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Beth's Lesson

October 7, 2021
By Mike Meagher

Elisabeth Gatbonton died on November 28, 2017. She had taught at Concordia for a number of years. I was one of her students, having taken her methodology class, and I later worked with her on a TESL anniversary project. I think of her as a friend, and want to write about her because she taught me a great deal. And it is in her sharing spirit that I tell what I learned from her.

Traditionally, when writing about an academic, the author lists accomplishments, publications, and achievements. This is not my purpose here. Here, I wish to describe the human person, the energy, the insight, the self-discipline: never stern, but always present.

For example, When I was in Beth’s methodology class, my partner and I happened to instruct the class of Tyndale ESL students on the grammar issue of uncountable nouns. The English language often uses uncountable nouns when speaking of food, milk, juice, salt, beef, etc. 

And so it struck me. An “aah haa” moment! The Canadian Food Guide – the perfect teaching tool! Colorful, helpful, interesting. And it was available for free from our helpful and generous government. So off to the federal government offices I go, where I am given the last few copies available. The Canadian food guide was being replaced with a new and improved version, so I was able to take the few copies left, which was enough for every ESL student. The guide was popping with uncountables: rice, butter, juice, all displayed on a plate of balanced nutrition.

The Methodology class was at 9:00 in the morning, I believe. My teaching partner and I were nervous, but prepared. Beth was nice, compassionate. And we had the food guide, what could go wrong? Well, I could go wrong.

I started by giving out the Canadian food guide, while at the same time talking about the  grammatical points. Some nouns are countable and some are uncountable. Individual things like a chair, a pencil, can be  counted and made plural, while abstractions, and items too difficult to count are…I looked at the students. Most of them were looking at the Food Guide, but those looking at me were in a fog, a deep and confounding fog. Beth stopped me. She said, “Let me teach this for a moment” and then she started. The students looked up and listened, and Beth connected with them. I remember watching her face, and her eyes lit up and sparkled. The students no longer looked lost but interested. Beth immediately involved the students. “Which words were plural, which were not? Do I say the rice is cooked, or the rice are cooked? The butter is here, or the butter are here?”  The students seemed to instinctively understand, but I felt terrible.

No TESL student in our methodology class had ever been interrupted by the professor mid-stream. Well, it just happened to me. I simply stood aside, and Beth kept going. And she was great! The sparkle in her eyes was wonderful to see, and that electricity seemed to spread to all of the Tyndale students. They were having fun. And I felt even worse. Beth must have sensed this. She stopped teaching and turned to me and said, “I am sorry, Michael, I just love teaching, and I got too involved.” 

Everyone could hear her. She had interrupted me and had done so for the love of teaching. She could not help herself. I was no longer ashamed. The lesson I was learning as a teacher was not painful, but helpful (involving the students). But much more lasting was my memory of Beth and her electric, sparkling eyes. She loved what she was doing. She loved the craft of teaching. And she was a craftswoman.

This lesson in energy and love for teaching was followed by a number of direct and applicable concepts that were super helpful as a novice teacher and as a seasoned and “grizzled veteran”. As a language teacher, your goal is automaticity: to teach the individual components of language in different ways, using different methods, forms, and info gaps, that always result in student production (fluency and accuracy).  

The first year of teaching can be hard, emotionally and intellectually. Have faith in yourself. Other people have faith in you. You have the degree. Work and work hard. Beth said that when she was in the Philippines, this was her “ticket out”. She knew she had a good mind, but she worked and worked, learned and learned. In her book Bridge to Fluency, she writes to the student, “I hope you have fun doing the activities prepared for you. Have fun!”  That was Beth. She made a lot of people happy. I still feel happy to have known her.

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