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On Teaching English As A Second Language

Teaching English as a second language is a way to gain entry into a country that is partially, or even significantly, closed to the Gospel. Equally, of course, it is useful to serve in ‘open’ countries as a tent-making platform. It is by no means for everybody – you usually need to speak good English and have academic qualifications!

went to Taiwan as a missionary in 1969. After two years of language study (Mandarin Chinese), I applied and was accepted to teach English at Taiwan University, the ‘Harvard’ or ‘Cambridge’ of Taiwan. I still remember an assistant to the department chasing me after I had been interviewed and, in reference to my Cambridge University graduation certificate that I had taken to the interview, asking me if that meant I had passed or failed! Understandable, because it is not written in very modern English.

My work bore fruitful results. Two of my students after coming to faith in Jesus became full-time Christian workers for several decades. Another, a first-year mechanical engineering student who was in my freshman English class, came up after class and asked if he could attend a meeting where I was speaking that night. He accepted the Lord in the meeting. Years later I met him again, a professor at an American university and an elder in a local Chinese church.

Indeed recently in San Jose after speaking five times on mission in a Chinese church (in Chinese, not English!), a group of my Taiwanese students from the 1970’s in Taiwan who have worked in California for many years hosted me for a meal at which the topic was “memories of our first year English teacher”!

I have asked a friend and colleague to list five keys to teaching English as a second language. He has taught in China for many years. I would highlight one testimony that I see in his life (and that was true in mine). It is to seek to be the best teacher in the department. Your teaching role is not something you put up with just so that you can ‘evangelise’. Be the best and earn the right to witness to Jesus.

My friend’s five keys:

1. Boundaries: Establishing trust and mutual respect as early as possible is key to building a healthy classroom dynamic. For the teacher, that means a declaration of boundaries on the first day for what is acceptable behaviour. But it also calls for sharing some personal information with the students, an openness and honesty of intent. They need to be convinced you are working for them and with them.

2. Humour is another prime ally in creating a classroom atmosphere where students feel comfortable to express themselves without fear of authoritarian reprisals. Finding humour in learning and teaching and some (gentle) self-mockery often produces a noticeable release of tension.

3. Good preparation. Planning and scripting lessons produces notable benefits – (i) they give the teacher peace of mind to teach confidently, and (ii) send a subliminal message to the students of your diligence, and by inference that the same diligence and attention is required from them. Always have a backup plan for the times when the power goes down, the PC has a virus, or you discover your flash drive is not functioning!

Two warnings:

4. Avoid Abuse. Your position of authority gives you the power to encourage, to uplift and present a different perspective of the future to students that they might not have previously considered. But an unworthy comment said in anger may cause irreparable harm to the young minds and hearts placed in your care. Be conscious of your responsibility to demonstrate a good character and right motives. Building healthy relationships with colleagues and discussing ‘problem’ students, asking for input, promotes transparency and trust.

5. Deflect Suspicion. Your motives and integrity will always appear suspicious to some merely by your foreignness alone! They will scrutinise your behaviour and your speech. In China the Party representatives in each class will report anything that could be viewed as subversive – comments seen as anti-government or undermining the youth. Exemplary behaviour and graciousness of speech will go far in mollifying detractors, perhaps even earning their grudging respect. As a foreign teacher, you carry the burden of representing the entire western world: you are on trial. But more than that, as a Christian, you are the only model that your students will see. Thus it is critical that the brief time you share with them in the classroom is put to full use: to model behaviour and to sow the seeds that provoke critical thinking and lead them to the King of glory and truth.

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