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Achievement Profile: Sharon Seymour
Conveying the Meta Concepts of the ESL Profession

Sharon Seymour, chair of the Department of English as a Second Language--the largest department in the entire City College of San Francisco, and a department which is spread across six campuses--is also a member of TESOL's task force on Adult ESL teaching standards. ESL MiniConference Online thanks Sharon Seymour for taking the time to share her insights in a recent interview.

Some Sharon Seymour links:

The ESL Department of City College of San Francisco
TESOL Task Force on Standards for Teachers of Adult Learners (1998-2002)
Noncredit to Credit Articulation: The City College of San Francisco Model - in Intersegmental Articulation (CATESOL Journal) (1996)
Online Public Access Catalog User Studies: A Review of Research Methodologies, March 1986-November 1989 (1991)

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Sharon Seymour:

Sharon Seymour

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

My main activity now is serving as chair of the ESL Department at City College of San Francisco. We serve approximately 17,000 students a semester in our noncredit program and 4,000 students a semester in our credit program. We have over 360 instructors and offer over 600 sections in noncredit and 230 in credit each semester. Managing such a large department keeps me very busy! I've been active professionally, having served TESOL and my state affiliate CATESOL in various roles. Currently I'm a member of the TESOL Task Force for Standards for Teachers in Adult Programs. We have developed a set of standards that we propose all teachers of adults should meet. Drafts of these standards are posted on the TESOL website and comments from the field are invited. I am also co-authoring a book that will be part of a forthcoming English for Academic Purposes series.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

I was an Operation Crossroads Volunteer during the summer of my junior year in college. I spent a summer in Nigeria with a team of American and Nigerian students building s school. My first teaching assignment was teaching English at the junior high level in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I also worked for American Field Service for three years. This is a student exchange program that sends American high school students abroad and brings students from other countries here for a year to live with a family and go to school. These experiences got me interested in the field of ESL. I got my MA in TESL from SF State in 1975 and started working at City College after I graduated.

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?

The largest ethnic groups that we serve in San Francisco are Asian, predominately Chinese, and Hispanic, predominately Central American. We also have a significant Russian population, but we have students from just about everywhere. There are several issues that come to mind with our major student populations that I know both ESL and content instructors at CCSF deal with. One is the different understanding that Asians and Americans have of what it means to get an education- the passive model versus the more active model. So we know we need to focus on helping Asian students learn how to participate in class, ask the instructor questions, read critically, express their own opinions, etc. One issue that we face with the Hispanic population is that a larger percentage of this group comes to us with less education in their native language. We offer a number of native language literacy classes and ESL literacy classes at the campus that primarily serves Hispanics. We know that Hispanic students who take credit classes have less of a chance of succeeding (passing classes and progressing through the program) than other ethnic groups and we suspect that lack of literacy skills in their native language is a primary cause of this. We've recently revised our credit curriculum and will be emphasizing reading more, so we hope this will help. My language learning experiences include studying French in high school and college and Spanish for a summer in Spain. I also studied French in France during a sabbatical one semester. Although these experiences have not given me a lot of linguistic knowledge of the languages of the students we serve, the living abroad experiences have given me the experience of being a second language learner and feeling the frustration of not being able to understand others or communicate your ideas beyond a very basic level and a realization of how long it takes and how hard it is to become proficient in another language. The headaches from trying to deal with French all day long were telling!

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

One would be to those who are starting in a new job - get to know as much as you can about the program. Look at course outlines or other documents to learn about the goals of the program, what the goals and objectives are for the courses you will be teaching, and what skills students will need to be successful in the next level. Talk with other teachers to find out what materials they use and problems they face, observe classes, etc.

Another suggestion is to be flexible and willing to teach different courses at different levels with different goals in different locations at different times. This may not apply to those working in very small programs but in a large program like ours, we offer classes all over the city, from morning to evening seven days a week. We offer the full range from literacy in noncredit to an advanced class in credit that students can use to meet the written composition requirement for graduation. Although you may eventually wish to become expert in teaching composition or teaching literacy, I think getting a range of experience will give you a greater appreciation for what it means to teach and learn another language.

A third suggestion would be to join your professional association - TESOL and/or your local affiliate and to continue to grow professionally. Keep up with your readings in the field. Begin to develop an understanding of your role outside your classroom in the broader educational field and the community. You may be called upon to explain to others just what it is you do in an ESL class, why ESL classes are important, how long it takes to learn another language, etc. You may have to work to keep a program going or to get funding.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

I think we continue to fight the issue of legitimacy - why do non-native students need special instruction, or at least so much of it, in English. We have seen that in California with the passage of legislation that limits the amount of ESL instruction students get in K-12. At the community college level, the state Chancellor's office and CATESOL are trying to deal with the issue of whether ESL is remedial or not - do ESL students deserve degree applicable credit? I think another issue we face, at least in the U.S., is accountability. Legislators and funders want to hold us accountable for doing our job and helping students learn. But the means chosen for measuring the success of students are not always considered appropriate by the profession. When the test chosen does not match the curriculum, what are we really measuring, what are we really doing?

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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