An Interview with John Liang

JohnLiang        CELTSeoul2016

John Liang is a plenary speaker for CELT 2016.  This interview will give you some insight into who he is as a professor and as a Christian. Read on to discover how faith informs our purpose in teaching, our perspectives on the learner and our roles in the classroom.

Tell our readers about your teaching context.  Where do you teach and how long have you been there?  What kind of courses do you teach?

After I completed my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I joined the University of California, Riverside, where I directed and developed an ESL program in the Learning Center, offering service ESL courses to international graduate students, including international teaching assistants (ITAs), while teaching college reading and writing to first-year students in the summer bridge program.  In 2001, I joined Biola University, a private Christian university in Los Angeles, and have ever since been teaching in their MA TESOL program as a teacher trainer.  The courses I have taught include pedagogical English grammar, ESL materials, ESL teaching practicum, language testing, teaching second language reading, teaching second language writing, teaching English pronunciation, and technology-enhanced language learning.

One of the goals of the Christian Teachers Special Interest group (CT-SIG) is to explore the ways our faith connects to our teaching contexts.  Can you comment on this?  What are some of the ways you connect your faith to your teaching?

As teachers with Christian convictions, faith is inseparable from our teaching practice.  This is true of teaching English as a second or foreign language; it is also true to training future ESOL teachers!  Here, I would like to briefly discuss how faith can shape our teaching beliefs and practice.  In the following, I would like briefly discuss some of the implications Scripture verses carry for our teaching ministry.  At least, in the classes I teach, I have been making attempts to share and practice these perspectives in my teaching actions.

First, faith informs us teachers of the purpose of our teaching: To teach is more than to inform the mind; to teach is also to form and transform the heart of the learner!  Yet, the only source that can effect the change in the heart of the learner is to know God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!  Therefore, to teach is to ultimately lead our students to the knowledge of the Truth, who will change their heart, spirit, and mind!  In this connection, as teachers with Christian convictions, we ought to sat this as one of our goals: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Col 1:28-29 NIV).

Faith also provides us teachers with perspectives on the learner.  First, like us, they are also created in the image of God, even though this image is blurred due to sin.  Therefore, to teach is to be the teaching vessel of the Holy Spirit that works within the lives of our students.  Second, our students are “God’s flock that is under our care” (1 Peter 5:2 NIV).

This leads us to a Christian perspective on the role and attitude of the teacher.  As teachers, we ought not “provoke [our students] to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 NLT). As teachers, we need to “[b]e shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-4).

I can go on and on and on, but I feel that with these three perspectives informed by our Christian faith, we can teach with a renewed attitude, the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

The theme for CELT 2016 is collaboration.  How do you address collaboration in your teaching context?  What collaborative projects are you currently working on?

Many teachers feel that teaching is solitary.  As teachers, we often feel that we the classroom walls are confining; they limit our thinking within the walls.  Yet, to be a teacher is first to be a learner.  Therefore, teachers should bravely tear down the “walls” within their teaching mindset, and collaboration is one great strategy a teacher can implement to break the “walls”.

For the past several years, I have been collaborating with a like-minded teacher trainer in a K-12 setting in an academic outreach to K-12 English teachers in East Asia.  This collaboration has pushed both of us out of our comfort zone and prompted us to extend our expertise in an area beyond our current teaching field.  For him, he is conversant with theory and practice in K-12 settings in the U.S., and to strengthen our professional outreach, he needs to pursue new knowledge and skill in the English language teaching field; for me, I am well familiar with the beliefs and practice in teaching English to adults, and yet I need to come to a better understanding of the learning processes pertaining to young adults in an EFL secondary setting.  It is this type of collaboration that brings us down in knees in full cognizance of our needs to continue to learn and continue to grow.

Another collaborative project I am doing is with a practitioner research study I am doing with a secondary teacher from East Asia.  The teacher has a passion for experimenting task- and project-based learning in her English classes.  While she has made many achievements out of intuition, she needs to learn to approach her classroom instruction more systematically and consistently, and this is where I can play a role to assist her.  As for me, the extended learning opportunities has helped me come to an experiential understanding of the many problems and possibilities of implementing task-based learning in an examination-based culture, thus extending my theoretical understanding that will help me better train the teachers-in-preparation in my program.

What aspects of collaboration do you find particularly challenging?

There are many challenges educators have to deal with in collaboration, i.e. being in a different time zone, coming from different backgrounds, having different personalities, etc.  Perhaps, out of the many challenges, one of the biggest is lack of humility.  While differences represent growth opportunities, only when the collaborators are truly humble can they work in true partnership and collaboration.  A correct attitude, the collaborators’ willingness to play the second fiddle, is essential to any successful collaboration.  For this, Romans 12:10 has always been very encouraging for me: “Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle” (Romans 12:10, The Message).  In my experience, when collaborators stand in humility in full acknowledgement of a unifying vision and as a result are truly willing to play the second fiddle in support of each other, there will be successful collaboration, with His name be glorified.

How did you get connected with English language teaching?

English language teaching wasn’t what I initially dreamed about as a career when I studied English as a major in college in China.  Initially, I dreamed about pursuing a career related to foreign affairs or international journalism.  I had never thought about teaching English until the senior year when I had a chance to tutor a Cantonese businessman who was planning to immigrate to the U.S.  In his mid-thirties, the businessman had no formal education in English when young, nor was he able to even speak Mandarin fluently without the Cantonese accent.  As I was planning for the tutoring sessions with him, I naturally followed the way I was taught and trained in English in college.  I remembered that during the very first two months of my first-year English studies in English, all I focused on practicing was accent reduction.  So I decided to spend three months with him, drilling him in pronunciation, hoping that he could learn to pronounce words clearly and accurately before he proceeded to learn conversational English.  To my amazement, in three months of intensive drilling practice, he was able to pronounce words clearly without any Cantonese accent.  That was very encouraging.  For the first time, I felt that teaching English could perhaps be a career to pursue.

A year later, I graduated from college and was admitted as a distinguished college graduate to a graduate program in English language and literature at the same university where I did my undergraduate studies in English.  At that time, as a first-year graduate student, I had to do a teaching practicum in a freshmen class for English majors under the supervision of a professor as my master teacher.  On the first day of the practicum, however, the professor, who was one of my English instructors in college, fell sick and did not show up in class.  After we waited for fifteen minutes, the students began to urge me to teach the lesson instead.  Not knowing where I had the courage, I walked up to the podium in the front and started teaching, unprepared, unplanned.  That lesson turned out to be a great success, to my surprise!  Both the professor and the English department heard of the success of the first tryout and allowed me to continue to teach for a total of four weeks until the master teacher was fully recovered from illness and returned to work.  For the second time, I strongly felt that I might want to seriously consider pursuing a career in English language teaching in a college setting.

With this dream, I came to the U.S. for graduate studies in English, hoping that after several years of graduate studies in English language and literature, I would be best prepared for a college teaching career in English after I returned to China.  While studying in the U.S., there were many challenges I had to battle.  Academics was never an issue.  What often caused me to be in doubt was a lack of recognition of me as a non-native speaker to be an English teacher.  Many of my friends from China laughed at me, commenting, “So, John, why are you studying English in graduate school?  You see, many of us are studying either business or science, so we can get a job here.  But look at what you are studying!  English?  You really think you can teach Americans English?”  One most disconcerting comment I had was from one of my American supervisors in an ESL program where I worked as a student secretary.  One day, we had a casual conversation about what I wished to do when I finished the master’s program in English.  He said, “John, if I were to have an interview with you on the phone, I would take you as an American and would offer you a teaching position.  But if we were to have a face-to-face interview and saw you in person, I would not hire you since you’re not a native speaker of English.”  At that time, I was really thinking that it might be best for me to teach in the U.S. for a few years before I returned to China.  His comment was at once encouraging and discouraging.  It was encouraging because he saw the potentials in me as a qualified ESL instructor; it was discouraging because I was deemed disqualified because of the color of my skin – I’m an Asian, not a white Caucasian native speaker of English.

The affirmation came during the first winter break of doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin when I received a postcard from one of the students I previously taught as part of my teaching practicum back in China.  In the letter, she wrote, “We’ll be graduating from college in a year.  The other day, several of us were talking about the best teachers we had in college.  One of my classmates mentioned that you were the only best teacher she had in college, and we all miss you!”  The postcard was a timely encouragement since at that time I had almost came to a decision to switch to business studies, thinking that teaching English were simply be an unrealistic dream while a business career would be down to earth and help me earn bread.  The timely arrival of that postcard completely changed my life.  It affirmed the dream I had – to be a teacher whose job is to bring blessings in many respects to his students.

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