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Achievement Profile: Renee Lajcak
Conveying the Excitement of ESL to Teachers-in-training

Renee Lajcak is the director of the TEFL certificate program at the Midwest Teacher Training Program, in Madison, Wisconsin. ESL MiniConference Online is pleased to share her comments with our readers.

Some Renee Lajcak links:

Midwest Teacher Training Program
Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute
E-mail for MTTP information

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Renee Lajcak:

Renee Lajcak

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

I am now the director of a five-week TEFL certificate program. In addition, I do some teacher training in the certificate program and ESL teaching in our parent school. I enjoy the combination of administration and teaching.

My principal project is to provide a high-quality teacher training program that is interactive and practical. New teachers want to know what to do and then they want to try it themselves. I strive to make both my teacher-training and my ESL classes fun and useful, presenting the information and content in the most dynamic and relevant way possible. I want teacher-trainees and students to leave the class saying, "That was a blast. I want to learn more!"

On the back burner is the desire to use the internet more in my class assignments. I would like to develop my knowledge in CALL and have all my class plans integrate more websites, email and chat rooms.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

My first experiences teaching were volunteer experiences with Southeast Asian refugees. Although I was a commercial artist at the time, I found being a teacher much more creative and personally rewarding. Teaching illiterate basic beginners taught me so much about simplifying and clarifying my speech, honing down a lesson to its most essential parts, and focusing on what the students themselves want to learn. I also learned how much I could gain personally from learning about my students' experiences. The volunteer experience enriched my life in many ways. Because this new area fit me so much better, I soon went back to school for a K-12 teaching license and a master's degree in ESL.

While I was a student, I went out of my way to try a wide variety of teaching, from volunteer work with refugees to private paid tutoring of business professionals, and from working with pre-schoolers to team-teaching university students. Every teaching experience added to a store of knowledge and "tricks of the trade" that have served me well through the years.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

In the U.S., my largest ESL groups have come from Japan, Korea, and Venezuela. I have learned a lot about facilitating mixed language/culture groups, and a combination of passive and active learners in the classroom. I always strive to give everyone, even the quietest and lowest level student, the same chance at expressing themselves. However, even after 20 years of teaching, I have to consciously keep myself from giving more attention to certain students who "connect" with me more through their language facility, their eye contact or something undefinable.

I have lived and taught in both Indonesia and Japan. I believe every ESL teacher should try a new language every few years. It keeps you humble and, oh, so empathetic to your students' attempts at English.

Japanese students often seem insecure about trying their new language and a big part of teaching them is building confidence and encouraging them to "play" with the language. I've learned to build my lessons from structured activities guaranteeing a great amount of success towards the more open-ended free activities that then lose some of their intimidating quality.

Indonesian students are a wonderful mix of learners, just as their country is a mix of cultures. However, I found them much more willing to use English as a handy tool to meet their goals, without worrying so much about accuracy. In the same way, they were more accepting of my own attempts at Indonesian since speaking two or more languages is not a rare thing in their country. I found this relaxed attitude to language learning refreshing as both a learner and a teacher.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

First of all, spend time on the first day getting to know the students. I've found that the more time I spend on this, the more relevant my activities can be and the more successful the class is.

Second, think about how the parts of your lesson and the lessons themselves build on each other. When I was a new teacher, my lesson plans were just a collection of fun activities. There was little connection from activity to activity, from day to day. The flow of your class can build student confidence and thus, improve their success. Introduce new activities and topics with background info the students already have rather than just leaping into them. Do several different kinds of activities on the same topic. Review a past activity but add more depth and detail the second time. This approach will help you focus on the bigger picture of language learning rather than just filling class time.

Finally, if you find yourself bored with a class, look at your teaching before you blame your students or the book. I always feel that a class can be made more fun by attacking it from a different angle. Try teaching your topic using another mode: visual, kinesthetic, musical, etc. Try a multi-media "vacation" from the text. Personalize your lesson with your own and your students' experiences. Have the students be the teachers for an activity or a day. As they say, "Variety is the spice of life."

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

Anti-foreign student sentiments in the post-September 11th world have resulted in difficulties obtaining student visas and have dramatically reduced enrollment in IEPs in the U.S. The loss of these educational opportunities for foreign students also brings losses for the U.S. Fewer foreign students in the U.S. means less international exposure for American students. The U.S. also misses the chance to develop friendships with students who will later become the economic and political leaders of their countries. Finally, losing foreign students brings a loss of revenue for the U.S. economy in the millions, if not billions of dollars.

Bilingual education and English as an official language legislation remain hot-button topics throughout this country. Finding the best way to teach English while maintaining respect for native cultures and languages should be a goal for all teachers and policy makers.

One more issue is how to meet the different needs, learning styles and goals of all ESL students. For example, special groups such as students with learning disabilities have to be identified and taught in ways that fit their individual needs.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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