Suzanne Kaplan-Fonseca is a Clinical Assistant Professor and TESOL Certificate Program Coordinator at the English Language Institute (ELI) and Languages Program Coordinator at The Center for Applied Liberal Arts (CALA). In this interview, Suzanne offers insights from her own teaching and gives advice to students in the newly-launched English Language Institute Certificate in TESOL program.
Q: Congratulations on your new role as Coordinator of the Certificate in TESOL program. Can you give us some highlights of the program and offer advice for teachers-in-training?
A: Thank you! The ELI Certificate in TESOL is designed as an effective balance of theory and practice in all the areas language teachers need to excel. Asynchronous study comes to life in the forums, in live observations, and of course, in the practicum. The certificate is a time for learners to develop the skills of thinking critically as teachers while examining language, and how people learn.
Teaching someone how to communicate in a language that is not their first requires a sensitivity to the fact that you're not evaluating knowledge, you're evaluating communicative competence. My advice to new teachers would be: have a good grammar resource within arm’s reach; get regular feedback from your students; observe colleagues; be willing to be observed and open to the feedback; and don't be afraid to say, “That’s a great question. We’ll start next class with that.” You don't need to know all of the answers, but you need to know how to get them for your students. Don’t be afraid to delay answering a question in order to answer it well. Being able to dissect a question is key. And, sometimes language learners don’t have the words they need to ask the question that would lead to the answer. So, you need to listen louder. My best advice to new teachers? Clarify, clarify, clarify!
Q: What is it like to be part of a community of TESOL faculty? Walk us through some of the work that happens outside of the classroom and how you interact with your fellow faculty at the English Language Institute.
A: I have found that TESOL faculty are incredibly dedicated to meeting the specific needs of the students in front of them and are not half as territorial as I expected them to be. When I joined the ELI, I observed 11 of my colleagues' classes simply because I was curious to do so and they were wonderfully welcoming. We teach behind closed doors, but as colleagues - whether in a virtual faculty room or a physical one - when students are at the heart of the practice, conversations bubble up naturally. Language teachers are eager to discuss the challenges that they are facing and share ideas to overcome them. Oftentimes, a research question or an idea for a conference presentation is born, and collegial friendships develop out of that. The terminal degree in TESOL is an MA, and I find that TESOL faculty are dedicated to refreshing their own practices, keeping up with the field, doing research, and participating in professional organizations outside of their classrooms to enrich their practices. Many of us tend to have levels and skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) that we teach more frequently than others, and one of the areas where the dependence on a faculty as a whole is revealed is before the semester starts when we’re testing and advising students. We have norming sessions to ensure that we are using the same standards to assess language competence and place students in the appropriate courses and also to make sure that our syllabi align with the curriculum to support students in reaching the outcomes.
Q: I know that you have a practice for receiving regular feedback from your students. Can you explain what that is?
A: At the end of each class session, students fill out an exit ticket. The two questions that I've used for years are:
The most useful part of today’s class for me was... and
Something that would make future classes more useful for me is...
I would say it’s one of the pillars of my teaching. Students are at the center of all learning and they come to us with individual goals. I feel midterm and end term feedback are inadequate without ongoing feedback. The importance of the exit ticket goes beyond the role that it plays in that moment. It builds a reflective practice for my students, and for me as an instructor. I go into the classroom with daily objectives and make it explicit that at the end of each class session, students are going to be responsible for saying what was useful for them and offering some kind of suggestion. Exit tickets give students a moment to breathe at the end of class, think about what they learned, what they may be frustrated by, what they would like to learn next time, and offer a rich range of feedback - from affective information about how the students were feeling that day to language questions that may not be covered in the syllabus but are easy to add. Their eyes track back to our agenda at the end of each class - that keeps me accountable and allows me to improve my practice. Using exit tickets is particularly effective for adult learners - people who are already experienced, self-directed, and purposeful - and are seeking that piece needed to translate who they are into a language that is not their first.
Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
A: Language is an art and a science, and it changes fast. English language learners want to sound natural, so we need to stay ahead of what that means. Sometimes learners want to use expressions that might be more New York or more American, but as English is used globally, it’s important that we teach students to be universally understood. Whereas slang and idioms were once high interest areas for students, it may be more relevant in the language of today to be able to express yourself in a brief tweet. As language professionals, we’re responsible for helping our learners meet their goals and anticipating the expectation of their interlocutor. The language is changing faster than the textbooks are. We need to stay ahead of the curve.