Vol. 4. No. 2 F-1 November 1999
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Why do teachers teach?

Many of us can remember being kidded by our college "friends"--they were majoring in engineering, physics, law, business or whatever--about our choice of the teaching profession with the saying:
Those who can, do.
Those who can't, teach.
Since then we may have heard an added third line:
Those who can't teach, administrate.
I remember defending myself by labeling them "jock" or "dumb ---" and other names that would be inappropriate for this publication. But, their barbs unfortunately stuck to many of our psyches like beggars' lice stick to our clothes after a walk in the fields, and became widely popular, as in "popular wisdom" which too often proves unwise. Times and attitudes do change, of course. Recently, I received a mail order catalog offering sweatshirts with a more enlightened version of that old saying:
Those who can, do.
Those who can do more, teach

Readers of this column might want to add . . . EFL/ESL.

Some other people might want to add this third line:

Those who can do even more, teach teachers.

While I admit to preferring this more enlightened cliché to the original banalities, it still seems to me that there remains a certain kind of derogatory competition in it that reminds me of much of our "popular" humor. I confess I am still not entirely comfortable with "friends" who show their "friendship" through "friendly" sarcastic cuts, put-downs, and insults. There always seems to me to be too much negative feeling hidden in those derogatory expressions, as well as the idea that the person who could give the most cutting "zingers" was "better" than the recipient. At best, such people remind me of young adolescents trying to see who can use the most shocking language. At worse, . . . well, that too would be inappropriate for this publication. [-1-]

I allow that it might be true that my own psyche is too sensitive to stand up to such derogatory humor or cutting competition. But I wonder if such negative expressions, even of supposed endearment, contribute to building and maintaining positive relationships, or whether anyone's psyche is better off having shown strength in such a way.

It appears to be a similar, though admittedly more acceptable, manifestation of human nature (and intelligent marketing strategy) to come up with such sweatshirt and bumper sticker one-up-(wo)man-ship as "Lovers do it better" or "Accountants do it in bigger numbers" or "Sprinters do it faster" or "Pilots do it higher" or "Spelunkers do it deeper." I wonder if anyone ever thought that "Three toed sloths do it upside down."

Maybe the best motto isn't just appropriate for selling sportswear or equipment, but for teachers (and all other educational staff persons) everywhere. As long as the ultimate result is that more students learn more:

Just Do It.

In this issue's Forum several professional educators offer their answers to why they do it (teach). You are invited to respond to one or more of the contributors personally, or to this editor. You are also invited to suggest future topics (and people to interview or debate or . . .) for The Forum. We would love to hear from you.

Harold A. Smith
Editor, TESL-EJ Forum

Why do teachers teach?

  The property manager refused to return the deposit to a prospective tenant. The would-be tenant pointed out the line in the contact that stated a refund would be made if he decided not to rent the apartment. The manager refunded the deposit. The prospective tenant was my student.

An adult school student got a $33.00 ticket because she didn't understand the confusingly worded sign in a city parking lot. She and her classmates wrote a letter to the city council requesting that the signs be changed. The wording that she proposed was put on the signs in all city parking lots within a month. She represented herself in traffic court with a copy of her letter. The judge dismissed the case. She was my student.

A nursing assistant helped me walk to the bathroom the day after I had major surgery. When she entered the U.S. she was a pre-literate rural war refugee. She studied ESL literacy and then got a job in housekeeping in the local hospital. Later she took the certified nursing assistant course and was promoted to nursing assitant. When I was hospitalized she had already started her vocational nursing courses at the local community college. She was my student.

The new electronics instructor at a local community college was my student.

The bilingual math instructor at a local community college was my student.

The massage therapist in my physical therapist's office was my student.

The director of the Headstart program located at the elementary school in my neighborhood was my student. [-2-]

I help adults gain the knowledge, skills, and power to participate as learners, workers, and members of our society. My job is such a source of personal satisfaction that I will never completely stop teaching English as a Second Language to adults.

Claudia Jennings
Watsonville Adult School & Cabrillo College
Watsonville, California, USA

  I started out life as a teacher in California, mostly English, French, and Art at the secondary school level. Then I spent a quarter century in the foreign service. When I retired I looked around for something to do and started first volunteer, then paid ESL teaching: mostly Adult Education. Meanwhile I went back to school and got a graduate certificate in TESOL and an MA in Linguistics. Then I started EFL teacher training in (the former East) Germany, China, Malaysia (at the Faculty of Education of the University of Malaya), Korea, and Vietnam (as a U.S. government fellow). I got kicked out of my job in Malaysia when I hit 65 (it's the law), and my contract in Vietnam was non-renewable. The other jobs were short-time.

Why do I teach? I'm terrified that I will atrophy if I don't teach: shrivel up and blow away. I feel I still have something to offer before I go. (We could go into a long discussion of the messianic urge as part of the Reform Jewish concept of the collective Messiah, but that's another story.) And, as a retiree, I don't know how to play golf. I'm currently looking for my next place to teach.

Dr. Merton L. Bland
Northern Virginia, USA

  I teach because I love seeing the "Aha" look that comes over a student who thought s/he was too dumb, too poor in English, or otherwise too "something" to understand. Seeing students grow in skills and in self-confidence is a thrill that can't be matched in many other jobs. Christa MacCauliff, the teacher who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion, said, "I teach; I touch the future." Her words tell the legacy left by all teachers, good or bad. Let's strive for the best!

Andrea Belletti
North Carolina, USA

  As far as I'm concerned, there are two groups of teachers : 1. Those who can't do anything else well, and do not teach well either, and 2. Those who can do other things well, and do a good job of teaching as well. Unfortunately, the first group is bigger (in my experience). But if you're lucky and meet a teacher who belongs to the second group, you will love any subject the teacher teaches you. So, being a mother, I try to find a teacher "who can do more" for my children, and being a teacher, I try to become a person "who can do more" and I hope I have at least small success, because ALL my students LOVE English and they all think that learning English is great fun and a kind of adventure. That's why I teach English - to help children to find out the "secrets of English", and we do it together, turning our lessons into adventures.

Tanya Sasha Zolotukhin
?? Russia
zolot@ttk.ru [-3-]

  Those who can, do; Those who can't, teach.

Those who can, do; Those who can do more, teach.

Of the above two, I love the second pair more. But in Taiwan, those sayings are not popular.

In Taiwan, many of my students want to become teachers because teachers have long summer and winter vacations, and they can go abroad to have some fun.

When I tell people that I am a teacher, their comments show the same expectations. They often ask me, "Have you been to another country for the summer vacation?" I report truthfully.

Why do I teach?

In Taiwan, it's teachers' habit to ask students to write a composition yearly on "My ambition." I remember very well, for the six years in elementary school, my ambition was "to become an elementary school teacher." The reason is that my father said, "For a female, the best job is an elementary school teacher. You can have long summer and winter vacations. When the kids are home, you are home too. You can take good care of your own children."

When I entered junior high school at 12, I liked my English teacher very much. For me, she (a native Chinese speaker) spoke excellent English and I got very good grades in English. I told myself, "I want to become an English teacher in a junior high school."

When I entered senior high school at 15, I found most of the teachers there were more learned than teachers in elementary or junior high school. I told myself, "Now I want to become a professor teaching English." So I am now.

I never told myself that I wanted to become a doctor of medicine, because my parents were poor financially. To attend a teacher's college or university (which was free) was my only hope.

If I had had rich parents and, more importantly, been well informed, I might be a doctor of medicine or a lawyer now.

On the track of being a teacher, in junior high school, I met three math teachers. Two women teachers taught very strictly--they really focused on teaching math and occupied 100% of the class time trying to solve math problems for us--and we found math very difficult. The third teacher, a man, taught math in a very easy way. He often came in the class 20 minutes late, and left the last 10 minutes for us to do homework of math--he was checking homework of another class--for a 50 minute class. In other words, he taught only 10 minutes, one-fifth of the class time. But from then on, my math tests were almost always 100 percent correct. This math teacher had a great influence on me. I often told myself, "I want to become this kind of teacher, teaching clearly and easily so students understand well."

Dr. Laura Chao-chih Liao,
Associate Professor
Foreign Languages and Literature Teaching Section
Feng Chia University,
Taichung, Taiwan
ccliao@dragon.nchu.edu.tw [-4-]

  Why do I teach English to inmates in the Federal Prison System? For me it is a form of service to try to help remedy a situation that I believe is fundamentally unfair. I teach as a volunteer; my day job is as a court certified Spanish interpreter in the California State and Federal courts of Los Angeles.

As part of the sentences meted out to the undocumented persons who are daily caught in raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and police operations, people whose primary crime is being in the country without documents, are prohibited from ever coming back into the United States. In effect, this condemns hundreds and thousands of human beings to lives of poverty and social stagnation.

Day after day I participate on cases in which the defendants are men and women who paid lots of very very very hard-earned money to be illegally brought over "the Line" between Mexico and the United States, and whose only desire is to put their hands to work to better their lives and those of their despairing families back home. Back home is where life is socially stratified and immobile and wages are so low that people in the USA are still tempted to ask "is that per hour?" The answer is, "No, per day".

These "Illegal aliens" are sentenced to prison for the crime of illegally crossing the USA-Mexico border, or of "conspiring" to bring people over, that is, of being "Coyotes," the Mexican term for "illegal go betweens", the ones who, for a fee, help thousands of Mexican and Central American migrants cross the border each week. The ones that get arrested are hardly ever the big guys, just migrants who may be working in the operation as cooks or whatever, to work off their own fees to the outfit, for being helped to cross over earlier.

There are thousands of these people in our federal prisons. They come here to work and to better the chances for themselves and their families to have a better life. I hear the story of their lives in the stratified and immobile lower working and peasant classes of Mexico and Latin America, and the decision to come here to work. Without any papers, they have difficulty getting legitimate work at first, they live in the most horrible of our neighborhoods, run the risk of getting swept up in drug raids or raids by the INS. Landing in Federal Prison is not only a waste of 1 to 3 years and the deprivation of a whole family down there of any income by the breadwinner, but afterwards they are deported and forbidden to return to this country.

I figure if they will have to live in Mexico I can at least teach them some English so that they might at least get a better job and perhaps that way I can help them achieve to some extent, in their own country, the social mobility that they so crave. And that is why I teach English.

Linda Krausen
Metropolitan Detention Center
Los Angeles, California, USA

  Can a teacher decide not to teach? Can an artist choose not to listen to that voice inside him driving him to create unexplainable works?

No matter what a person does, he or she is driven to do it for one reason or another. He has the choice to refuse it and seek something else or to follow it and trust where it leads him. To refuse to follow that idea forming inside of her is to fail to trust the unknown. [-5-]

To lack trust is a terrible thing and one that all of us struggle with. We live in a land with other humans who lack consistency and perfection. We teach each other to not trust each other and then we teach ourselves not to trust anything that isn't 100% concrete (but what is?).

We limit ways that we can be used, because we learn not to do anything unless we have decided that no suffering will result. But to go to the unknown, to step outside of what is comfortable and have faith is what we each must do to create anything beneficial. Creating is not easy, it is probably the most humbling and challenging way a person can live. It requires one to become a servant obeying the higher Master.

Sarah Yaskins
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon, USA

  1. I love to teach, to see how my students change from not knowing into knowing something, from being confused to being able to let go of a certain burden.

2. By teaching, I not only teach English or grammar, I also teach some values. For example: I always try to be punctual (which in my culture is a bit tricky) hoping that my students will learn to be punctual too. Also, I always try to memorize the names of my students and to know who is who at our second meeting, hoping that the students will be impressed and feel that they are not taken for granted so that later they too will not take for granted people around them.

3. By teaching, I try to reach the younger generation with humor, showing them that studying is not always hard and complicated and serious, hoping that the students will learn in a happy mood.

Arwijati Murdibjono
State University of Malang
East Java, Indonesia

  I began teaching English language at age five, in my living room, but it took another sixteen years for me to earn my first professional credential and become a full time teacher, though I was first paid to teach instrumental music, the universal language, and taught English language as a volunteer. Since earning my bachelor's degree I have earned two master's degrees (one in teaching English as a foreign or second language and one in history and theology) and a doctorate in higher education leadership, all while working full time as an educator in several states and countries. For about thirty years now an important part of my professional efforts have related to teaching, or preparing teachers of, English as a Foreign or Second Language (EFL/ESL) in the United States and abroad. [-6-]

Why do I teach? I love it. My first love is teaching, seeing a student's eyes glow, as my own must have illuminated some time around age four, right after I moved from my birthplace in Franklin, Louisiana to Memphis, Tennessee. My early experience with American children with African and European heritages, playing and learning together, and visits to Mexico, Canada, and much of the United States while growing up, may explain at least in part why I love to communicate with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. To me, being an excellent teacher means continuing to learn right along with my students. Each project or course, I learn more than my students or colleagues do. That is one of the ways I judge my success.

I also enjoy planning successful educational programs, especially for teachers and other adult professionals. My professional positions long have included program development and administration as major responsibilities. I also have major commitments to writing and editing educational publications; lecturing and consulting widely in the United States and many countries of Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America; and participating in professional organizations.

Teaching satisfies my wanderlust. My early enjoyment of moving from place to place--though based in Memphis, Tennessee, USA until I graduated from high school, my family spent each summer wherever my father's work as a dredging engineer took him--may explain why I have enjoyed living in a dozen states (even more cities) and five countries, and visiting many many others. I have never lived in, or visited, a place to which I would not gladly return--and I often have.

Three of my longer periods abroad were in Panama, China (PRC), and Japan. From 1972-1974, the U.S. Army stationed me in Panama, but my duties as a musician took me to almost every country in Central and South America, and gave me many opportunities to teach English as a volunteer. From 1984-1986, I taught in three universities and an international school in China. In 1993, I taught one semester in a junior college in Japan.

I have been a professor at my current university since 1993. My position as chairman of the ESL & TESOL division has allowed me to travel frequently, usually two or three times annually to conferences in the United States, and an equal number of trips to other countries, and I vacation abroad as often as possible--Britain and Canada this year, Italy last year, Mexico the year before, China . . . .

Last year, I went to Turkey for almost a month to lecture and consult on English language teacher education. As this is written, a similar trip is being planned for Pakistan. Recent years of living in the USA and taking short visits abroad have not satiated my wanderlust, though, nor given me the opportunity to actually learn about another culture while living in it. So I am currently looking for the right opportunity to combine my training and experience with my ability to easily and quickly adapt to different environments and my desire to spend longer periods of time in other countries.

I teach because teaching offers me those opportunities to contribute something to others, and to learn something from them. I'll never stop learning. Even the day I die I'll learn what life after life is like.

Dr. Harold A. Smith,
Professor of ESL & TESOL
Shenandoah University,
Winchester, VA, USA
hsmith_44@hotmail.com [-7-]

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