ESL in Israel

It’s funny how the thing that brought me to Israel in the first place and constitutes the majority of my time here is the thing that I write littlest about. It’s no easy task… Maybe the best way to talk about teaching English in an Israeli school is to attempt to answer a question I am asked by Israelis and foreigners alike.

“If you don’t know Hebrew, how do you to teach the kids English?”

This big, gigantically messy detail of my first, and probably only, teaching experience is a constant struggle for me and my peers in the program. I am constantly feeling overwhelmed by the amount of Hebrew I don’t know and the amount of kids that don’t have a level of English to communicate even on a basic level. But that’s what I am here for, right? In fact, the program leaders encourage

us to speak only in English with the kids. Realistically, this ideal is difficult to maintain on a daily basis, but I understand the logic. If we speak to them enough, they’ll eventually pick up on it.

But like I said, realistically, we as ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers need to find ways to communicate with the kids when we’re in the thick of it. Luckily, I’ve been able to create structure where potential chaos may ensue. From what may have stemmed from my teaching bloodline (both my mom and grandma taught), I’ve subconsciously adopted certain habits to help solve the many challenges that come about in this type of learning situation. Sometimes I even feel like I’m helping, and on those days nothing could put me in a bad mood.

I’m also learning that teaching as an evolving skill is just as much trial as it is error. It’s guaranteed you’ll fail but those small failures add up to some very big aha moments. Below are a few of those moments from my time as a “teacher” thus far.

#1 Find a helper.

I remember being that student. The one that loved delivering a message to another teacher. The one who asked the secretary for the prints my class ordered. I was a glorified errand girl and I couldn’t have been happier. Being back in school, I can honestly say how nice it is to have an errand girl of my own. The one that’s always willing to translate, to quiet the group when you just don’t have the nerve and the one that will give you a big hug at the end of the day. Find a “little helper” like that and you can get through almost any day.

#2 Use your hands.

My hands and arms are constantly moving during lessons. Whether I am grading work, writing on the board or explaining vocabulary, my two upper limbs are in a state of continuous motion in the classroom. Sometimes I wonder if the kids think I have a really bad tick or something. When I’m explaining directions, I use my fingers to count the steps. When I’m explaining opposites, I move my arms from one side of the room to the other, something extremely helpful for visual learners. Think of all the verbs you can motion with your hands (call, talk, remember, think, drink, eat) and you’ll understand how helpful arms and hands can be when teaching another language.

#3 Prepare keywords.

By now I’ve gotten to the point where I can look at an activity and know where the issues will arise, both in the level of English and the structure of the exercise. I try my best to look up the “trouble words” before class. Maybe it’s the word “circle” because the exercise says to circle certain words. Or it could be the word “plural” if we are working on, well, plurals. Even if I can’t fully instruct in Hebrew, keywords help. Alot. And if not…Google Translate is a dear, dear friend.

#4 Ask instead of tell.

So maybe it’s laziness, but I’ll call it a teaching strategy. Asking “Ma ze?” (“What is this?”) before any vocabulary word works better than one would think. Even if the kids don’t know the answer, they’ll feel tempted to look in their books’ dictionary to find it. Many of my kids are motivated by the fact that I am calling on them to answer. Yes, I know I am lucky. Most of the time they’ll figure it out, and on the plus side I get to learn a new Hebrew word.

#5 Embrace confusion and be embraced.

Sometimes overwhelming moments can work to your advantage. Breaking down and letting the confusion take you over allows you to reach the kids on a different level. I’ve realized they are extremely empathetic at times. They’ll see me unable to express my thoughts in a way that would make sense to them, and they don’t give up on me. They work through what we are trying to understand. Smiles break across our faces. Some of the moments where I feel like I have made the best connection, the most impact, were the same moments when understanding each other was more important than learning the grammar lesson of the day.

These tactics may not seem like a lot, and they aren’t. There are so many other aspects of working in the school that I haven’t touched upon. The relationships with teachers, the Israeli school routine and the schools materials are all working into my struggles as an ESL teacher. But I’ll be the first to say, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”, so stay tuned for more.

A Funny Story

Valentine’s Day was upon us and a group of 5th grade boys let me in on their ‘girlfriend status’. But in talking to their supposed “girlfriends” the next period, I heard quite a different story. One girl was explaining that she would probably break up with her “boyfriend” the next day when her friend leans into my ear with a one-liner for the books. With that perfect Israeli-English she says, “This girl, she changes guys like she changes her socks!”

Welcome to Israel.

Shared with permission from Danielle’s blog, Wayfaring Miss.

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