May 2022
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Tabinda Khan, P-Tech and Adult Literacy Center, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

Although I learned English from kindergarten in Pakistan, my first introduction to the term ESL was when I applied to a college in Atlanta, GA, in 1992. I was under the impression that I knew English and I would resume my studies in the U.S. with ease. After taking ESL for a semester, I learned about my strengths and weaknesses in the English language. English as a second language (ESL/ELL) is the first course taken by international students in the U.S. before taking the regular English course in college. This course helped me improve my pronunciation and writing skills- two important things you need in the American workforce. ESL students learn English for a variety of reasons: to get and keep jobs, get promoted at work, or receive higher college education as I did.

Depending on the district, ESL teachers’ roles do not just end in the classroom but go beyond schools. Adult ESL students need help in finding jobs, learning about the healthcare and education system, and in simpler tasks, such as getting to important places in town. In addition to these responsibilities, non-native English speaker teachers must also face the challenge of connecting to students in spite of differences in educational and cultural backgrounds and less fluency in social language. Fortunately, the non-native English as a Second Language teacher can easily transcend these barriers and avail from their personal experiences to empathize with students and help them succeed.

After teaching ESL for almost 13 years, I would say that my degree (M.A) in TESOL solely depended on the content knowledge of language development. I took courses in sociolinguistics, the foundation of education, psychology, and curriculum development. I performed well academically but my real challenges began when I started searching for my first teaching job. With no prior teaching experience in hand, I began teaching at a non-profit organization where I was responsible for ESL Civics and Citizenship classes. Most of my students were refugees from Burma, Thailand, and Karen. As a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in the U.S, I felt quite distant from my students because I was not familiar with their cultural and economic backgrounds.As stated by Shin in the article: 'Preparing non-native English-speaking ESL teachers', [p]erhaps a central challenge to educating children from minority groups living in low-income families is the teacher’s lack of knowledge of the discourses and worlds of their students (Shin, 2008, p. 61).Understanding demographics would make it easier for teachers to connect with their students effectively. In one of my class observations, the observer said that my examples did not represent the students I was teaching. The students belonged to a lower socioeconomic status (SES) whereas my examples pertained to high SES students. The visuals I used depicted luxury and wealth. This feedback helped me to reflect on my practice, leading me to realize that I need to find relatable examples that pertain to my student population. Moving forward, I took this advice by taking the time to find and implement resources that better represented my student population. This inevitably led to higher engagement and learning in my class. Although it took me time to learn about the specific student population, I was able to adapt my teaching effectively due to my heightened sense of empathy for these students, whose experiences, although different, could relate to mine as I thought back to my first time in this country.

According to Phillipson (1996),“NNESTs can be potentially the ideal ESL teachers because they have gone through the process of acquiring English as an additional language. They have first-hand experience in learning and using a second language, and their personal experience has sensitized them to the linguistic and cultural needs of their students. Many NNESTs, especially those who have the same first language as their students, have developed a keen awareness of the differences between English and their students' mother tongue. This sensitivity gives them the ability to anticipate their students' linguistic problems”(pp. 23-30). I had the opportunity to work with South Asian students (who spoke Urdu, Hindi, andPunjabi) during my student teaching semester. As a South Asian myself, I can personally attest to the fact that the teaching/learning process was very smooth and quick. Knowing students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds results in students’ motivation and intellectual development. My ability to connect to the students resulted in earning their trust, which is a key component of the teacher-student relationship. I got to know their stories, what brought them to the U.S., what they hoped for, and what they needed to get there. In fact, one of my students is now a successful restaurant owner in New Jersey, U.S. Whenever I see him at his restaurant, he doesn’t hesitate to stop by. To see him achieve success in what he loves continues to serve as a moment of pride and honor for me. While this was the last time I taught at a school with a South-Asian dominant population, I strived to foster these connections with students from other cultural backgrounds, as well.

The challenges of teaching students from different cultural backgrounds also come with certain advantages. My current job is at a high school where the majority of ESL students are Spanish speakers. One of the advantages of not knowing your student’s first language is the opportunity to come up with multiple effective strategies to deliver my lesson. Also, students automatically try to speak to their teacher in English. I try translation, visuals, and peer assistance in class by using students’ L1 (first language) for developing student-teacher and student-student bonds. For example, some of my students in their freshman year would type or write a sentence in Spanish when they need extra help. Oftentimes, a peer would help to translate, resulting in positive student-centered learning. To further boost my students’ self-esteem, I share stories from my educational career in the U.S. or find examples of Latinx figures to discuss. These success stories of immigrants give them confidence and motivation. Representation plays a key role in increasing student learning and achievement.

Humans learn more by interacting with each other and engaging in first-hand learning. I am grateful to my students today whose curiosity and enthusiasm mentally stimulated me to come up with more engaging lesson plans. However, I wish there was more support to develop and learn the English language outside the classroom when I was taking courses in college. Recently at work, I took my adult ESL students to the pharmacy, library, train station, and motor vehicle commission offices. These students need help with such basic survival needs, and being able to guide them through the process with specific sentence starters and scenarios is vital.

Learning about diversity in America is an ongoing process that requires more opportunities in school where non-native teachers and native teachers are encouraged to expand their linguistic range by discussing social customs and culturally-appropriate behaviors. They become beautiful memories for our students. As a NNEST, I hope to continue to expand my repertoire of social language so that I can connect to and communicate with students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.


Phillipson, R. (1996). ELT: The native speaker's burden. In T. Hedge & N. Whitney (Eds.), Power, pedagogy & practice. (pp. 23-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shin, Sarah J. (2008) 'Preparing non-native English-speaking ESL teachers', Teacher Development, 12:1, 57 - 65

Tabinda Khan is currently teaching high school students as well as adult ESL students. She received a Masters of Arts degree in TESOL from The College of New Jersey in 2009. Her area of interest is NNES teachers working in the US and believes that good teaching requires learning, unlearning and relearning continuously to serve the ESL students best.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed