May 11, 2015

Monday Musings: The ESL "Profession"?

I was familiar with the first line of this famous quotation but not the second; indeed, I had never read the poem from which these lines come until yesterday.  I had no idea, either, what a Pierian spring was until I looked it up.

It turns out that Pierian spring refers not to a season but to a source of water in Macedonia that was sacred to the Greek Muses.  The ancients believed that if you drank from the spring, you became full of knowledge and learning.  However, you had to take a deep drink to benefit from the properties of the water.  If you drank only a little, you’d acquire only a superficial amount of knowledge, yet think you had learned a lot.
Musings about the ESL profession
Greek muses; source: Pixabay
This idea connects to my earlier post about education reformers who think they know how to “fix” schools because they once were students themselves.  It also ties in to a common misunderstanding that many people have about teaching English to speakers of other languages: that if you know English, you can teach English.  This was a prevalent thought among a lot of foreigners I met when I was teaching overseas.  They were not professional teachers but rather people who wanted to visit foreign countries and thought that by teaching English, they could earn some money that would enable them to spend more time traveling. 

There were plenty of schools that were only too happy to hire these untrained “teachers” because they could pay them lower salaries.  That their students were not receiving quality lessons apparently was not a huge concern.  What made this practice all the more frustrating for professional teachers was that the lower standards meant that qualified teachers of English often had a harder time finding decent jobs and were not paid as well as they should have been due to the abundant supply of people willing to work for less.

Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion among ESL teachers in professional organizations about whether teaching English to speakers of other languages is indeed a profession.  Obviously, I think it is.  Given the huge increases U.S. states have seen and are continuing to see in the numbers of ELLs enrolled in public schools, it is gratifying to see that the needs of these students have garnered more attention, especially since NCLB and its provision for accountability in the teaching of various sub-groups such as ELLs and special education students.  I took issue with many aspects of NCLB but that was not one of them.  Now that the law is being rewritten, I hope the same level of attention will be given to the needs of English Language Learners, who still lag academically behind other students.  It would be great if policymakers at state and national levels, and administrators at district levels, drank deep from the Pierian spring and then provided enough financial and other support to hire trained ESL teachers to implement them.  This hasn’t happened everywhere but ELLs deserve no less.