Teacher Feature: Estherlene Moya, English Language Center Instructor
- Jan 24, 2022
- English Language Center
- Ellen Stader
[Editor's Note: This story is part of a Texas Global series celebrating the work of faculty members in the English Language Center at The University of Texas at Austin.]
Besides exemplary language learning, the English Language Center (ELC) at The University of Texas at Austin offers comprehensive social and cultural immersion activities. These set it apart from other English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, as does its exceptional faculty. This profile delves into the teaching experience of Estherlene Moya, one of the ELC’s most esteemed instructors.
How did you become a teacher at UT Austin’s English Language Center?
By the time I was hired at the ELC, I already had a long history as an ESL teacher at Crockett High School in Austin and the EF International School at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). I also taught and worked as a program coordinator and supervisor at the Texas Intensive English Program (TIEP).
I made lasting friends and learned from some of the best in the ESL field during my time at the EF International School and TIEP. However, I still am thankful to have hit the Send button to ask [ELC Director] Mike Smith for an interview. When he set up the interview, I was ecstatic. Being hired at that stage of my career both invigorated and scared me. I’ve never regretted the move.
How long did you teach at the ELC, and when did you leave?
I taught at the ELC for 10 years before I retired in May 2017. However, I became a “retire-rehire,” which allowed me to keep a toe in the international waters, so to speak. The last class I taught was in 2020. After that, we were faced with the pandemic, and retirement was exactly where I wanted to be.
What is your best teaching memory?
Finding a “best” memory over so many years is difficult, for I’ve had lots of amazing teaching memories. However, a couple stand out:
First, at the ELC, a colleague and I developed a writing course that challenged students to find the words to express feelings, which is quite difficult in a foreign language. They would look at me with skepticism when I would tell them to “just start writing.” However, by the end of the course, they could easily write 500-700 words without blinking. The resulting stories about their families or the challenges they faced in their home countries and the U.S. touched me in profound ways. Their joy and pride in how far their writing had come in 14 weeks was a gift.
A second memory was of working with many Arabic speakers, some with near-native proficiency in English and others who could barely eke out a few words. I encouraged Mike Smith to add a Foundations course to give the beginning students more contact with English and help them understand the process of applying to American universities. What an adventure, to see their smiles when they began to understand and make those connections. I would see students go from Level 1 proficiency to being accepted into American universities. Amazing!
What has teaching taught you?
In Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” he writes:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / gang aft agley
No matter how well we plan, there’s no guarantee of success. Coming to terms with that reality helped me understand teaching. I could plan an immaculate, perfect lesson, and it would be a total bust in the class. Other times, I’d just have some notes scribbled on a sheet, and somehow it worked like a charm. One does one’s best and hopes that the plans don’t “gang aft agley” too much.
What did you learn over the years that you didn’t know when you started teaching?
I didn’t realize how all-consuming it can be. I had no clue in the beginning that I would have to literally tell my mind to stop thinking about teaching or an upcoming lesson. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night to write down an idea.
For many years, I was either planning a lesson, executing that lesson, grading papers, talking to colleagues about an ESL point, or thinking about the next week and where I needed to get my students. This routine can be exhausting. But don’t get me wrong; it’s also invigorating.
What do you wish more people understood about learning a language?
I suppose it boils down to these things:
1. Language learning is a long journey, not a short trip.
2. If someone cannot tolerate ambiguity, language learning will not happen fast. Ambiguous situations occur often in a foreign country. If they cause undue stress or anxiety, language learning is stymied.
3. Culture shock is real, and it’s vital to seek friends, family or teachers to help, especially in overcoming the depression stage, which can really impede cultural learning. [With help], eventually one reaches an acceptance of the new culture and language.
4. Classroom instruction is not enough to make significant improvement in any language. It’s also important to have experiences OUTSIDE the classroom, like joining school-sponsored activities or trying to make friends through other social activities.
What has motivated you the most over the years?
That’s easy: It’s the students! And goodness, the students I’ve met.
Students who come to the ELC knowing little English and having not one friend when they arrive, then finish our program with a circle of international friends and the language skills to take them to an American university.
Young boys fresh out of high school in Angola, coming here to learn new skills to help their country. Students from war-torn countries who have known only war—to see them in an experiential learning situation, soaking up every tidbit so they can go back home and help.
Adult students who have left family, friends and jobs to pursue their academic dreams. Crazy-smart kids who overcome that English barrier; take the SAT, ACT, or GRE; then graduate from American universities, some with honors.
I was humbled every time I met these amazing international students. They were forever my motivation.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Teaching ESL to international students is a dream. Although I haven’t traveled the world, the world came to me. Every semester, I met interesting people from all walks of life, each of them truly motivated to learn English. I was excited about finding new ways to reach each new group because I didn’t want to let them down.
What have you found most difficult about teaching?
Finding the best way to teach a particular group of students tests me the most. A teacher needs to engender a certain amount of “buy-in,” and sometimes that’s hard. All students need to feel as if they’re learning something that benefits them. I’ve had students disagree with my methods or things I say, and I have to use all my patience and inner resources to convince them that I’m being straight with them and want all the best in their learning.
How are you spending your time now?
I can do whatever I want because I’m retired! I read, play around with plants, walk, write, and have lunch and coffee with my friends. My husband and I find much joy in cooking together. We also walk several miles each day. Most importantly, I’m a grandmother to four wonderful grandchildren, and I babysit as often as I’m called on. My husband and I relish having get-togethers with our twin sons and their precious families.
I can’t emphasize enough how much I learned at the ELC. I am forever grateful for [the directors’] confidence in my abilities, and I feel fortunate to have finished my ESL career at UT.