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English Teaching Interviews

-- Jason Sparapani --
Writer, ESL teacher

Jason provides one of the most insightful English teaching interviews that will prove valuable to any ESL teacher. He and I taught at the same school in New Orleans that has now closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He is a teacher bursting with energy, ready laughter and a huge smile.

There is a lot of meat to this interview and I like the way he approaches his lesson planning and conducting class. I didn't know this about him and never thought to ask him how he prepared for class. Big mistake, an example of someone (me) preaching something (talk to other teachers about what they do) and not taking his own advice. The loss? Mine and my students.
-- Richard Bienvenu

1. Where are you from?

I am from New Haven, Connecticut, and have lived in various parts of the U.S. and Asia since college. I live in Chicago.

2. Where do you teach ESL?

I am now studying for a master's in journalism at Northwestern University, but cannot turn my back on ESL.

3. Tell us about other places you've taught.

I have taught in a satellite city of Seoul, South Korea, a hillside village in eastern Nepal and on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

4. How long have you been teaching ESL?

I taught ESL for four years.

5. How did you get started?

When I graduated college I wanted badly to go abroad and learn as much as I could about other cultures and languages. So when I got back from a summer of waiting tables in Dublin's rowdy Temple Bar district, I looked for teaching opportunities overseas.

After seeing an ad in the New Haven Register for teaching English in Korea, I called the number listed and went to the interview. It turned out the interviewer was a Yale grad student whose parents were opening an after-school language academy in their hometown of Ilsan, just outside of the capital, Seoul.

I had no experience, but since a veteran English teacher would be joining the staff of the new school, I was told to have no fear-I would be trained.

I went and I was, joining an intense ESL training session upon arrival and a two-monthlong seminar later on in my tenure. I even received a certificate, though I don't think it would be recognized beyond our little school in Ilsan.

I later went on to teach with the Peace Corps in Nepal, where I designed hilly, remote Jaljale's first conversation course for high schoolers.

6. What for you are the perks of being an ESL teacher?

I think that being an ESL teacher keeps you young. It is true because you constantly need to come up with new ways to get people to speak in a foreign tongue, a task anyone who has struggled with the Spanish "ser" and "estar" in conversation knows can be formidable.

You become a pack rat, seeing things that you can use in class wherever you are. So your mind is always active.

It is a job that allows you to travel. Your workplace can be in Fukuoka one year and Karachi the next. And because of this you always learn new things -- languages, culture, the geography of places you once could barely point out on a map.

Probably the only thing more exciting than having that first whiff of a foreign land is the realization sometime later that all that strangeness seems so very like home.

And of course, there are the students, a whole slew of them. ESL is a field that allows for mobility, so you may teach grammar school kids, teenagers, college students or adults.

Perhaps no other job puts you in such close contact with such a wide range of people. And I often found that my students were often as much the teacher as I. Few were the days that a student didn't teach me something new, something bizarre, something that made me smile.

7. How do you plan your lessons?

I found that the most effective way to plan lessons was to follow a text, albeit roughly. If the chapter were on the progressive tense, I would choose a theme, such as daily activities, and cull materials from a range of sources.

The things that worked, I would keep, usually in a binder, and use again. Those that didn't I would either discard or use in a different way.

But I often found that each class was different. Students often had different needs, so I remained flexible in my lesson planning and would often tailor lessons to address those needs.

What I found worked best was outlining the paths to major goals; the steps I would often fill in as I learned more about my students.

8. What advice would you like to share with those teaching ESL?

Be patient and listen. Try to get a feel for where your students are coming from, what their needs, abilities and limitations are, and design lessons accordingly. And since the best writers learn by reading different authors, watch other teachers. You can pick up a lot of tips and techniques this way.

9. What are some of your other interests and how do they play into your teaching?

Writing is a passion of mine. I often got students to write, and write beyond "My name is ... ." I experimented with teaching different types of writing, such as correspondence, exposition and poetry.

I also love to explore and ask questions about new things. Sometimes I took my students outside and, as a drill, would ask them to take a look around and identify things in English. It's the same world, but in a different language. If they didn't know the word for something, I would encourage them to ask, ask, ask.

10. What is the most important thing to you about being an ESL teacher?

I find that my experience as a teacher has informed my work in other areas. In Korea, where I also worked as a copy editor at an English-language daily, I often needed to ask Korean reporters, who were writing in a foreign language, to clarify points in their articles.

All of the foreign copy editors did this, but I could always tell the former teachers by the way they spoke to others. There is a receptiveness, a way of tailoring responses to fit the moment as well as the individual, that good teachers cultivate. And it comes in handy far outside the classroom.

11. What do you like the most about being an ESL teacher?

The never-ending process of learning what works and when.

12. What do you like the least?

In teaching, you give a lot of yourself. And when a student does not live up to what you know they should, you can feel you've failed. It's an awful feeling, but I think it says you are a good teacher.

13. What impact has teaching ESL had on your life overall?

Teaching has shown me things about myself, about others, about the world, that I would not have gotten in any other field. It has made me more patient, responsive and understanding. It is something I have drawn great strength from, and will continue to, regardless of the hat I'm wearing.

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