When I finished reading this post, I was inspired to write a similar letter to my most difficult class of high school ESL students. The majority of them have extremely low English skills, and consequently, even lower motivation. I wanted to address their lack luster enthusiasm, and make it clear that I’m not here to make them miserable, but to help them; and that even if they have no aspirations for becoming a fluent English speaker, they can still get something out of our class. So in addition to writing the letter below, I took it one step further and actually read it to them. I arranged the desks in a circle, found a seat among them, and (with the help of direct translations from my co-teacher) talked with them. Here’s what I had to say:
For starters, I hope you know that I care about you. And I care not just about your ability to understand and use English; I care about you as people. I truly believe that you are all smart, interesting and talented individuals. I admire your dedication and commitment to athletics, and I am amazed by how hard you all work to reach your sports-related goals.
Now I’d like to talk about why we should have that same kind of passion in the classroom.
But before we get to that, what do you think the purpose of school is? Learning to read and write, solving math equations and studying history? Yes, we are here to learn about those things. There is value to all of that. But there’s also a bigger skill we develop along the way. It’s not listed in your textbook and you won’t find it as a question on a test. The skill is: not giving up. In general, school is about learning how to solve problems and learning how to accomplish things we never thought were possible.
You already practice this skill every day in your sports training. When you are totally exhausted and your coach asks you to do something one more time, do you lie down on the floor or shake your head “no?” No, you do it. Because you know he or she has your best interests at heart, and because you want to be the best you can be in your sport.
Now it’s time to practice not giving up in the classroom. Some of you are already doing this. I see you putting in effort, participating and trying your best. But others are giving up. You’re quitting without giving yourself a chance to succeed.
In what ways do we quit as students? What does quitting look like? Sleeping during class, refusing to engage in an activity, choosing not to write a sentence or answer a question. Why do we quit? Because we’re exhausted, tired, bored, scared of making a mistake, feel like we’re in over our heads or believe we’re so behind that there’s no point in trying?
As much as I can, I understand that you’re exhausted. I’m not in your position, so I don’t fully know what it’s like. And it would be unfair of me to simply tell you that balancing the demands of your training with your schoolwork is not that hard.
But I do want to ask you to try harder. Don’t give up. Try to bring the same amount of passion and focus to class that you have in the gym; because if you do, you will improve. And, you might even have some fun! Are you familiar with the expression, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step”? Well, the same is true with our class. The end result of understanding and speaking English starts with showing an effort or interest in communicating, even if it means asking a friend or teacher to help translate. Then, slowly, we start to use basic words and body language, and our language ability grows from there.
And who knows, one day you might find yourself traveling and competing in an English-speaking country, or interacting with English-speaking athletes at an international competition! Wouldn’t it be cool to have a short, simple conversation with them? Wouldn’t you feel proud of yourself?
English may not be something that you need in your everyday life now or in the future. But you will need tenacity, the ability to work hard and thrive in the face of adversity. So whether you’re motivated to learn English to one day use it outside of school, or you’re just here to develop your work ethic and courage, it’s important that you find a reason for being here. It doesn’t matter how fragmented your sentences might be or how many mistakes you make. It matters that you try.
In return, I promise to be here and support you. I will push you and encourage you, and work with you to help you reach your goals; because I believe you have far more potential than you might give yourself credit for.
So let’s do this. Let’s work together to overcome the language barrier so we can keep getting to know each other and learn from each other. It’s time to step up our game and forget about excuses. Quitting is not an option. Let’s sit up straight, open our eyes and learn some English.