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Achievement Profile: Maria Spelleri
An Enthusiastic Passion for the ESL Calling

Maria Spelleri is extremely active on a number of different language-learning listservs, demonstrating her enthusiasm for everything related to ESL. She has a special interest in the needs of one-on-one tutors for better teaching materials. Below are some of her comments from a recent ESL MiniConference interview.

Some Maria Spelleri links:

The Literary Council of Sarasota, Florida
LIFE Packs: Literacy Is For Empowerment
E-mail Maria Spelleri (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Maria Spelleri:

Maria Spelleri

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

I’m the Program Coordinator of The Literacy Council of Sarasota, Florida, a non-profit agency that offers ESL services to immigrants and literacy help to native English speakers. In this community-based organization and in others like it, there is a challenge to train volunteers to tutor ESL to adult immigrants and provide them with the theoretical and methodological tools they need in as succinct a time as possible, normally less than 20 hours. The challenge lies in determining what the tutor really needs to know immediately to do his job effectively, and what can wait for continuing or professional development opportunities later on in the volunteer’s tutoring "career".

Over the years I have developed a selection of short interactive workshops for ESL tutors on TESOL topics, for example "Helping your Learner with Pronunciation" and "Communicative Grammar Techniques", and I am now trying to format them for publishing. Hopefully there will be a videotape too. The world of community-based ESL programs is growing rapidly- nearly 2000 affiliates of Laubach Literacy and Literacy Volunteers of America alone in the U.S., and not a lot of material for the special needs and concerns of the paraprofessional tutor working with adults, frequently in a one-on-one situation. The more material available on video and the more detailed the training information available to these paraprofessionals, the better the standards and the better trained each agency’s volunteer corps can be. My mini "workshop in a box" is being created to augment the excellent, yet limited- in- scope training these volunteers already receive by delving into more specific topic areas that there isn’t enough time to cover in initial training.

In my other capacity, ( and don’t most of us in the field have several!), as owner of English Solutions, I work with foreign-born professionals and academics privately and in small groups, honing oral and written presentation skills and reducing strong accents that hinder comprehensibility.

Because in both of my professional capacities I am involved with one-on-one instruction of adult students, or training others to be, I am very interested in both the dynamics of this instructional format and finding ways to "step out of the box" in learning activities and overall lesson construction. I know that all over the world, adults, especially professionals, are getting English instruction in this private format, and I don’t feel there are enough resources out there for teachers who work this way. Peter Wilberg wrote a great book, "One to One" (1987) all about this, but I have yet to see anything else. On the back burner then for me, is further analysis of the private instruction format, and an exploration of techniques, processes, and activities for a variety of one-on-one teaching situations that go beyond the predictable and can spark the teacher-student dynamic in this setting.

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

I got into ESL in a backwards way- but funnily enough after fifteen years of talking to other professionals, I have found very many of us entered the field somewhat "non-traditionally". I was living and studying in Greece, a business student abroad, becoming thoroughly bored with the finer points of marketing in the EEC, and realized that I much more enjoyed helping out those fellow students and work associates who asked me to improve their English. This evolved into working on company documents, brochures, and other things that had to be in English, and then on to teaching others how to create the same. I realized that Marketing Management was the wrong field for me (but then I knew it all along and had repressed it), went back to the US to finish my degree and got a TESOL certificate in San Francisco so I could travel and teach. I returned to Greece and taught EFL to the business community in Athens for years. I finally did end up with a M.Ed. in TESOL, but I’m really glad that I had some years of experience in the field prior to that as it really all gelled and made sense then. So, I guess it was really just circumstances that influenced my decision to get into ESL.

To be honest with you, I don’t really think of it as a "career"; it’s been more of a calling (if you‘re passionate about it), an interest (if it’s something you want to talk and read about in your free time) and of course it pays the bills (not as well as it should). To many people, "career" means moving up a ladder, and unfortunately (in my opinion) upwards mobility in education means that the good teacher ends up not teaching anymore! What kind of weird "reward" system is that? No matter what I have done in the field, teacher training, volunteer training, administration, I always need to have a foot in a class somewhere, or it stops being fun for me.

I think some important formative experiences for me occurred at the British Council in Athens. I heard the most erudite lectures and took part in wonderful seminars that the British TESOL experts excel in, and began to see the scope of the field and how much psychology, culture, and even philosophy interact with language learning. I was so impressed with the scholarship that I observed- it only increased my desire to read and learn more.

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?

Well of course, there’s Greek and the Greek people, first and foremost, both as a teacher, and as a language learner. The most important thing I learned about teaching English to Greeks is that as an American from an individualistic culture working with people who belong to a primarily collectivist culture, we are going to butt heads unless I keep that primary difference in the forefront of my mind. A teacher needs to understand how that cultural difference influences difference perspectives in time, activity orientation, and sense of belonging. These things, for me, did not directly influence the actual acquisition of the language, (as both teacher and learner) but certainly affect the mood of the class, the relationship between the teacher and the class, and just overall spiritual well-being of living and working among a different culture group. But now that I think more about it, if you believe that a strong affective filter can impede your ability to learn, then maybe my there could have been more influence on the language learning itself.

Linguistically, the word order in Greek is a lot less restricted than in English. That, plus the tendency to want to assign a sex to everything, as in “The chair, she is antique”, were probably the challenges I could always count on working with Greek students.

In California, I had a lot of experience working with Japanese students, including several classes of Buddhist monks. Talk about collective culture! It was a wonderful learning opportunity for me on so many different levels. I think the Japanese learners taught me to look at classroom activities in a new way. I had to rethink competitive-type activities, and those that required debate and lots of individual statement of opinion, and plan more for the group or small groups, and activities that promoted consensus and cooperation. I also saw clear examples of the difference between learning and acquisition, as so many of these students came to me having already memorized every English grammar rule in the world. They were just amazing people.

In Florida, I work with many Hispanic people. We can’t just lump them linguistically any more than one can lump a Jamaican and a North Dakotan. The people from each Spanish-speaking country have cultural differences, and they would be the first to point them out. Yet here I go with a generalization: I have found Central and South American people to be highly culturally literate, and try to incorporate their authors, poets, musicians, etc. in my lessons, through a translated work or in another way.

These are the culture/language groups that I feel I know the most about.

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

1. Never underestimate preparation and the need for a lesson plan. You will be more confident, work less hard in the end, and be much more professional in the eyes of your students- important if you want to be respected.
2. Be prepared to throw away the lesson plan if a great "teachable moment" rears its head. Flexibility is not the same as haphazardness.
3. Lighten up! Be sure that humor has a place in your classroom. Especially for adults, there are potential humiliating moments in the ESL class. Aside from trying to avoid a set up for one of those moments, keep the atmosphere light enough so that students aren’t afraid to take risks. If laughter is part of the curriculum, no one will ever feel laughed "at".
4. Can I cheat and give one more? Take every opportunity offered to you for seminars, conferences, professional development and journals and Never Stop Learning!!!

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

The lack of understanding of what we do by those outside the field. Not only does this lead to misconceptions (“How many languages do you need to speak?”), but I think it also leads to a lack of respect from other faculty. ESL is a “soft” subject after all, not like math or social studies! (Their opinion!) If the student needs to miss a class for any reason, why not pull him out of ESL? It’s not important! Sometimes, however, the profession does the damage to itself. I was horrified to recently learn that a school district would hire anyone with a Bachelors in any subject to be an ESL teacher in elementary school. What does this say to those who already have little regard? That “anyone” can do it- you don‘t even need special training.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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