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The Gift of Teaching

Posted by on December 10th, 2012

If I had to describe our students in one word, I’d choose “unique.”

Most adult ESL students live in urban areas where they’re exposed–whether a lot or a little–to cultures other than their own. They pass hotels and Western-style restaurants. They see tourists. They may even work for international companies.

Not our students.

Before they started our English class, many of them had never met or spoken to a native English speaker and their exposure to anything tourism related was almost non-existent. Simple things that most travelers take for granted are completely foreign to these students, and foreigners are exotic creatures. At the same time, their simple lifestyle and age-old practices are utterly fascinating to travelers like me.

Trying my hand, er foot, at the rice mill near one of our student's homes.

As you might imagine, when it comes to teaching English, it’s not exactly easy to find ready-made resources to help us connect with our students. Not many people design ESL lessons targeted at impoverished villagers who want to work in five-star eco resorts. So we must create our own curriculum to fit our unique needs. This is both exciting and scary because the possibilities are endless, but so are the opportunities for failure.

One day, for example, it became clear that my students didn’t really know the difference between hamburgers and pizza. Seriously. Hamburgers and pizza. So I created a lesson to try to explain it. Unfortunately, during the lesson, as I showed pictures of pizza ovens and shredded mozzarella and ground beef and cheddar cheese, I realized they weren’t familiar with any of the essential ingredients in the food either. It was the longest, most painful lesson I have ever taught, but it was a valuable learning experience for me. It made me realize that I need to learn more about my students, and it motivated me to try again from a new approach. Next time, I think we’ll make it a cooking class!

That’s the beauty of this project: It challenges us, as teachers, to view the world from a different perspective and come up with creative solutions to the problems we encounter. And in so doing, we are undoubtedly learning at least as much as our students. What a gift!

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