ESL teacher learns how dangerous cultural differences can be

Cristin Boyd who teaches English as a second language, has had the opportunity to teach in nations around the world. She is always mindful of cultural differences in the classroom after a student’s violent outburst made her fear for her life.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My title is ESL (English as a Second Language) Instructor. My current job is at an IEP (Intensive English Program). The students, mainly adults 18 years and older, want to increase their English proficiency in order to get a bachelors or masters degree at a US university. This is my 18th year teaching English and ESL.

Would you describe the things you do on a typical day?
The most obvious thing I do daily is “teach” English to non-native speakers of English. I most commonly teach academic writing and critical thinking skills. Teaching is not like it used to be when I was in school where the students were lined up in desks and the teacher stood at the front lecturing. These days, we use a student-centered model, which means that I act more like a ringmaster in a circus. Outside of class, I organize lessons and activities that the students then do during class. I rarely lecture because my students need to “use” English. I usually spend a lot of time moving around the classroom listening, making sure students are on-task, and clarifying any questions or concerns.

In addition to teaching, I spend a large portion of my time grading papers and assignments and preparing lessons. For every hour that I teach, I spend about two hours doing support work. On a typical day, I teach 2-4 hours. I also attend faculty meetings, meet with students and focus on professional development (such as prepare conference presentations and mentor other teachers).

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
My satisfaction with my job is a 10 on days I don’t have to grade a stack of essays and a –5 during midterms and finals.

In all seriousness, I love teaching but dislike grading and the low pay. To increase the rating and my overall satisfaction, I would get paid for out-of-class prep time, receive a higher hourly wage, and have more stability (permanent position vs. part-time, temporary).

What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
Secretaries and administrative assistants (not administrators) rule the roost. In graduate school, where I was a teaching assistant, I inadvertently offended the department chair’s secretary. My life became pretty hellish with missing paychecks, late photocopying, etc. It was truly a misunderstanding, but no one cared. All the faculty and staff told me to kiss some a– and make it go away. I did. Now I always, always bring flowers and goodies to the admin support at any job.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
It would have been helpful to understand more about intercultural communication. I tend to be very direct and straightforward; this trait is shaped by both my American culture and personality. Early in my career, I had some rough moments with more timid students (such as young Japanese women) who were intimidated by my communication style. I wish I had been more informed about how my directness could affect others. Instead, I had to learn “on the job” to be less direct especially with people from other cultures.

It would have been helpful to know more about organizing and managing lesson materials and ways to minimize grading time as well.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I graduated with an English degree in the mid-90s during a recession. I couldn’t get a writing job, so I went to Poland and taught high school ESL. It was there that I fell in love with teaching.

I don’t think I would have done much differently. I learned a lot about what I did not want to be or do while working in a dead-end job.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
My uncommon experiences have been more embarrassing than strange, such as a losing battle with a projector screen. One day while teaching, I could not get the projector screen (which covered my white board) to roll up. Despite offers from students to help, I insisted on managing it myself. Eventually, after much battling, the screen did roll up. Unfortunately it took the hem of my skirt with it and up over my head. Thank goodness mom always told me to wear nice underwear to work.

On a good day when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
The best thing about my job is being present when the light bulb goes on—that moment when students who have been struggling with some concept or challenge finally get it and understand. The look in their eyes, the release of tension in the shoulders, the prideful smile… Amazing!

I also love to get thank you emails from students who have gotten into a desired graduate program, have increased a test score, or have simply realized their skills have improved.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
There are seldom days in my job where nothing goes right. I do, however, have to deal with student dissatisfaction with grades or progress and sometimes personality or cultural issues.

For example, a student might get upset with a grade on an essay. I have even had students cry, and this makes me feel terrible. However, I strongly believe the best thing I can do is be honest, honest about the grade, why it was given, and the challenges that lie ahead. Most of my students have no idea what graduate school in the US will be like. Part of my job requires that I help them understand this.

In a more general sense, I dislike my low pay and lack of benefits. I dislike that grades are inflated by many teachers who are more concerned with being liked than true progress and learning. When I give realistic grades, I am perceived as the bad guy.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
For anyone in the teaching profession, it is easy to become consumed. Many are overworked and underpaid yet dedicated to offering their best. When I began teaching, work was my life. I ate, drank and slept teaching.

However, when I got married and started a family, things changed. For my family, I gave up a rare benefited, contracted position because I could not balance the workload with my family obligations. I went back to hourly, part-time teaching which was the right thing to do for my family.

Luckily, I have a spouse who makes good money in a different field. Many other instructors and teachers do not have this luxury. Were I not married to an engineer, I would have a lot less balance as I would need to work a lot of hours in order to make ends meet.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
In my current job, I am paid per contact hour. This means that I get paid for the hours I teach. I get one additional hour for grading per week since I teach classes that require a lot of writing. I get paid about $55 per contact hour. I do not get paid for any preparation time, meeting with students, grading beyond that extra hour, etc. My gross pay per class is about $1700 a semester.

In this field of teaching ESL, other levels, such as community college and university teaching pay more. I have made as much as $80 a teaching hour in northern California (high cost of living). Most jobs have limited, to no benefits and offer part-time positions.

No, I do not think I am paid enough as a writing instructor who has a lot of grading. However, this job is much more about helping people achieve dreams than it is about making money. I get a lot in karmic payoff.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
I can’t say that I have had any one most rewarding moment; instead, I experience on-going moments of amazement and pride. Most recently, after implementing some changes to my reading lessons, two students who had been stuck at the same level for some time, emailed me and told me that their TOEFL scores had jumped about 6 points. High scores on this exam are required for entry into US universities; the students were obviously thrilled.

When I get emails like this, the large amount of time I put into making my lessons appropriate and challenging becomes less relevant. What’s most important is helping international students reach their dreams of getting into an American University. I always tell people the best part of teaching is the karmic payoff. I feel great when they succeed!

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
By far, my most challenging and frightening experience was when a student from a Middle Eastern country (we’ll call him Gabir) lost it in my classroom. This was in the late 90’s before the US was embroiled in Middle Eastern politics, and I was a fairly new teacher. I had never had any Arab students before. In fact, most of my students were from East Asian countries.

At the time, I was teaching a paragraph-level writing class, and Gabir consistently turned in assignments late or incomplete. He would regularly try to negotiate grades, deadlines, and class requirements. I would tell the class that an assignment was due on Monday. Monday would come and go with no essay from Gabir. I’d get it on Friday, grade it, penalize the grade for late submission, and return it. He’d ask me to increase the grade, making light of the late submission; I’d explain how things work in the US. After a couple of weeks, and at least two assignments written about his machine gun at home (yikes!), I asked a colleague who had been a Middle East Peace Corps volunteer what was going on. It turns out that in many Middle Eastern countries, things operate like the Souk, the market. In a culture with a souk mentality, everything is negotiable—including grades.

Once I figured out what was going on, I called Gabir into my office and explained in a kind but clear way that US teaching institutions did not operate like the Souk. I reminded Gabir about an upcoming assignment that was due in a few days. I thought the conversation went well, and he claimed to understand.

A few days later, I asked for an assignment. Gabir did not have it. I asked him quietly to stay after class to talk with me. As the students were gathering their things to leave, I quietly asked where the assignment was. He gave some excuse, so I asked him if he had understood our conversation in my office. Then, he lost it! He stood up and started yelling at me. “You’re a terrible teacher! You demand too much! You are single woman! Why do you teach and wear such revealing clothing? You do not treat men with respect!” After what seemed like an hour (but was literally less than a minute), Gabir grab a student desk, threw it across a room and stalked out. I nearly passed out; I was shaking from head to toe, covered in cold sweat and incapable of speaking to the other teachers who came rushing into the room. Several of the other students were in tears. And all I could think about what Gabir’s favorite writing topic: his machine gun.

I never saw Gabir again; I suspect he decided life in the US was not to his liking and went back home. For a few days, it was challenging to come to class and teach because I was afraid and so were my students. No one knew where Gabir had gone or if he would come back. However, I realized I had an obligation to my students to keep teaching and to help them learn from what had happened.

As it turned out, the incident provided a great opportunity to write about cultural norms, and we all learned a lot about our cultures. Most importantly, I learned that culture and belief are deeply ingrained and often remain invisible until we are confronted with something that violates our perceptions or expectations. To this day, when something is not quite right with a student, I ask myself ‘Is something cultural going on?’

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Contrary to popular belief, being a good ESL instructor/teacher includes a lot more than being a native English speaker. While there are lots of low-paying but fun and exciting opportunities to teach overseas, most domestic jobs require an MATESL (Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language).

Skills that help are an outgoing personality, a good sense of humor, great organization and time management skills, and a strong desire to help others (and not be paid enough for it).

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Do it but only if you have the financial means to make it work.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
There is never enough time to vacation in my mind. That said, teaching ESL and EFL (English in foreign countries) can offer a perpetual vacation. I have taught in Poland, Chile, and South Korea. I can work and live anywhere in the world!

Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
Teachers and instructors worldwide need to be paid more and to be treated as professionals. What is more important, the people who are shaping minds or trading on the world stock exchanges? In particular, teachers and instructors, especially public school teachers, deserve more respect, pay and recognition.

Having summers off does not mean life is easy. Those of us who do not work in the summer, also do not get paid for that time.

Teaching is not easy and does not end in the classroom. I spend significant amounts of time outside of the classroom making sure that what occurs in the classroom is the best I can offer.

Learning a language takes a lot of time. If you doubt this, try it. Don’t believe the politicians who tell you that the kids in your local school can learn English in one year. Academic proficiency takes 8-9 years. Look at the research. Know the facts. Support your local schools and their ESL populations.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
This job does indeed move my heart! Every day! I am blessed.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Teaching ESL/EFL in the US during the academic school year and, during the summers, in Thailand and Tunisia and China and Morocco and Ireland and the Philippines and Brazil and Mali and…

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
A lot of ESL teachers share my enthusiasm about what we do. I am not just cheerleading here. This is a great job despite the lower pay.



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  • This reply comes seven years late…However…
    As a Portuguese citizen and ESL teacher, I can say you were very »lucky» in having a Portuguese student in your class, as Portugal is an European country with a diversified cultural heritage, which can be noticed in music, food, popular art and so on. Thus is open to others, which might have facilitated your work as teacher. Having an European in your class is not that complicated…as America and Europe seem to have plenty of things in common..Isn’t America a salad bowl after all?

  • Just an afterthought reflecting on this situation. From my own experiences with other “misunderstandings” with problem-people, here are a few recommendations:
    1. Get to know your students/employees under your charge. That includes cultural understanding. From this story, people will see you from their own cultural/social upbringing. As in this case, grades are “negotiable”, schedules are casual, and women are not in authority over men.
    2. Don’t get caught off guard when someone goes ballistic. Keep your composure and DO NOT become defensive or offer apologies! Stand firm. This student was trying to intimidate his instructor. Remember – YOU ARE IN CHARGE! You must maintain control of the classroom for your safety and that of the other students.
    3. We know from the story the teacher spoke with the disruptive student, but had she spoken to her supervisor or a school counselor? Two important points doing so: one, the school administration is aware of the situation, and two, they should offer their recommendation. When the teacher informs her supervisor in the event the situation gets volatile, then it’s the administration’s responsibility to step in and defuse the problem.
    4. One other recommendation: have someone associated with the school with a Middle-Eastern background pull this kid aside and explain in a cultural way why his behavior must change. But be prepared to remove this student promptly from class ESPECIALLY when he talks about using violence. He’s taking too much time and energy from the instructor and his classmates.

  • “You can take the boy out of the country but you cannot take the country of the boy.” Understanding cultural differences is paramount when it comes to teaching. Gabir is a great example of at least having a basic that understanding. Though I see his antics as a seldom occurrence, it happens. Thus, if one is prepared, you may not be as shocked to see this behavior on display and ready to respond appropriately.

    My family hosted Japanese college students for some years. One student and I got into a bit of a disagreement about how cultural and social mores impacted individuals. She asserted with confidence that education changes people. Well, I shared with her my firm belief that education can help people see their world differently, but everyone is stuck with the influences good and bad that they grew up with in their family and community.

    A few days later, our student comes home mid-day from school looking rather despondent. I asked her why the glum face? She just left a class whose instructor was an older Chinese woman. Tiananmen Square was in the international news which was resolved by killing numerous students and others by the government. Her professor stated the government had that right to end the protest. I felt bad for our student’s “awakening”. Without feeling vindictive, I casually asked her “But I thought education changes people?” All I got was a deeply reflective expression.

  • Thoughtful. Many come to the profession to teach words and the English equivalent of phrases. I’ve seen some who will do the work (math or an essay) for the child. Shame on them! Language and communication is deeply ingrained in our respective cultures, both national and communal. Learning about the cultures represented helps us be better teachers in a diverse setting. Kudos for seeking understanding.

  • As a second generation American, some points of this story hit home hard. My Abuelos were exiled from Cuba during the Bay of Pigs and came to Miami with the thousands of other immigrants fleeing the country. They settled down, became naturalized, and started learning English. My Abuela tells me stories of working all day in a factory full of immigrant women where no two spoke the same language and then going home to learn English by watching I Love Lucy. They raised their children in a strict English-only household so that the two of them could assimilate into American culture as fast as possible. This resulted in me never learning Spanish organically.

    My Abuelos are in their nineties now and are beginning to lose touch. My Bisabuelo, Abuela’s father, had dementia in his later years that made him forget all the English that he had ever learned. Abuela was diagnosed with the same degenerative condition last year and it terrifies me to think of a day that I will no longer be able to communicate with her.

    I started taking Spanish classes in high school and online so that I can learn as much as I can as fast as possible. I am still very much a novice, but my regret for not being able to say my goodbyes to Bisabuelo is a huge motivating factor. Language teachers like yourself are so important in bringing the world together. Without courses to teach languages, entire generations would be lost to history. It is so important to bridge cultural divides and to break down barriers between human beings. So many people live in fear of other communities because they do not understand them. Even people like Gabir live their lives in fear. If my Abeulos had been able to take ESL courses, their transition into American life might not have been so daunting. So thank you, for giving those opportunities to others.

  • This career story has even further motivated me to keep with the track I am with my degree. I am currently and Elementary Education major with a focus on ESL and have been getting nervous about how I would do in the profession and have many people trying to discourage me because of pay and other recent events that have occurred and been occuring the past 15 years.

    I grew up in a very diverse, low income neighborhood where education was not taken seriously by many kids in the school. They all were more focused on the issues they had at home or personal struggles they had than being present at school (mentally or physically). English was not many of the students first languages either.

    When I was in elementary school my experience was as different as theirs was from one anothers. While ESL students went to their additional help class and the english native speakers (such as myself) continued on with the days lesson plans, I was in speech therapy for three years. Luckily, I had parents that for the most part hid their financial and emotional struggles majority of my adolescent life to allow me to focus on school. I wasn’t oblivious, I knew when we were going through rough times but my parents made it a point that I focus on education so my life when not be theirs in 20 years. Unlike my peers I had the opportunity to focus on my future rather than my present circumstances.

    I found my love for teaching at an early age, unlike Cristin. Because my parents worked so much I would stay in the free after school care my school provided and help ESL students and other students with homework and topics they did not understand. Other days I would help teachers in the breakroom cut laminations, copy, and grade. These early years is when I realized that is what I wanted to do with my life. Now that I am older people assumed I would have changed my career aspirations of working with ESL students at a Title One because of the realization of inadequate pay and support from the government, but that only further drives me towards it. If I give up my dream because of superficial reasons then I didn’t deserve to teach those kids.

    Growing up in the environment I did made me the person I am today. I better understand students going through cultural, financial, familial, and educational changes and struggles compared to many of my peers I study with at university. I chose my university based on how well their classes will actually prepare me for my job from a teaching position rather than as a peer. These students deserve a teacher and a support system that has a want and need to be there for them. I believe Cristin has this drive and if she didn’t why would she see herself doing it year round in five years? Why would I still be chasing this dream after 13 years if I didn’t believe it was truly what I wanted to do with my life despite the negatives that come with the profession.

  • I really enjoyed reading this account of cultural differences an ESL teacher has encountered. I was an ESL tutor in my undergraduate and also ran into an extremely hostile student from the then-USSR. He openly and vociferously intimidated, mocked and derided our Turkish students with unmitigated cruelty, but, for some reason, he respected me and I ended up being “assigned” to him – because, virtually, no one else would work with him! Our sessions were comprised entirely of him telling me all about his country and culture, and that’s how he improved his English and how I learned all about him and his mindset and it worked out. He was incredibly intelligent and loved intellectual challenges, which was a personal goal of premier importance to him as a sponsored student and future scholar. As we worked together, he dropped the viciousness in front of me and we had long conversations about his philosophy and his goals and he finally admitted some fears. He was extraordinarily gifted and ultimately, despite everything, it became a true honor to sit with such a talented young person – however, at the end of the sessions, as other students came to their appointments, he would pick up the hate rhetoric right where he left off. My stomach was in a knot all semester long. I was studying anthropology and archaeology at the time and this experience gave me a crash-course in cultural relativism and now, I am not daunted by cultural differences, thanks to my caustic but brilliant Russian student.

  • This interview helps me relate to when I was younger! My best friend now moved from Columbia in first grade and had trouble adapting and learning English and the culture. He did not want to work with teachers and would typically only listen to me as I was his main translator. I worked closely with him to get him to speak so he can enjoy everything about communicating in the American culture. Seeing how much effort the teachers put into this young boy led me to see how tough, harsh, but overall rewarding teaching is. I was always so excited for him to communicate and have the similar “lightbulb” go off in his head whenever he comprehended anything. These moments were truly magical and still hold great weight in my heart today.

  • I love this story because I have been a teacher for a couple of years. I know how teachers can impact students and how education can change people’s life.

    Back to my own story, I was born in a rural area. Luckily, my family stresses the virtues of education very much, which impacted me and changed my life direction. I was the only university student in my place. After graduation, I devoted myself to the education field. because I benefited from the education and made my life better in this way I wanted to influence more people by working as a teacher.

    As I have taught more students, I feel like I want to be an expert in a specific field of education so that’s why I am here in teachers college, Columbia University. It’s like a dream that I did this successfully all by myself. Now I am back to school after several years work. Therefore, I work very hard and cherish this learning opportunity very much.

  • Living in Indonesia for almost four years of my life, I can relate to Cristin Boyd’s story, as my mother taught adult students English as a second language. In fact, she continued in this field even after we moved back to California. I always loved to help my mom with lesson plans and encouraged activities she could implement into the classroom. Much like how Boyd describes, ESL activities often focus on actually using English, instead of being lectured to. We both worked together to create an interesting and engaging classroom setting for these students to gain as much as they could in a “student-centered model” class. As a student, I acted as a helping hand to my mom and was also interested in aiding these students who may be less fortunate than me.

    My mom loved teaching and would come home with stories about her students often, even though sometimes she dealt with hardships. Boyd describes an altercation she had with a student in class which taught her about cultural differences and their effects. In Indonesia, students came from many different backgrounds and cultures, and as two Americans, it was difficult to understand and communicate with so much diversity. Some students have difficulty getting to school due to traffic or simply not being able to afford transportation; others struggled in the class and lost hope in themselves. Regardless, the most important aspect of an ESL job is to encourage students to strive for success, even if they struggle. After all, most of these students are hoping for work in the United States and they need to be prepared to work hard.

    Boyd emphasizes that a big issue in her field is her salary, considering she only gets paid for the hours she works in the classroom, and not any preparation or grading time. My mom would testify to this, as so much work gets tiring day after day, especially with a child in the family. However, the most significant part of my mom’s job is the knowledge that these students are gaining experience for their futures in America. All of the time and effort she puts into the week is worth it once these students strive for success outside of the classroom, and she feels moved by the student’s hard work. I, too, have gained insight into different cultures and have found ways to communicate with those who are different from me. It is very moving to me to put myself aside and see others’ accomplishments, and I have been very fortunate to be surrounded with so much diversity.

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