ESL Teacher Interviews: Tara Benwell
Kaplan speak to Tara Benwell in the latest addition to the "interview with the experts" series. Tara is the administrator of MyEnglishClub, and the head writer and social media manager of ESL-Library.com. She also writes and records materials for a variety of online resource sites, including EnglishClub.com, TEFLnet, and Sprout English.
What made you become an ESL teacher?
I’ll never forget the moment I realized that I wanted to be an English language teacher. I was working in a bank at the time, doing a job that I had no business doing. My father knew someone in HR, and they hired me even though my degree was in English literature.
One evening after working a long, dull shift, it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be working with letters and words, not numbers and RSPs. I quit the next day, and went back to school to get my TESL certificate.
How would you describe your teaching style?
My teaching style hasn’t changed that much since I switched from teaching in a traditional classroom to working in an online environment. I’ve always maintained that the best way to learn anything is to teach it. I often remind students that learning a language is a lifelong journey that doesn’t suddenly end when you get a good TOEIC score.
In my current role as an administrator of an online learning community, I guide and mentor, rather than formally teach. Being in touch with learners and teachers on a daily basis is essential to my career as a materials writer.
What cultural insights can you get from teaching ESL?
Working with ESL learners (and teachers) is a great way to see the world. I love learning about different customs and holidays, and I sometimes forget that I’ve never actually been to Japan or Iran. Working with learners and teachers from all over the world has also made me very thankful to be Canadian.
Many of the online learners I work with are stay-at-home moms who’ve never had the opportunity to travel. Whenever I visit new cities, I capture everything I can so that I can share it with my online learners just as they share their part of the world with me.
Have you experienced cultural difficulties in teaching ESL?
When I first began teaching English, I taught mainly Japanese, Korean, and Spanish students. It surprised me how well the different groups got along, and how they became instant friends in a foreign country.
Occasional conflicts cropped up, but these were usually related to political or religious issues. Here in Canada, we are a cultural mosaic of people who are taught at an early age to embrace our differences.
Which other ESL teachers do you admire, and why?
I admire teachers who find ways to pair their passions with their language teaching. Stephen Mayeux, the founder of ESL-Hip-Hop, comes to mind. Another is Jason R. Levine, the English language teaching rapper, also known as Fluency MC.
Vicki Hollett is another one. Her video website is full of homemade videos that my online learners love. She even has her own green screen! Then there are those teachers who use their love of photography to help teach English, such as Ceri Jones or the ladies behind #ELTpics.
What would you say to someone who was considering becoming an ESL teacher?
I’d say go for it, and I’d remind them that there are plenty of related jobs that they can do after getting some teaching experience. I’d also recommend that they start building a personal learning network as one of the first steps.
Getting on Twitter is an absolute must for English language teachers who care about professional development. The simple hashtag #ELT is all you really need to start building a network.
What can English learners achieve by joining online communities and blogging?
A blogger from my online writing challenge group admitted to me recently that she has learned more English in our online community than she has in a lifetime of classroom study. Online learning isn’t for everyone, and you really do have to be self-disciplined to learn a language this way.
But for someone who really wants to work on their languages skills, the resources are out there, and an English-only online community can be the next best thing to learning English abroad. Blogging in a community is ideal for learners and teachers because they have an instant audience of readers.
What do you think is the future of ESL teaching?
When I first started teaching English, it was difficult to find full-time work. I had to find related work in order to pay the rent, and that’s how I got into materials writing. These days, online teaching can help teachers find the extra hours they need. Last week I snuck into an online teaching session when I was reviewing a new site I had heard about.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a teacher using a lesson that I had written for a digital publisher. She had figured out some interesting ways to use the materials with her online learners, and I was really impressed by the quality of her teaching.
Which superhero would you be, and why?
Jack Frost may not be the first name that comes to your mind when you think of superheroes, but I’m obsessed with Rise of the Guardians. I love how Jack finds his centre and realizes how much fun it is to be himself. I’ve been studying the screenplay recently to figure out what other secrets I can learn from Jack.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Jack Frost quotes. Share it with students who are frustrated with how they’re progressing in their language learning journeys: “Do you stop believing in the moon when the sun comes up?”
Many thanks to Tara for some really engaging and insightful answers. Tara has previously encouraged MyEnglishClub members to enter Kaplan's blogger competitions using the How to Learn English and Benefits of Learning Languages infographics.
If you're an English teacher, how do you think blogging communities can help online learners? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and feedback.