“What would you say if you were interviewing for an ESL teaching position?” (A question from a reader)

job interview

When I’m on a search committee, while we are interviewing an applicant, I can’t help but start thinking about how I would answer the interview questions myself.  It’s actually a good values clarification exercise (although perhaps best not to mentally practice it while interviewing someone).  So I appreciate Kevin’s question.

Instead of writing out a script of what I would say, I’ll explain what I would include, in general, in my response to some of the more commonly asked interview questions.

Question 1: What is your philosophy of language teaching and learning?

Everything that I do in my classroom is based on the premise that language learning is about skill development. Speaking, writing and reading a second language involve using skills. And just like learning other skills, for example, driving a car, playing tennis, or learning a musical instrument, ESL students need focused practice to develop their language skills.

The teacher’s role in helping students develop their skills is to find or produce activities that will engage students and that are at the right level of challenge for them.  The teacher is like a coach, setting up and introducing the practice session and then stepping back and being ready to offer support and guidance.

Also, just like when developing any skill, when learning a language, students should be given opportunities to make mistakes and to learn from them in a non-threatening environment.  This means that the teacher needs to relinquish being the center of attention.
(For more about this, see Introduction to Teaching ESL: Student-Centered Approach)

Question 2: What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing ESL teachers?

I think ESL teachers often have an image problem.  Their image of a teacher is someone who stands in front of the class talking to the students and conducting the lesson with all the students’ eyes on him or her.  In fact, I recently heard a teacher say that she felt like she wasn’t earning her pay if she wasn’t in front conducting the class.  So the challenge is to break this image and realize that our job is to engage students in developing their language skills and for this to happen, the teacher has to stop being the center of attention.  Teachers are doing their jobs when their students are learning how to write better by actually writing in Writing class, or read better by reading in Reading class and by speaking in Conversation class. Students will actually progress faster when the teachers are on the sidelines giving support.

This doesn’t mean that teachers should never talk to the class as a whole. But we should realize that we are still good teachers even when, or especially when, we are not talking and when students are engaged in an activity.

Question 3A: Let’s talk about how you teach conversation skills.  What is your approach?

Conversations involve techniques.  Our job as Conversation teachers is to determine what conversation techniques students at a certain level need in order to engage in conversations. Then we’ll need to introduce to the class one of the techniques, explain why it is important and demonstrate how to use it. That can take merely 5-10 minutes. Next, the students need to practice applying the technique in pairs or triads.  However, we can’t just tell students, “Now practice this with a partner.”  We need to set up the activity in a way that is user-friendly, focused, non-threatening and engaging.  By the end of the activity, students should be able to use the technique(s) with people besides their classmates.

(For more about teaching conversation skills, see
*Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)
*Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart 
*Introduction to Teaching ESL Conversation: Effective Pair/Group Activities

Question 3B: While students are working in pairs, what are you, as the teacher, doing?

The best coaches I’ve had either in sports or learning how to drive or how to play an musical instrument were always present, observing while I was practicing but rarely interrupted. At the conclusion of a practice session, they discussed what they noticed I was doing well and/or what I needed to work on.  Similarly, once my students are in their pairs, I circulate around the room observing them.  I think the teacher’s presence is vital for keeping students focused, even if the teacher isn’t saying anything to them.  And it makes it easy for students to ask for help if they need it. But if the activity is organized well, students will be able to carry out the task without any involvement by the teacher.

I should mention that I would never interrupt a pair because of grammar or vocabulary mistakes or a pronunciation problem. That would just make students overuse their internal monitors and stifle the natural flow of a conversation.  But if I felt a mistake was serious enough, I would make a note and then help the student with it later.

One very important thing that I do while circulating is to prepare feedback to give to each student.  I have a list of the students and make a note next to each of their names basically about how much effort they are making at using the techniques.  Then after a few classes, I give each of them a brief feedback checklist showing their strengths and, if there are any, weakness that they’ll want to improve one.  Usually most students get mostly positive comments on how well they are doing. (For more about the teacher’s role in a Conversation class, see
*Conversation class: What if they make mistakes in pairs? Myths about pair work.
*The Eyes Have It: Keeping Students Focused During Group Work
*Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)
*Conversation class: Necessary ingredients for successful pair work (from research)

Question 2D: How do you deal with passive students?

Sometimes students can appear passive because they are overwhelmed by their partners who are more assertive. With more passive students, it can be helpful to pair them up with other students who tend to be passive. They tend to work at their own pace which may be slower than the others.  Also, students often don’t realize that they are less active than the other students in the class or don’t realize what is expected.  In those cases, those feedback forms which I mentioned almost always have a transformative effect.

(For more about dealing with passive students, see
The Eyes Have It: Keeping Students Focused During Group Work
Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)

Question 3A: Let’s talk about how you teach writing skills.  What is your approach?

I think the purpose of a Writing class is to help students develop the tools that they can use to write well. Some tools they can use to organize the writing task, for example their essays, in a way that will help the reader best understand their main points.  Other tools will help them illustrate specific ideas by including detail, for example, by giving examples.  And grammar can be a tool that they can use to show how ideas are connected.  An example of this is subordination.

So, when we start a new unit, first I determine what specific tools would be good for them to apply to their next paper or essay.  Then, I introduce each tool separately, preferably through an inductive approach, and then have the students practice using the specific tool in some writing exercises. When they start writing their first drafts, they can draw on these tools, and when I comment on their drafts, I can indicate where they’ve used them effectively and/or recommend places in their papers where they might consider using them or where to improve them.

Then when we work on the next unit, meaning the next paper or essay, they will continue to apply those tools from the previous unit and will learn new ones.

(For more about teaching Writing and using the inductive approach, see *Introduction to Teaching Academic ESL Writing: A Proven Approach for Success (Part 1: Logical organization)
*Introduction to Teaching Academic ESL Writing: A Proven Approach for Success (Part 2 Connecting ideas & Grammar)
*Inductive Grammar: Why are there commas in these sentences? Here are some clues. What’s the rule?
*Teaching the Most Interesting Type of Essay Introduction (an Inductive Approach)
Yes! Fun Learning Subordintion Inductively (Subordination Part 3)
*Tools for Describing Someone with Details: Inductive Writing Exercises (Low-Intermediate to Intermediate Level)

Question 3B: What happens in a typical Writing class? 

Mostly focused, engaged writing. If you came to a typical class, for about 10 minutes, you would probably see me discussing and demonstrating a writing technique and/or writing style and/or a grammar point that they will be able to apply to their next paper or essay.  These will be the basis of their writing assignments for that day.  Following this, sometimes they might be doing some small-group work for 10-15 minutes that is designed to help re-inforce their writing skills.  Then for the remainder of the class, they will be working individually on the writing assignments and conferencing individually with me about feedback that I’ve prepared for them on past assignments, papers and essays.  By organizing the class this way, I can have the maximum amount of time to address the writing needs of each individual student, and at the same time, they can be work on developing specific writing skills.

(For more examples of focused writing techniques, grammar to apply to writing and group work for Writing classes, see
*Fluency writing: reading, speaking in triads, and listening culminating in a writing task (including handout activity.)
*Engaging grammar group activities (even for hesitant students)
*Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About?  No, Subordination Is.  (Part 1)
*Writing Outstanding First Sentences on Essays (Applying Critical Think Techniques)
*Tools for Describing Someone with Details: Inductive Writing Exercises (Low-Intermediate to Intermediate Level)
*The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates

Question 3C: How do you respond to student essays or papers?  In other words, what do you do with the essays or papers after you received them?

I should explain first that anytime I give corrective feedback and content suggestions on students assignments, papers and essays, there is an understanding that they will correct the mistake or revise the paper in some way and then show me again. I think that is a vital part of the writing process.

About responding to their papers, I see my role as leading them to improve both their content and style/grammar.  So for content, I’m looking at how well they used writing techniques to explain their ideas. Although it’s enjoyable to read interesting and stimulating ideas, that’s not what I’m expecting. I’m looking for clarity in whatever their ideas are.  So I do three things with each essay.  I give positive feedback on their essays by underlining in green sentences, grammar forms and ideas that were done well considering who that individual student is.  I indicate places that could use more details, for example, by adding some examples.  And to lead them to their grammar mistakes, I code in the margins lines where there are mistakes.  I don’t directly tell them where the mistake is and how to change it. And finally, I give them a grade for content and one for grammar to give them a sense as to how their writing in both aspects compares to the standards.  For a paper to be considered acceptable, they need to have both acceptable content and grammar. As I mentioned, after I return their paper with all this feedback and with the two grades, they then work on revising the paper, conferencing with me individually during class and then give the final draft to me.

(For more about giving students positive feedback on their good points and corrective feedback on their content, style and grammar, and on drafts, see
*“Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays
*Common Teacher Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers.
*Saving Mental Energy: Give Two Grades on Essays
*Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills
*How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments
*Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays.
*Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique
*Writing class: How many drafts should ESL students write? Three!

4A: How do you motivate students?

Students tend to be motivated if they are confident that the assignments will help them improve the skills that they will need to meet the goals of the course. So I make sure that they know the purpose for each assignment and activity.

I’ve discovered that instead of me just saying that I, the teacher, think this technique or assignment is important, students seem to perk up if I can tell them what their peers in previous terms told me about how the lessons helped them. Those are kind of testimonials.

Another aspect of motivation is student autonomy. By not conducting classes so everyone works lockstep, students can have a degree of autonomy. So for a Writing or Reading class, each individual has the autonomy to choose which of the assignments they want to start with and how much time to spend on them. Likewise, in a Conversation class, when working in pairs or small groups, they can work at their own pace.

Perhaps one of the most important motivators is the individualized written feedback that I give on writing assignments and for performance in conversation activities.

(For more about motivating through explaining goals, autonomy, feedback, and peer testimonials, see
*ESL Teaching: Giving your course credibility in the eyes of your students
*A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More
*Advice to a Student Who Needs to Repeat a Course (Using Peer Examples)
*The Eyes Have It: Keeping Students Focused During Group Work
*Non-Credible Rationale for What Teachers Teach
*Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)
*Most Important Motivator of Students: How You Can Use It

Could you give us an example of a problem you had with a student and describe how you handled it?

For some examples of challenges I’ve had with individual students and descriptions of how I handled them, see
*Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)
*Effective Approach to a Student Cheating (from Outside Research)
*Writing class: Dealing with plagiarism (Don’t take it personally)
*No need to show anger/frustration at ESL students

In my next posting, I will recommend two important questions that you should ask the people who are interviewing you when you are applying for an ESL teaching position.

David Kehe

 

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