ESL: One Semester Gone

7th December 2011

16 weeks. 16 weeks have gone by since I frantically began a new semester teaching a totally new class/subject: ESL Reading and Writing. The program at my university was undergoing changes, and I was hired to a full-time position right as the semester began. I am a super-organized teacher, so the last-minute prep was really taxing. Books didn’t come in until several weeks into the semester. The other teacher and I were at our wit’s end trying to be prepared for these students.

But let me tell you, once I calmed down and realized that teaching writing is teaching writing, and hello! Teaching reading? Heck yeah. I took it in stride. It was an incredibly challenging semester, but it was also extremely rewarding, and for the first time in many years, I can honestly tell you that I love my job.

The students? They came from China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and Brazil. They are a variety of ages and cover a whole spectrum of jobs – doctors, attorneys, accountant, architects, radio hosts, entrepreneurs. The relationship I had with these students was so different from the traditional instructor-student connection. I had each student for 10 hours a week and also spent time with some of them outside of class. Almost every student was dedicated and prepared to work intensely toward their goals. I have never been more impressed and so grateful for a group of students.

Even with the rough start, we quickly settled into a routine, working on reading Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We read several books together and had some really great discussions. In fact, even though most students claimed to hate reading, several asked when we could continue when we were in the middle of a book. 🙂

As for me, I also learned quite a lot, as an individual and a teacher. It was difficult, at first, to slow my speech and search for synonyms and antonyms spontaneously. Seriously. Try it sometime on the spot. Your mind goes blank. Having to search for words and new ways to explain words was a challenge. As a teacher, I was a bit overwhelmed at first. I thought I would have to approach instruction in a totally new way. No. I simply had to modify. These students are so intelligent and were very eager (for the most part) to soak up every lesson. What I had to realize is that confidence is the most important skill for a teacher. I know how to teach students to write and read. I just needed to trust myself to do that.

One of the most fun parts of teaching ESL? Halloween. As a college instructor, holidays come and go without comment. These students had so many questions, specifically about Halloween. Do I have to give out candy? What if I don’t have candy? Why do the kids say “trick or treat”? I had a ball creating articles about the history of Halloween in the States. I brought in treats and got more into the holiday than I ever have in the past.

The Latin students were amazed when I could pick up on what they were saying and sometimes (roughly) answer them. The Arabic students were so generous and patient in teaching me parts of their language as well.

So…thank you guys. Thank you so much for such an amazing semester. I care for each of you so much and will miss those of you returning to your home countries. I appreciate you trusting me and encouraging me as your teacher. Be safe, and be well.

Hasta luego.


أراك في مابعد


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  • Mohammad – Saudi Arabia

    I am so glad that I had a teacher like you
    Thank you for teaching me how to reed and write, And trast my self when I speak english.


    • Mohammad –

      Thank you! It was a joy having you in my class, and I’ll see you next semester.


  • You’re reminding me of so many things I loved about tutoring esl students in the States. It’s not that teaching English in Macedonia wasn’t rewarding, because the students were enthusiastic and it was fun to watch them start to play with the language – but there, there was so much running into limits with what the school and teachers would do that I forgot to stop and appreciate the students. But tutoring esl students…like you write, it’s incredible to work with students who are, by and large, so dedicated to their studies and so interested in understanding the smallest details of American language and culture. It’ll be fun to start tutoring again when I’m back in the States. And I’m glad that you wound up enjoying the teaching experience so much!

    • Thanks so much, Ellen! It really has been so incredible. You’re making your way home soon, yes?

  • Oh, this is so great. You included Vietnamese in your closing! If you ever need some Vietnamese phrases to help communicate with your students, let me know.

    Congrats on completing your first semester! Congrats to you, too, Mohammad. You can’t fail with Jenn as your teacher.

    • I did! I’ve asked them for a couple words, but I SO do not get the pronunciation.

      Thanks so much, Elyse!

  • Ivan

    Oh my gosh… I didn’t know you thought all these stuff about us. I’m so sad think about we could share only one semester with you. I’m sure if we would have started to learn English with teachers like you, now our English would be better. Thanks for your patience and passion which you tought us. But you know what? The best reward for a teacher it’s to know that a bit of her or his, it’s going to be forever in the minds and hearts of her or his students. We are never going to forget you. Wherever we are, each time for us to use this beautiful language, you are going to be present in our knowlege. You have left your mark on our lifes. Thousand times thank you.

    P.S. I hope that you understand that I want mean. My last essay was terrible.

    • Ivan – so eloquent. I will never forget you and Adri either, and I’m so glad I got a chance to know you both. Please please keep in touch. 🙂

  • Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness

    This is a great post, Jenn! I’ve never taught writing, but I did work as a writing tutor in college and I remember how working with ESL students seemed intimidating at first, especially since their technical knowledge of grammar was so much better than mine. It was so hard to re-learn all my synonyms and antonyms again.

    • Thanks, Kim. And ohmygosh, are you right about their knowledge of grammar. Plus, even though I’ve taught writing/grammar for 6 years, a lot of this grammar you don’t teach to native speakers. And the vocab? I mean, try to explain unfortunately. Uh, NOT fortunately. That was one of my biggest struggles, words that were extremely difficult to define and explain. It was a huge challenge.