You’re “just” an English teacher

“Just”. Small word, heavy meaning.

When I Googled, “I’m just a teacher” I was surprised at what I found. It’s a hot topic! Hot enough to dedicate a poster to.

click to find the poster at
“Just an English teacher” is a phrase I’ve heard in a few different contexts. Sometimes it’s used to confirm that this is the essence of our work. We teach English to speakers of other languages, and while we have other responsibilities such as caring for our learners and managing classroom interactions, there is nothing inherently special about the work. I understand the sentiment, but I also grapple with it because “just” is a weighty word.

Sometimes the phrase is used in dismissive ways, as the poster above implies. This is the context I am referring to today. The memory of this phrase leads me to a school where I used to teach. During a staff meeting, one of the administrators tried to justify why the English language teachers had different responsibilities from teachers of other subjects. Without going into detail, on multiple occasions he explained this was because, “you’re just English teachers.” He implied we were of lesser value.

This story came to me today as I read the quote below. It made me wonder: does he understand what some English language teachers take into consideration before they go to class?

From bundles of acoustic cues in the speech signal , the listener manages to identify phonemes, the sounds of the language. Then the phonemes are built into syllables, the syllables into words, the words into phrases and the phrases into clauses or sentences. Finally, the sentences have to be converted from language into ideas.*

– Listening in the Language Classroom, John Field,  p. 129 (Kindle reader)

And then of course, part of the English teacher’s task is to make sense of this knowledge in order to help learners. The teacher tries to use this knowledge in order to turn it into someone else’s skill. This brings “alchemy” to mind.

As the quote suggests, language is incredibly profound and complex. It is a representation of the human mind. What could be worthy of higher regard than a system that aims to create human connection or that puts ideas into action and tangible forms? 

Take the word “just” for example. This word prompted me to write this piece which is now on your computer screen or in your hands.

There is weight in words.

And there just isn’t something just about that “just”.

Related links

Google finds


  • Thank you David Harbinson, Rachael Roberts, and Ljiljana Havran for leading me to John Field’s book.
  • Although I didn’t join the chat on “words” last Sunday, #KELTchat got me thinking about words this week. Thanks!
  • I watched this talk by Ruhpa Mehta about “the weight of words”, and now I see this expression in a different light. I’ll definitely be paying attention to her organization, NaliniKIDS, and look forward to learning more about her method for developing emotional literacy.

*Note: John Field does goes on to say this isn’t necessarily the way a listener processes language. He uses this sequence as a representation of the different types of decoding that goes on while listening. The quote could be one representation, but it isn’t the only one.

grammar was #onething that happened

A teacher-trainee asked me this question :

“I imagined him winning the game” vs. “I imagined his winning the game”
Which is more common or makes sense?
In the first sentence, is ‘him” an object for the verb or a subject for the gerund? In the second sentence, is ‘his’ a subject for the gerund?
As you know, Korean students tend to analyze a sentence, and some asked me the questions above. My answer was just ‘”Both may be grammatically correct.'” Was I right or wrong?

This was my answer:
I think you were correct in saying that both are grammatically correct. Of course we know that “him” is an object pronoun and that “his” is a possessive adjective This means that they become the object complement.
However, it also seems that both of these can also act as the subject of the gerund. However, it did take a lot of research for me to be able to tell you this. According to the link I shared, this can be found in Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.
I hope this gives you some peace of mind! :) Let me know what you think.
That was the best answer I could give, and it took me a while to formulate it. I share this with you as my response to Anne Hendler’s #OneThing blog challenge because these are the types of questions I get from Korean high school teachers of English, and I struggle to answer them. I struggle because they ask me to go to linguistic depths that I don’t usually dive into. I know my strengths as an English teacher lie more on the sociolinguistics side. However, these questions are very important reminders of the reality of my teacher-trainees. They keep me aware of the types of challenges they face.
Like the teacher, there is still a little doubt in my mind as to whether or not my answer is satisfactory. But that’s another reason why I’m posting this: it’s time to air out the doubt, and face my grammar demons. If you have any thoughts to add to this grammar question and my attempt at an answer, I’d love to hear them.

Linguistic Rebellion

We all have our own versions of rebellion. Some of us rebelled against our parents; some of us will rebel against society’s norms until the end of our days. In each of these rebellions, there is a conscious choice to push against the grain. Something doesn’t feel quite right about following the rules the way they have been laid out.

Rebellion occurs because something deep inside requires us to look at the situation from a different perspective. This feeling demands that we find our own way, and maybe even try to convince others that we’re on to something.

So what about rebellions against language? Have you been subversive about syntax or pronunciation? Have you ever questioned your grammar to the point you realized that using a certain pronoun was a complete contradiction of your values? I’m searching for stories of linguistic rebellion. This could be with the languages you grew up with, or the languages you adopted later in life. To give you an idea, I’ll share two of my rebel stories.

Linguistic rebellion

Like many other bloggers posting in the last few weeks, I responded to the “11 things about you” challenge. One part of the challenge asks that you share 11 random facts about yourself. This is one of the facts I chose:

In 5th grade, I had my first run-in with linguistic rebellion. For French class we had to write a diary and hand it in to our teacher. In French, diary (journal) carries the masculine form and so you should address it, “Dear diary” with its rightful masculine greeting, “Cher journal.” This made no sense to me. There was no way I would share my deep thoughts with a male journal, and so I addressed it as, “Chère journal.” When my teacher approached me about the grammatical error, I had my theory to back it up. He didn’t buy it.

I shared this because I was writing to an audience of language learners and teachers, and I thought it might be interesting to them. I also shared it because it’s one of my favourite pre-teen rebellion stories. I know. I was a wild child.

As the week went on, this little fact kept popping up in my thoughts, particularly the first sentence:

In the 5th grade, I had my first run-in with linguistic rebellion.

I wrote this so confidently, but reading it again, I was forced to ask myself:

Weren’t there other run-ins? And was this really my first story?

The resounding answer was that yes there were other moments, and no this wasn’t my first. I have a strong memory of my mother trying to correct the way I said the number one in french — un — when I counted: un, deux, trois…. I think I was between 5 – 7 years old. In our Acadian dialect, un sounds like yeon. My mother wanted me to learn the standard way to pronounce one, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel. It felt too unfamiliar. Yeon felt right, so I refused to use the standard pronunciation. Looking back, maybe I was actually trying to conform here. Everyone else in the neighbourhood used yeon, why should I stand out? This was clearly a case of early parental linguistic-rebellion.

I have other stories, but I’d like to hear more about yours. What’s your story of linguistic rebellion?

*Here are a few fantastic blog posts in response to my question:

Ticking the Native Language Box

This past weekend, over a round table discussion with friends (not necessarily the academic kind), the question “What is a native English speaker?” was thrown into the mix. The talk was inspired by Michael Griffin’s latest post, A letter to Korean English teachers. This discussion reminded me of all the times I had to tick that dreaded box on application forms: identify your mother tongue.

You see, as soon as I ticked that box, I already knew people would approach me with a whole lot of misplaced assumptions: they’d speak to me in French; I’d respond in a standardized version of French speckled with intermittent structures of Franglais and my Acadian dialect; they’d have a hard time understanding me; and finally we’d start speaking English anyway. Why did this happen?

a little history

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (Practicing Nonviolence in My Mother Tongue Isn’t So Easy), I grew up in an Acadian-French speaking community in Nova Scotia, Canada.  French is considered to be a minority language in this province.

As my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were growing up, they faced confusing linguistic messages.  During the early 1900s officials in the Nova Scotia Department of Education, who were of English descent, created curricula for Acadian public schools that were designed to ‘integrate’ French-speaking children into the dominant English culture (Deveau and Ross 1992, 154).  Deveau and Ross (1992, 155) describe the dualism that my grandparents’ and parents’ generation faced between this school system and their home life:

Acadian children were doubly disadvantaged:  they came to school speaking one language and were expected to learn everything, including reading and writing, in another language.  Their mother tongue, the very basis of their culture, was thus placed immediately in an inferior position.

The regulations of this educational system created immense linguistic alterations for the Acadian community. In 1931 thirty-two percent of Acadians had stopped considering French their mother tongue; then in 1971, 59.3 percent felt the same (Deveau and Ross 1992, 164).  The assimilation was a quasi-success.

But by the time it was my turn to go to school (early 80s), things were changing. I went to a francophone elementary school. When I was in middle and high school, I had the choice to continue my studies in English or French. I chose French.

My elementary school – École Jean-Marie Gay

The community was bridging the gap between school and home. Then finally, in 1996, a decision was made to find a more suitable working balance between both languages, when the *Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (Acadian school board) was lawfully established.  As a result of the unrelenting efforts of Acadian educational and parental organizations, children of Acadian heritage must now be educated solely in their native language.  Children of English-speaking families also have their own schools.

*I’m happy to say that my father was the superintendent of this school board from 2001 to 2006. The story of what he’s done for the Acadian community could be a blog/book in itself. Something I hope to see one day.

Why the Conflict with the box?

I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I don’t remember when I started. I’m sure cable television, the Sweet Valley Twins, Video Hits, and all those rockin’ 80s radio tunes had something to do with this learning. I’m also sure that this, connected to the teasing I got  for the way I pronounced “th” from my English-speaking cousin, and the English classes I had since I was in third grade, made for what I consider to be a seamless learning experience. With this practice and knowledge, I went to an English university, and since then I’ve been living my life in English. When I decided to make English teaching my career, it came with a lot of reflecting on what I just shared with you.

My mother tongue is a dialect. I speak it with family, friends and people in the wider Acadian community. I rarely read French books, but when I do, I enjoy them. Though it would take a lot of work to write a good French essay, I teach an advanced EFL writing course.  When I speak French to francophones from other countries (Quebec included), they hear my accent (stemming from years of living in anglophone communities, and from my dialect) and assume I’m an English speaker. Due to the discomfort and confusion, we usually revert to English.

So now when I’m asked what my native language is, I just tick the English box. I’ve made my peace. It’s just easier. Not just for me, but also for whoever is at the receiving end of that box.

But is this what it’s come to? In order for you to believe my English ability, I have to fit into some box? What’s the criteria for that box? It’s obviously not as clear as you think.

Have you ever felt confused about how to answer when asked about your native language? How have you felt, and how do you respond?

Deveau, A. and Ross S. (1992). The Acadians of Nova Scotia: Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.

Losing It at School – Bridging Reflective Inquiry and Nonviolent Communication

Last week, I lost my cool. Upon reflection, I reacted in a way that does not correspond with my values as a teacher. However, instead of hiding in shame, I have decided to use this as a learning and teaching moment.

In this three-part series, I will be exploring the connection between reflective inquiry and nonviolent communication. In my opinion, these are two forms of communication with the self, which give teachers valuable insight into how to move forward, especially when events are linked to strong emotions.

Using the experiential learning cycle as one of my bases, I will be moving through these three stages of reflection: What? So What? Now What? Today I’ll begin with, What? (see Burton, Kolb and Gibbs). In my view, the What? stage corresponds to the Observation stage of my second referential model, Nonviolent Communication (NVC). What? asks us to describe an event without judgment or evaluation, as does NVC observation.

Part 1 – What? and NVC Observation

Continue reading “Losing It at School – Bridging Reflective Inquiry and Nonviolent Communication”