Expat Magazine

Teachers in the Students’ Seats

By Zach Zine @Int_In_Debt

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at [email protected], and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!


Standing in front of 20 Taiwanese children and teaching English may seem like a pretty straightforward, one-way relationship of teacher and students.  But, it is actually much more than that, and many times we have found that we are being taught just as much as those students we are there to teach.  In fact, we would be hard-pressed to put all of things we have learned in our time as ESL teachers in a book, let alone a fairly short blog post.  What we have compiled below are just a few examples of what we have learned in our time so far.

To begin, working as an ESL teacher and teaching children has shown us just how amazing kids are.  They are tiny human beings that have yet to be fully socialized into the norms of the society in which they live, and that leads to some pretty amazing, funny, crazy, etc. moments that we will remember forever.  We have learned from teaching these tiny citizens some truly amazing things.   First, we have found that children have an amazing ability to forgive you for wronging them almost instantly.  Being a teacher, you will have to yell and you will have to discipline your students if they get out of hand.  This can lead to tears and anger on their end.  But, amazingly, no matter how much they seem to despise you in those moments, they will almost always walk in the next day with a big smile on their face and joy in their voices.  It is truly inspiring to be around, and it makes us question our grudges from the past and the present.  Secondly, children also have the ability to say and do some pretty ridiculous things.  They don’t have that socialized filter that adults have, and, thus, they might call you fat, tell you they don’t like you to your face, profess love or hate, swear, etc. all while being wonderfully unaware of their missteps.  It really has taught us something about our perceived notions of “maturity.”  We tend to see things like that and say, “Oh, they are just immature.”  But, really maturity when considered in this light ends up just looking a lot like the amount of socialization you have been through.  Kids will talk badly about each other, but they will do it to the face of the person.  Adults, similarly, talk badly about other people, but they do it behind said person’s back most of the time.  Both are the same, basically, one is just less brash.  This has taught us about our thoughts on maturity, and what that word really means.

Next, when we first came here, we figured that we would be the ones teaching our students about language, and that would be about it.  But, we have found that we have learned a great deal about Chinese at the same time.  While we are constantly telling the kids not to speak Chinese, it is always around.  Therefore, we can practice our listening as the kids talk to each other, or, occasionally, to us.  We can practice our listening skills when the kids are on break, or hanging out before class.  It has been a great tool for us in our pursuit of learning Chinese.  So, that is a pretty understandable and clear thing that isn’t all that surprising, but there is more.   Even when the children are speaking English, they still tend to use Chinese grammar, especially when they are younger.  In turn, we are able to hear direct English translations of Chinese sentences and grammar.  This is great, especially when you first get started learning Chinese, or any language, because the grammar rules, or lack thereof, are very different than they are in English.  Hearing Chinese grammar patterns and structures translated into English has proven to be a great tool in our understanding and pursuit of grasping the Chinese language.  Paradoxically, then, teaching English can be and is a great tool in learning another language, whatever that may be.

Keeping within the language theme, teaching English has been a great tool in a better understanding and utilization of our own language.  When you grow up speaking a language you tend to take said language for granted.  It just is.  You use it on a daily basis without truly ever thinking about how amazing your mother-tongue truly is.  When we first started teaching English, we understood English pretty well, I mean we’ve been speaking it our whole lives, but we didn’t understand the nuances embedded in it.  There are times when you are in a classroom and you must use English in ways you have never thought about doing before.  You will have to explain a word or words using other words to a group of children who are hearing them for the first time.  It forces you to think about words you never thought about before in ways you have never thought about them.  It forces you to further and better understand the roots of your language, and how truly layered, complex and ridiculous your mother-tongue is.  It is extremely rewarding and eye-opening.

Moving further, teaching a language has taught us how amazing language is in and of itself.  Think about it, every single innovation, every bit of progress, every bad and great thing the world has ever seen has been due to language.  Language is the foundation onto which humanity has flourished.  It is how we communicate with ourselves in our thoughts, and it is how we communicate with each other.  Teaching English has showed us not only how great and unique our own language is, but also how amazing language in general is in and of itself.  This is something that we would not have thought about, certainly not to the extent that we now do, without becoming ESL teachers.  It really puts into perspective how important our job is because we are giving these children a skill that is an indispensable part of being a human being.  Now, in a truly globalized world, communication through language, whether it be English Chinese, or any other language, is something immensely important.  While we obviously knew we had to put our all into our jobs, learning and thinking about this so much has made us appreciate our jobs as ESL teachers so much more.

Indeed, being an ESL teacher was not something we would have envisioned ourselves doing if you had asked us just 3 years ago where we’d be.  But, as the short list above shows as evidence, there are innumerable amazing things we have learned even though we are the teachers, and, therefore, we would never take back our time spent teaching English.  We wish we could go through all of the things we have learned more thoroughly and clearly, but, alas, time and space are lacking.  One thing we can say, though, is that being an ESL teacher is an amazing job that WILL without a doubt teach you some amazing things about yourself, your students, your language, and much more.  Do it.  You won’t regret it.

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