The students had to talk. Take over….It was a very long 60 minutes but it worked. All us teachers have to continually try to shake it up imo…..

David

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Katie January 16, 2008 at 6:58 pm
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That is a great point, David, especially this:

“it isn’t so much “actual” experience/years that can have a detrimental effect on teaching performance but rather the qualitative “sense” of those years.”

I think what I like about the article is that it is kind of contrary to conventional thinking, in that more years of experience, or more “book learning” don’t on their own make someone a good ____ (whatever job) – they may be part of the equation, but not the whole thing.

I love the idea of coming to class with a gag.

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EFL Geek January 16, 2008 at 9:16 pm
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Great article. Katie, I also minored in philosophy and struggled with symbolic logic.

I agree with David. Experience is a big factor. But it must be balanced by a willingness to learn and try new things. It’s always easy to tell which teachers are the best in a school. They are the ones pursuing professional development and trying out new ways to get things done in the classroom.

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Katie January 17, 2008 at 12:32 pm
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You make a good point as well, EFL Geek. (Especially about symbolic logic!)

I may have gotten a little sloppy in comparing the article directly to EFL as far as experience, but I don’t think what you and David are saying is against the idea of the article.

I think the point you both make about trying new things is a good one. It’s not just a matter of gaining the knowledge and then you are an expert and know … you keep working at it.

My line of thought was more that it isn’t always a disadvantage to lack experience or expert knowledge of grammar or methodology. I think the quality of being willing to learn and trying new things may in the long term be more important than years of experience alone.

I guess I am connecting the idea of being an expert with the sense of that person that they have already learned, rather than they continue to learn.

Man, I like thoughtful comments like these and I just hope I haven’t contradicted myself trying to respond!

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Guy Courchesne January 17, 2008 at 12:35 pm
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Good read, Katie.

I’m constantly reviewing and renewing the way I relate information to newbies, but yes, it is hard to put myself in the newbie shoes after so many years in the field.

Some of the questions that come up on forums or by email are head scratchers until one remembers just what it was like standing on the precipice of the unknown. Always a challenge..

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David January 17, 2008 at 9:27 pm
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My line of thought was more that it isn’t always a disadvantage to lack experience or expert knowledge of grammar or methodology. I think the quality of being willing to learn and trying new things may in the long term be more important than years of experience alone.

This above I completely agree with. I think it important as the article suggests – that we question competence solely based on the years put in. We aren’t a “hard skills” profession and someone can be a fantastic teacher from day 1. I’ve seen it.

I think it important that we realize EFL teaching is an Art. When I teach public speaking skills, I really stress the point that it is all about “emotion”. People come to listen to a person for that reason alone. The content, better content, they can get in a book. What a teacher does is similiar to a great speaker, they react and emote. New teachers often are better at this “audience engagement” because they haven’t standardized so much and are much more reactive, responsive…..

But yeah, like Guy says….or as Ezra Pound once did, “the lyfe so shrt, the crft so lng to lern.”

David

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EFL Geek January 19, 2008 at 9:03 pm
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David,
that’s why we are called “practicing” teachers. You are always improving, much like doctors and lawyers practice. Unfortunately we don’t make as much money as those professions.

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