June 2019 NNETESOL Member Spotlight: M. A. Baldenweck

I came to TESOL in a rather roundabout manner, and yet it feels as though it was a career for which I was preparing my whole life.

With an undergraduate degree in Marketing, I spent four years in the Army, working in Europe and in automotive maintenance. Later I spent nine years at a major credit card processor, followed by early retirement and sixteen years as a stay-at-home single mom.  When the last of the children set off for college, I realized that I had spent most of my life teaching, whether as a military instructor or in customer service or when working with Scouts.

Thus, it was easy to choose the Master’s in TESOL from the University of Southern Maine.  I taught in an after-school tutoring program for immigrant children.  I went to China twice to teach in an “English summer camp” for university students.  Finally, I served an ESL internship in an urban high school in Maine.  These experiences confirmed that I was in the right niche.

Since September of 2018 I have been an instructor of English at Hubei University in the city of Wuhan in central China. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) can be quite different from teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), though there are many similarities.  Generally speaking, my 18-year-old students function in English at about the same level as a 12-year-old native speaker. Some have studied English for ten years or more, though the average is closer to seven.  Most can read well and some have surprisingly advanced vocabulary. Writing skills range from acceptable to impressive, though there is a general weakness in basic grammar.  As for aural comprehension, I speak to them as I would to American middle-school students (though I also write key words on the chalkboard). A small percentage of my students speak English with real fluency; a smaller share speak with hesitation. The great majority lack the courage to speak at all. 

Like some immigrant ESL teens, many of my students feel discouraged.  This is due, in part, to not making progress as quickly as they – or their parents and teachers – expect.  Worse, many are bored.  Chinese students learn English, and Chinese instructors teach it, because it is the government’s policy. While officially there is tremendous support for anything English-related, at the grass-roots level we sometimes find apathy and some misunderstanding of how – and which! – English skills are important. Therefore, classes must be engaging.  Subject matter must be relevant and useful. Connections must be made between the textbook and real-life situations.  In short, you must always be able to answer the question “Why do we have to learn this?”

Unlike the ESL student, most Chinese students have no immediate opportunity to use English, and so have little motivation beyond meeting academic requirements.  The EFL teacher must create situations for using and mastering English, because there are none outside the student’s door. I make it a point always to focus on practical usage:  role-play using new vocabulary to ask for directions when travelling or using new verb phrases in a mock job interview, for example.  Writing assignments include planning a solution to on-campus ecological problems or research into family history or the customs of English-speaking countries.  Texts, games, and videos which require students to decipher not just the words but the real meaning of what they read and hear (via verb tenses, inflection, choice of vocabulary, etc.) are all valuable tools.

I teach eight classes in 90-minute blocks which meet once a week, with 30 to 65 students in each class (thus, 300 to 350 in all).  Time for professional development is limited, so I highly value the information I get from the NNETESOL, TESOL, and Asia TEFL organizations and I look forward to opportunities for sharing my experiences and ideas with others.

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