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Achievement Profile: David Papier
The Thrill of Being an ESL Teacher

David Papier recently returned from spending a good part of the last year teaching ESL in China. He has taught and created relevant teaching materials all over the world during a career which has spanned three decades. ESL MiniConference Online is pleased to present his comments from our recent interview.

Some David Papier links:

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with David Papier:

David Papier

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

My major enjoyment in ESL is actual classroom teaching--I always get a thrill from meeting a new class, determining what the students need and helping them to move along. I therefore pursue teaching in a variety of settings involving different skills, levels and ages of students. Most recently I taught in China, part of the time in a rural area with little money and few resources; a project I am undertaking is to send a range of books and other teaching materials to the school to help improve EFL instruction there.

A project I am holding for the future is to revise and expand a text called 'Critical Reading' which I wrote in Thailand a few years ago.

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 became interested in ESL as a graduate student at the University of Michigan--here I met students from all over the world at the English Language Institute. I took courses in teaching; especially influential was H. Douglas Brown, Professor of Education, who helped us explore so many possibilities in teaching. I learned a good deal more when I had to design and teach an ESL course open to everyone in the Ann Arbor community: this was part of the requirement for the M.A. degree. We beginners were observed and critiqued by experienced teachers, providing a chance for me to learn from my mistakes and giving me lessons I have never forgotten. The following year I went to Yugoslavia on a Fulbright grant to set up and teach an EFL course at a technical college. I had no colleagues, no text and no materials other than my own; for me this was a crash course in learning the value of being creative and flexible. In the long run it proved to be extremely good training.

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?

I have lived for lengths of time as a teacher in Yugoslavia, Haiti, Japan, Thailand and China. I am most familiar with these language and culture backgrounds from the point of view of a teacher and also as a language learner, since I make a strong effort in every country to learn the language. I think it is important for ESL teachers to spend time in other countries, not only for personal enrichment but also for the experience to be gained: the first-hand experience of struggling to learn another language and culture, the less-than-ideal teaching conditions which help bring out inventiveness and other strengths in a teacher, the valuable resource one can become in a place like China just by being a native speaker of English. I learn specific lessons from each new teaching role. For example, in Asia students are usually passive in class, expecting the teacher to do all the speaking because that is their tradition. Knowing that this is not the best way of teaching, I have come to rely more heavily on classwork in pairs, in groups and on teams, so I have developed new activities and have become much more comfortable with this type of teaching. I consider this to be not just a response to a certain teaching situation, but an overall benefit to my teaching, part of my own evolution.

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

A. BE FLEXIBLE. Be ready to change your lesson if something unexpected happens. If a lesson isn't working, be prepared to make quick changes or drop it entirely, at least for the time being. Have a backup plan. Always have a game or something light in reserve to be used if necessary.

B. BE CREATIVE. Start a picture file, collecting from magazines and catalogues. All kinds of lessons can be built in a jiffy around pictures. Beg and borrow ideas freely from other teachers. Adapt ideas from colleagues and from textbooks to suit your own style and needs.

C. BE PATIENT. Remember that what is simple to you in English is not so simple to the students. Speak a bit more slowly and distinctly, try to simplify the words that you use and watch students to make sure they are with you. If not, stop and back up. Learn to read from an ESL point of view--that is, learn to anticipate which words and grammatical constructions in a reading are likely to give the students trouble so you can stress them in class. When you discuss a new word, don't automatically tell the students what the word means; instead, ask leading questions to help them figure out the word. Don't emphasize definition, but context: ESL research shows students retain words longer if they are placed in context rather than simply defined or translated. Require students to keep a list of new words, always in context. It is your job as the teacher to provide the context, a sentence or a phrase. This will also show students exactly how the word is used.

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

I think it is most important to keep the ESL field dynamic, making changes not just for the sake of change, but to keep up with our fast-moving world. We must adopt new technology where appropriate, always remembering that no new electronic gizmo can take the place of a good, solid teacher. We must also bear in mind that with our world becoming more and more international, students' needs may change, requiring us teachers to be one step ahead. And we must always maintain cultural sensitivity, now perhaps more than ever as we rub shoulders with more and more people from far-flung places. However, I do not think these challenges are overwhelming as I look around at the amount of talent out there in the ESL field.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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