Renee Lajcak is the director of the TEFL certificate
program at the Midwest Teacher Training Program, in Madison,
Wisconsin. ESL MiniConference Online is pleased to share
her comments with our readers.
Some Renee Lajcak links:
Midwest Teacher Training Program
Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute
E-mail for MTTP information
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Renee Lajcak:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I am now the director of a five-week TEFL certificate program. In
addition, I do some teacher training in the certificate program and
ESL teaching in our parent school. I enjoy the combination of
administration and teaching.
My principal project is to provide a high-quality teacher training
program that is interactive and practical. New teachers want to know
what to do and then they want to try it themselves. I strive to make
both my teacher-training and my ESL classes fun and useful,
presenting the information and content in the most dynamic and
relevant way possible. I want teacher-trainees and students to leave
the class saying, "That was a blast. I want to learn more!"
On the back burner is the desire to use the internet more in my class
assignments. I would like to develop my knowledge in CALL and have
all my class plans integrate more websites, email and chat rooms.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
My first experiences teaching were volunteer experiences with
Southeast Asian refugees. Although I was a commercial artist at the
time, I found being a teacher much more creative and personally
rewarding. Teaching illiterate basic beginners taught me so much
about simplifying and clarifying my speech, honing down a lesson to
its most essential parts, and focusing on what the students
themselves want to learn. I also learned how much I could gain
personally from learning about my students' experiences. The
volunteer experience enriched my life in many ways. Because this
new area fit me so much better, I soon went back to school for a K-12
teaching license and a master's degree in ESL.
While I was a student, I went out of my way to try a wide variety of
teaching, from volunteer work with refugees to private paid tutoring
of business professionals, and from working with pre-schoolers to
team-teaching university students. Every teaching experience added
to a store of knowledge and "tricks of the trade" that have served me
well through the years.
What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds
with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which
ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a
language learner yourself? What insights have you
gained in how to meet the needs of English learners
from these cultures and language backgrounds?
In the U.S., my largest ESL groups have come from Japan, Korea, and
Venezuela. I have learned a lot about facilitating mixed
language/culture groups, and a combination of passive and active
learners in the classroom. I always strive to give everyone, even
the quietest and lowest level student, the same chance at expressing
themselves. However, even after 20 years of teaching, I have to
consciously keep myself from giving more attention to certain
students who "connect" with me more through their language facility,
their eye contact or something undefinable.
I have lived and taught in both Indonesia and Japan. I believe every
ESL teacher should try a new language every few years. It keeps you
humble and, oh, so empathetic to your students' attempts at English.
Japanese students often seem insecure about trying their new language
and a big part of teaching them is building confidence and
encouraging them to "play" with the language. I've learned to build
my lessons from structured activities guaranteeing a great amount of
success towards the more open-ended free activities that then lose
some of their intimidating quality.
Indonesian students are a wonderful mix of learners, just as their
country is a mix of cultures. However, I found them much more
willing to use English as a handy tool to meet their goals, without
worrying so much about accuracy. In the same way, they were more
accepting of my own attempts at Indonesian since speaking two or more
languages is not a rare thing in their country. I found this relaxed
attitude to language learning refreshing as both a learner and a
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
First of all, spend time on the first day getting to know the
students. I've found that the more time I spend on this, the more
relevant my activities can be and the more successful the class is.
Second, think about how the parts of your lesson and the lessons
themselves build on each other. When I was a new teacher, my lesson
plans were just a collection of fun activities. There was little
connection from activity to activity, from day to day. The flow of
your class can build student confidence and thus, improve their
success. Introduce new activities and topics with background info
the students already have rather than just leaping into them. Do
several different kinds of activities on the same topic. Review a
past activity but add more depth and detail the second time. This
approach will help you focus on the bigger picture of language
learning rather than just filling class time.
Finally, if you find yourself bored with a class, look at your
teaching before you blame your students or the book. I always feel
that a class can be made more fun by attacking it from a different
angle. Try teaching your topic using another mode: visual,
kinesthetic, musical, etc. Try a multi-media "vacation" from the
text. Personalize your lesson with your own and your students'
experiences. Have the students be the teachers for an activity or a
day. As they say, "Variety is the spice of life."
What do you see as the most important issues
facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
Anti-foreign student sentiments in the post-September 11th world have
resulted in difficulties obtaining student visas and have
dramatically reduced enrollment in IEPs in the U.S. The loss of
these educational opportunities for foreign students also brings
losses for the U.S. Fewer foreign students in the U.S. means less
international exposure for American students. The U.S. also misses
the chance to develop friendships with students who will later become
the economic and political leaders of their countries. Finally,
losing foreign students brings a loss of revenue for the U.S. economy
in the millions, if not billions of dollars.
Bilingual education and English as an official language legislation
remain hot-button topics throughout this country. Finding the best
way to teach English while maintaining respect for native cultures
and languages should be a goal for all teachers and policy makers.
One more issue is how to meet the different needs, learning styles
and goals of all ESL students. For example, special groups such as
students with learning disabilities have to be identified and taught
in ways that fit their individual needs.
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online
Previous Profile / Next Profile