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Achievement Profile: Karen Stanley
What ESL Teachers Need, Inside and Out of the Classroom

Karen Stanley manages the TESLJB-L mailing list for job-related issues, a branch of the TESL-L listserv. She is also the Forum editor at TESL-EJ, a journal for teachers of English as a Second or Foreign Language, and one of the moderators of the TEFL China mailing list. Karen Stanley teaches in the Academic ESL program at Central Piedmont Community College, in Charlotte, North Carolina. ESL MiniConference Online is grateful to her for sharing her comments in this recent interview. (Note: The photo below, of Karen Stanley in action with some of her students, was taken by Tom Covington.)

Some Karen Stanley links:

TESLJB-L and Other TESL-L Branches (
The Role of English Language Teaching: Linguistic Imperialism or Linguistic Empowerment? (2002)
Sexist Language in ESL/EFL Textbooks and Materials (2001)
On the Status of Adjunct Teachers Around the World (2000)
The Politics of Academia: Points of Departure (1994)
E-mail Karen Stanley (
Central Piedmont Community College (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Karen Stanley:

Karen Stanley (photo by Tom Covington)

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

My main ESL activity is, and has always been, teaching. I just got back from a month in China as a guest teacher at Omeida College in Yangshuo (Guangxi) and from attending the Knowledge & Discourse 2 Conference in Hong Kong. I'm looking at testing and assessment these days in particular, since my community college (which is where I have my regular teaching job, in the Academic ESL program) just did a fairly drastic overhaul of our inhouse placement test. As a follow up, I am involved in tracking students in order to assess the validity of our test. I also have a special interest in finding ways to help students move grammatical knowledge out of the classroom setting and into active production. On the back burner (always, it seems) is active research to identify and understand the different aspects/stages students go through in incorporating grammatical knowledge (with a focus on the acquisition of past time morphology) into production.

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

One major factor in finding ESL as my profession had to do with getting bored with everything else I tried. My first experience was as a volunteer tutor, something I started when I was studying modern Greek while finishing my BA in Detroit. Then, when I went to Greece to practice the Greek I had learned, I set up a tutoring service in Greece to help finance my trip. That's when I realized that, even as a person who knew most of the rules about English that native speakers learn, and who had studied three languages as an adult, there were still things about teaching ESL that I needed to learn. Later, while I was working at the World Bank in Washington, DC (and got bored again), I started taking evening classes in linguistics. Eventually I accepted a teaching assistantship at American University; once I started teaching classes there I realized that I had found a profession I could truly enjoy.

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?

As a language learner, I first learned French, and spent 10 months in Switzerland when I was 16 (in lieu of my final year in high school). I studied Spanish 2 years in high school and 1 year in college, and spent a month in Guatemala in 1979 - perhaps because of my French, I still retain a fairly good ability to communicate in Spanish. My modern Greek, which I studied for a year at the university, followed by 5 1/2 months in Greece in 1978, was never quite mine in the way the other two languages were - but perhaps because of that I learned a lot more from it relative to language learning and teaching. I also took a semester of Japanese a few years ago, and learned even more about aspects of language learning. Romance languages, I think, came too easily to me for me to really understand and appreciate some of the difficulties of adult language learners. It was only when I moved away from them, first into modern Greek (which was definitely more difficult) and then into limited exposure to Japanese (MUCH more difficult) that I began to understand why memorizing huge amounts of vocabulary can be so important for learners from nonIndoEuropean languages, and why simple repetition of drills is something learners might actually want and need, no matter how boring it may seem to teachers. In other words, I learned that just about every method of language learning, whatever its current status in the eyes of instructors and language education experts, has something valuable to offer students. The important thing is to find a balance among all these practices of what works for me as a teacher and for the students in my classes.

I have also learned a great deal from my students about their languages and cultures. However, because my students (especially over a range of about 25 years) have come from so many languages and cultures, it's hard (well, impossible, actually) to list all the different things I have come to understand about languages, cultures, and language learning.

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

(1) Try learning a language as an adult, especially in a situation in which you will actually need to use it to communicate. The more different that language is from your own first language, the better for you as a language teacher. Each language I attempt has taught me something more about language learning.

(2) Reflect on your teaching. Think about why - why certain things work, why students have the problems they have, how something could be improved. Don't accept the views of others, even the "experts," without thought and experimentation. On the other hand, listen to other perspectives at conferences, on email lists, and by reading articles - and try not to dismiss things you disagree with without similar thought and experimentation.

(3) Be patient. With yourself as a teacher, with your students as learners. Understand you cannot do everything right the first time, and that often you may need to teach a course at least 3-4 times before you begin to get it right. Understand that not all your students will put language learning in the same place in their lives as you do in yours - and that their choices may be what is best for their lives at the time. Understand that, even after you explain something in 3-4 different ways (each time in different words, of course), some students will still have no idea what you are talking about. Remind yourself at least once a day to just stop, slow down, and put things in perspective. (I'm still learning!)

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

I think one of the very most important issues is the increasing (ab)use of collateral academic labor. In the United States we often call these instructors "part-time," but they are often not really "part-time" - what we mean is teachers who earn less, have little or no job security, and get few if any benefits - especially relative to other teachers in the field and at their institution who have all these things. As far as I know, this situation is a real problem in all ESL environments (ie, where English is the primary language of the country) - the UK, Australia, the US, and others. It is *also* a problem in other countries where English is taught as a foreign language (EFL). If people are unaware of the widespread nature of the problem, they might want to read my Forum column in the December 2000 issue of TESL-EJ, On the Status of Adjunct Teachers Around the World, available at I am also a member of TESOL's Caucus on Part-Time Employment Concerns (COPTEC) and encourage discussion of the issue on TESLJB-L, an email list which I manage. I encourage all ESL/EFL instructors and future teachers to take a serious interest in this situation, as it impacts us all - even those of us who have been full-time for many years.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online