Life : Mar 2007 to Nov 2007

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1) Working in Perth

After finishing work at the charity project, I left Singapore and arrived at Perth on 4th March, 2007. I stayed there until 30th November. It was a good break from Singapore and the first time I returned to Australia since I left it for Colombia in August 2003.

I worked part-time and also did a part-time TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certificate. I actually worked 3 part-time jobs in total throughout my time there – although one didn’t last for long. For the two main ones, I worked in a 24 hour convenience store and as a food and beverage attendant in a hotel restaurant.

The pay in Australia is amazing. I think the country probably has the highest minimum wage in the world. In Singapore, if you get an “unskilled” job like the ones I got, you’ll get between S$5 to S$7 per hour. In Australia, I earned around A$15 for work in the convenience store and A$18 in the hotel restaurant. This is of course if you go by the rules. There are lots of cheap Asian restaurants that would pay you (illegally) way under the minimum wage level. Anyway, it was easy very for me to find a job in Perth as it’s economy was and is booming because of the mining industry. Perth is probably the best place to work in the whole of Australia.

How I viewed Australia changed a lot during my stay here. Working in the convenience store, I got to interact with a lot of white Australian customers. They were all very friendly and was such a wonderful change from Singapore. My only encounters with racism surprisingly wasn’t aimed at me or Asians, but at the Aboriginals. My boss, who’s white, loves to hire Asians for various reasons – not least because I think we’re hardworking and honest. Early on in my job, he warned me about the Aboriginals. He called them the “worst race on earth”! I was quite taken aback and one part of me wanted to resign there and then and look for another job. Maybe I should have. I guess he felt this way because a lot of Aboriginals stole from his store and so everytime any comes in, he would monitor them closely through the security cameras. Anyway, that was my first and really only encounter with racism.

I mostly worked the graveyard night shift in the store – from 11pm to 7am. This really screwed up my biological clock but it was good money. There were few customers and I finished my duties quite quickly. Then I could spend at least a few hours doing what I wanted to do – reading, listening to music, praying and using my computer. But it was no doubt also a dangerous shift. Occasionally you had people holding up the store, but not that often and I didn’t encounter any robbery on my shifts.

My most interesting encounter was with a group of young teenage white Australians. It’s the young who often shoplifted. One day, a group came into the store. I watched them closely through the security cameras and noticed at least one of them had shoplifted. I couldn’t confront the person there and then because I was basically outnumbered. So anyway, I waited till all except one of the group left the store and told the last boy that I saw his friends had shoplifted and told him to go tell his friends to return it or I’ll call the police. I thought that would frighten them, but boy was I wrong! I waited and some of them returned. I thought they were being good obedient boys and were going to return the stuff they stole. They didn’t. They came in and took some more stuff. And they came in a few more times and took some more things – even in front of other customers and with me shouting at them from behind the counter. On one occasion, they came in and quickly took some ice-creams from the fridge that was right beside the store’s opening door and quickly took off – right before my eyes. By that time, I had called the police and other security services and they took about 30-60 minutes to arrive. I had to lock the door to prevent them from coming in. Most of the group just lingered outside and one particular boy who did a lot of the shoplifting waited outside the door and banged on it to try and get in! Yes, he wanted more and didn’t care that the police were coming! Soon the police came but didn’t bother to arrest anyone. Well, that’s Australia for you. The police don’t bother that much and are very slow and the kids, well, the kids have the audacity to do what they did!

Working in the store made me realize how many white Australians spent their money so freely. As a 24 hours Convenience Store, the prices were ridiculously high. Also, many of the goods didn’t have price tags to let customers know how much each thing cost. Yet people wouldn’t hesitate buying a lot of things from the shop – and some even did their “grocery” shopping there. Whenever the Asians (and I would do the same) come in, they’d be cautious about how much they spend and ask the prices for this or that good. However, the white Australians just spent without worrying that much. I remember one occasion when there was a queue and the person I was serving found out she was short of some money when paying for her goods. She wanted to go to her car to get it. But before she could, the guy behind her offered to pay about $2 or more for her so she didn’t have to go to the car. He did so because he was in a hurry to pay for his own stuff and didn’t want to wait for the lady to go to the car to get the additional money. But there were also other times when people just helped each other to pay of the little money they lacked out of goodwill. This would never happen in Singapore! But it goes to show the laid-back nature (and generousity) of Australians.

When I was working in the hotel, there were a lot of Filipinos and other Southeast Asians who took on unskilled jobs (laundry, cleaning, etc.) and I know were earning probably at least A$16 per hour or so. Their monthly salary probably easily exceeds that of what a lot of more educated Singaporeans earn in Singapore – let alone talking about how much Filipino maids and other unskilled foreign workers earn in Singapore!

I’m not sure why wages are so high in Australia, but they are! And I realized ever the more during this stay why people want to live in Australia. It’s so easy to earn a living there. Amazingly easy. It’s so different from in Singapore.

2) TESOL (Teaching English) and Missions

One of the main reasons for going to Perth was to get my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certificate. I thought of getting one in 2003 before I went to Colombia to teach English. I probably should have done it then as it would have made my trip to Colombia more fruitful than it was. Nevertheless, I now had the opportunity to get it in Perth and did so.

I decided to get this qualification because I wanted to move into teaching English as a Second/Foreign language. I knew this was a skill that was in large demand throughout the developing world. My plan was always to live in the developing world in future and I knew this skill would allow me to be a “tentmaker” there. In future, I could go to a developing country and earn money through teaching English and also do missions and development work there. This is of course not a new idea as many Christian missionaries do precisely this. There are of course various ways of doing this. Some evangelize explicitly through their teaching of English (e.g. teaching English through the Bible or something along that lines), while others teach English to earn money and do other missions work on the side.

In developed countries like America, UK, Canada and Australia, they also use English teaching to reach out to the lost. Churches provide free English classes to International students or migrants or refugees and reach out to them through this. During my time there, I volunteered to teach English with a Japanese Christian Church. Free classes were provided from Monday to Saturday and a lot of Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese attended these classes. Many of them enter Australia on a Working Holiday visa. They normally stay for a year. Some come here to find work and travel. And they appreciate the free English classes provided. So there’s a great opportunity to reach out to them.

3) Taking my CELTA Certificate

The last three months of my stay in Perth, I took up a 12-weeks part-time CELTA certificate. The CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is the most widely recognized TESOL certificate in the world. TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the general name when talking about matters related to teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL). There are many TESOL certificates out there – some good and some not. The CELTA certificate is awarded by the University of Cambridge and probably the best around.

Before taking the Certificate, I spent a bit of time reading up on TESOL theories. I knew I was moving into this quite seriously. And when I’m serious about something, I’ll go all out into it. Before setting my mind on this (i.e. moving into TESOLing), I decided to stop my pursuit of Development or Global Citizenship Education. Development / Global Citizenship Education interested me because it combined my passion for education with my passion for International Development. But it wasn’t something that was in great demand. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of demand for teachers of ESL/EFL teachers throughout the world. Furthermore, having this skill combined well with my interest in missions (see above) – even though I have to say that teaching the basics of English is not very exciting as compared to teaching about Development and Global Citizenship!

The field of TESOL is definitely a specialized one. Teaching ESL/EFL isn’t like teaching English to first language English speakers, or even teaching any other subject. There’s a lot to be learned methodology-wise, which when applied to classroom practice results in a very different kind of classroom teaching from what we normally think of as a classroom teaching!

The teaching philosophy of TESOL moves away from the traditional teacher-centered method of teaching which views teaching as “transmission of knowledge” from teacher to student. Of course, all around the world, teaching in general is seeking to move away from such a conventional view of teaching through incorporating values like creativity and critical thinking. I mentioned before my encounters with Problem Based Learning (PBL). The teaching methodology of TESOL is similar to PBL in that they are both very student and learner-centered.

I have to say that having read up a bit in this area, in some ways it has only made me more confused. But then, I’m not surprised. As with all social sciences, you have so many different views in Applied Linguistics (the theoretical field that informs TESOL). It’s kind of frustrating because as a TESOL teacher, you want to see your students improve in their use of English. And yet there are so many different theories around. You want certainty in just one theory and way of teaching. You want to find the best way. But it’s not so simple as that – just like life.

The most accepted way of teaching a second language is what you call the Communicative Approach or Communicative Language Teaching. Here, the focus is on fluency of spoken communication – rather than accurately producing the language. The learners are the focus and should do most of the talking (as they need lots of speaking practice) and the teachers ought not to talk so much. Many games and activities are also used to get people to communicative in spoken language. Yet even within this approach which is dominant nowadays, there are those who hold to a stronger or weaker version of it.

The most useful thing about my CELTA was applying this approach in a classroom setting. I had to conduct 8 assessed lessons (6 hours of teaching in total) among real ESL learners during the course. And really, everything in the whole course was about those lessons. I think this is good as it made the course very practical in nature. And in the end, that’s what teaching is about.

Learning to teach using a communicative approach was extremely challenging. I really learned a lot. I knew a lot about the communicative methodology before doing my CELTA but mere knowledge of the methodology was nothing like actually applying the methodology in a classroom setting. I was told that many people who did their CELTA after having already done their PGDE (Postgraduate Diploma in Education) found they learned much more in the CELTA.

One thing I found extremely interesting was that the way our teachers trained us was exactly the way we were expected to teach our students. That is, the teachers actually adopted a communicative methodology in teaching us. So they were definitely practicing what they were preaching. Their teaching wasn’t lecture style, but involved a lot of activities and the students’ involvement.

When I was working on development education (global citizenship) presentations the previous year, I cracked my brain in trying to make the presentation of knowledge interesting, fun and student-centered, rather than lecture-based. Now that I’ve gone through the CELTA course and also started going into TESOL or ELT (English Language Teaching) teacher resources, I realize how advanced this field is into creating learner-centered educational resources. I think the field of TESOL/ELT is probably one of the most advanced in churning out student-centered activities. There are tons of ideas on student-centered activities in this field that would be of great aid to teaching in other fields. Some of the best resources can be found here in the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers.

I do, however, think that a more student-centered approach to teaching (like PBL or TESOL/ELT) has its own problems and challenges. Like how much content can be covered during lessons and all. That a challenge I think the PBL approach faces in Republic Polytechnic. And sometimes you do wonder how effective the student-centered communicative approach is for ESL learners. At least, I sometimes do wonder.

I learned Spanish for about 3 years – as a 2nd or 3rd language (Mandarin was probably truly my 2nd language). And so I had first hand experience of learning a second/foreign language. I was taught Spanish basically in English! I’m not sure how “communicative” the way I learned Spanish was. One thing I soon realized is that I think the Communicative Approach is basically for teaching students who already have had a few years of learning English under their belts – and usually they learned English in their first language. The CELTA and other TESOL certificates prepare you for that. It’s quite hard to teach communicatively to students who have had no knowledge whatsoever of English. It’s not impossible to teach it in a communicative manner, but it’ll take a long time. And it may not be the best way to teach English to an absolute beginner too. If it were the best manner, then most Universities would be teaching Spanish totally in Spanish and other languages totally in that language. But they don’t do so.

I’m also not sure how communicative one can be when teaching students who are sitting for some examinations (like the IELTS) or who are preparing to enter an English speaking University. Because, for these people, they need a lot of written skills. Accuracy in writing and grammar are especially important. And this generally goes against the grain of the communicative approach to language teaching.

I’m still thinking about how to teach grammar (and I do think it’s very important) in a communicative way. I’m not sure I can agree with the communicative methodology’s insistence of giving priority to fluency rather than accuracy of language production. In my learning of Spanish, I do feel that learning grammar and being accurate in my production of Spanish has increased my fluency of it. I can’t imagine speaking fluently without also speaking pretty accurately! However, I have to acknowledge that my interest in accuracy and focusing on the forms (grammar) of the language probably is a result of my learning style.

Anyway, early on in my readings into TESOL, I’ve come across two authors that have written some stuff challenging the triumphalism of the communicative methodology. One author is Robert O’Neill, whose writings can be found here. The other is Charles Lowe. I like what they say. And it somehow resonates with my own experience in learning the Spanish language and my limited experience in teaching ESL/EFL. But of course I’m still learning and still searching.

It’s worth noting that while the CELTA I did was quite strong in its communicative methodology, some of the teachers I observed (which I had to do as part of my course) were not afraid to deviate from such an approach from time to time. One even told me that that the way she taught grammar was quite un-CELTA-like in that it would be frowned upon in a CELTA course.

In the end, the idea isn’t to be dogmatic about any one approach to language learning and teaching (not even the communicative approach), but to be eclectic – even as I’m extremely eclectic in my theology. We are in the post-modern era and many leaders in the TESOL/ELT field have said we’re in the post-methods era too.

My desire is to be the best ESL/EFL teacher I can be. And I will continue to read up more and learn how I can best teach English to my students.

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  1. Hi stillhaventfound, I found your website while browsing the ‘net for articles on English and EL teaching. You’ve got some pretty interesting and thought-provoking thoughts on a whole range of things, plus you remind me of someone I think I know. I wonder…!

    Meanwhile, happy writing, and best wishes on the whole pursuit of what you’re looking for :)

  2. Hi There,

    I’m a 52 year old mother with 2 grown up children. I’m interested in taking CELTA but do not know which one is good, like you wrote in your blog that some are good and some are bad. Can you please give me the name of the school you attend in Perth?

    Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.

    May the Lord Jesus bless you,

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