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Blog

The Ridiculous Boat Called English

Melissa Reeser Poulin

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I am teaching more these days than I have at any other time in my life, and every time I walk into the classroom I am visited by the same butterflies. They’re probably the same species of nervousness that visits everyone, but they’re also in on a secret. I’m a teacher, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

When I first began teaching English to speakers of other languages, I felt like a tightly wound ball of rubber bands. I suspected I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know my grammar well enough, and I certainly didn’t know enough of the pedagogy particular to teaching English language learners. Conversations in the staff room only confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t know as much as the other teachers did, and no one could find this out.

So I got myself a good grammar textbook and a survey of contemporary linguistics, and began studying at night. It seemed only fair, since that’s how my students spent their evenings, after five hours in the classroom and however many English-tinted hours they spent commuting home from school. The more I studied, I thought, the better armed I would be in the classroom, against their terribly trusting stares and the questions I was convinced I would be unable to answer. I needed to master English, so I could shake out all its tricks into a smooth set of operating instructions.

The more I learned and continue to learn about this language, however, the more ridiculous the idea of mastery seems. It’s like naming myself captain of an ancient, unwieldy paddle boat and assigning the students seats, then showing them how to operate the vessel.

What I’ve discovered is that learning alongside my students is exactly where I want to be. I don’t want them to be idle passengers, expecting me to shield them from every wave and iceberg. I want them with me at the wheel, figuring it out as we go. While a little bit of protective filtering is helpful, it’s extremely useful for them to see how native speakers wrestle with language, too.

I love this ridiculous boat called English. I’ve made my life in it. Teaching language is just one more phase in my love affair with the words I’ve been drinking in since birth. That’s the only thing I can really say I “have” to teach. I want to keep learning, but I am trying to let that be a means to an end rather than the end.