Spotlight on Jim Epstein

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

CESL Faculty/Staff Spotlight Interview

SPOTLIGHT ON JIM EPSTEIN (J.E.)

INTERVIEWER: TARA CHANDLER (T.C.)
 

T.C.: So Jim—how long have you been working at CESL?

J.E. I’ve been here since 1998. So, that’s 17 years.

T.C. Ok, and where did you work before that?

J.E. I taught at an IEP in Central Washington University, in the center of Washington State.

T.C.  So, what made you decide to be an ESL teacher in the first place?

J.E. I went to high school and went to college and then dropped out really soon and started traveling. Then, I would teach English in places that I traveled to, and I enjoyed it. When I came back to the States, I went to Boston. They had some classes I could take in teaching English as a second language that were open to undergraduates. I took some classes; I met some people who had traveled and taught and some of the Master’s students. So, it was after the experience of teaching abroad because I wanted to live abroad, and I found that I enjoyed it. Even without the traveling I found that I enjoyed it just by itself, so I went and got the Master’s degree.

T.C. What are some places that you have traveled to?

J.E. I lived in Guatemala for a year. I lived in Spain for three years, and I also taught in Brazil for three years. Those were the places that I stayed at. I’ve also traveled throughout Europe and North Africa and South America.

T.C. Oh, ok, so many places!

J.E. Yeah, Yeah. Still there are many I haven’t traveled to.

T.C. Yeah, that’s true. There’s a big world out there!

J.E. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

T.C. Can you talk about one of your memorable experiences while teaching—either abroad or here in the States?

J.E.  When I started teaching, this was before I got my Master’s degree, I was teaching in Spain. I was teaching in the evenings because these were adults who would come to classes after they were done working. It was a language institute in Barcelona. Often after class, it would be 9 or 9:30 and I was young and they were young and we would go out for dinner and for drinks. I just really liked the personal connection and the social aspect of it all, not just the teacher-student relationship. That was the beginning of it for me that teaching was not just about transferring skills, but it was about making connections with students and learning about each other. That’s what really turns me on about teaching. That was really the beginning of that and made me decide to teach as a career.

T.C. So, I’ve talked a little with you before, and I thought it was really interesting about working on a boat. Can you talk a little about that?

J.E. Yeah, sure. So, like I told you I dropped out of college for about a year, and I was a little lost and not sure what to do. I got a job on this oil tanker. It was through a friend of my dad’s. It was a pretty strong union job, so it’s not easy to get the job, but I was lucky to. This boat wasn’t an American boat—those unions are really hard to break through, but it was a Greek ship and many of the crew members were from Honduras, Spanish-speaking. I worked cleaning the decks and we traveled between South America, most of the Caribbean and Quebec City and Newfoundland in Canada. I remember that was really my first experience with foreign language learning. I mean in high school it was just another class, but here there were no English speakers on the boat, so it was the Greek officers and the crew who were mostly from Honduras. I picked up a Berlitz Spanish book, and I had all the time in the world. I mean we worked, but then I would just go to my cabin, so I would just study this Berlitz book. Then I would go to work and practice my Spanish, and that was really exciting to learn a language. It was somewhat of a lonely experience, but I felt like I was in the real world. Really seeing things I would never see.

T.C. It shaped you in that way.

J.E. Yeah, it did and it gave me the travel bug and a direction too with languages, ya know.

T.C.  So, I’m going to ask you to give you two pieces of advice—one for CESL teachers and one for CESL students. Maybe just little nuggets of wisdom since you’ve been teaching for a long time and have a lot of experience.

J.E. Well for students, I would tell them what most teachers would and that is while you are here in the U.S. whether in Tucson or wherever, that a lot of your learning takes place outside of the classroom. It’s the most important thing, as hard as it is, to get yourself away from the people from your own country and do your best to make connections with native English speakers. It will not only speed up your language learning, but it will give you a much richer experience if you’re more connected to where you are right now. I know that is hard, especially for the younger students, but that would be my biggest piece of advice.

For teachers, I would say, there has been all kinds of methodologies and pedagogy that has been researched and cycled of how much grammar to focus on or the communicative approach vs. a more drill and practice approach, but the perspective I have now is that you are comfortable with a method and that it works for your personality and your view of how languages work. Don’t get too caught up in if it is the way to do it. Students will learn best if the classroom is comfortable and students are motivated and lessons are somewhat fun. Not just fun with games all of the time, but they are enjoying it even if they are working hard. They are getting a lot of nurturing and positive feedback from you and help. I’m obviously not poo-pooing theory or anything, I mean you’ve got to know the grammar, that is really important, but that is not the most important thing.

T.C. It sounds to me that you are boiling it down to your purpose in the first place. It’s about the people who are in front of you and that you are a person as well and making that connection. It’s about who we are as people and let’s do the best that we can do here.

J.E. That’s right. It’s coming full circle. I mean in graduate school I was really into grammar, but I’ve really taken my foot off that pedal and taken a more humanistic approach. I mean there is really only so much we can do as teachers. It’s really up to the students, most of it is. I mean we can have an influence, that’s for sure.

T.C Great! Well, that’s about it. Thanks so much!

J.E. Great! Thanks!

Jim, an experienced ESL CESL teacher, shares his advice for teachers and students

I would tell students what most teachers would and that is while you are here in the U.S. whether in Tucson or wherever, that a lot of your learning takes place outside of the classroom. It’s the most important thing, as hard as it is, to get yourself away from the people from your own country and do your best to make connections with native English speakers. It will not only speed up your language learning, but it will give you a much richer experience if you’re more connected to where you are right now. I know that is hard, especially for the younger students, but that would be my biggest piece of advice.

For teachers, I would say, there has been all kinds of methodologies and pedagogy that has been researched and cycled of how much grammar to focus on or the communicative approach vs. a more drill and practice approach, but the perspective I have now is that you are comfortable with a method and that it works for your personality and your view of how languages work. Don’t get too caught up in if it is the way to do it. Students will learn best if the classroom is comfortable and students are motivated and lessons are somewhat fun. Not just fun with games all of the time, but they are enjoying it even if they are working hard. They are getting a lot of nurturing and positive feedback from you and help. I’m obviously not poo-pooing theory or anything, I mean you’ve got to know the grammar, that is really important, but that is not the most important thing.

Learn more about CESL staff and faculty

To learn more about CESL's staff and faculty, please visit: www.cesl.arizona.edu/people

"Studying English at CESL was an amazing opportunity for me. It's not only about learning English but also networking since the students come from all over the world. I got more than I expected."