5 Reasons Being an ESL Teacher is the Best Job Ever
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
— George Bernard Shaw
In the 10th grade, I remember my English lit teacher sharing this expression with us. It was confusing to hear him insult himself, especially since he’d end up being one of the best teachers I’d ever have. That might’ve been the moment I realized that teaching is somehow looked down on. Later, this idea would be reinforced when I discovered that teaching is sometimes be viewed as this sort of “Plan B” job you just fall into because you can’t really do anything else.
I wondered, how could anyone be proud of a job that’s held with such low regard? But then again, most professions have stigmas attached to them in one way or another. Teaching is hard, and it can take a huge emotional toll. Being a language teacher though … it’s a bit of a loophole because you get to experience a much wackier version of the struggle. I mean, don’t you remember your language teachers? Yeah, they were awesome.
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
— Frank Smith
After graduating from the University of Windsor with a BA in Psych, I left my hometown to study Education at McGill. Many years earlier, I’d visited Montréal and Québec City as part of a ten-day trip with my high school French class. At my school, French wasn’t required after the ninth grade, but one of my teachers convinced me to continue taking it. I’d been struggling with French, but she told me that if I stuck with it, I’d be able to travel more.
And that’s how I found myself in Québec for the first time. I remember loving that school trip; the cafés, the rolling hills in the countryside, and the European ambience of the cities. I couldn’t have imagined actually moving here one day. But many years later, here I was, a tiny fish in a very big and bilingual pond.
My original plan for the program I’d enrolled in at McGill was to become a Women’s Studies professor. Then, I changed my mind. I juggled a few student jobs, mostly in customer service, and I eventually realized that ESL could be a good next step for me to find a job and begin paying off my student loans. Since I wasn’t sure if I’d make it in Québec, I didn’t want to lock myself into the path of pursuing a brevet. So, I opted for the CELTA, something that would open up opportunities for me both locally and abroad. And that’s when the pieces clicked into place.
Overall, my educational experience was like building 3/4 of an IKEA table and realizing that the last piece I needed was in the wrong place. I had to go back, undo some things, and rebuild it right. This time, with the wisdom of experience. I’d even consider reading the instructions before starting again…actually, nah. I’ll just figure it out as I go; it’s more fun that way.
So, maybe you’ve made a career change (or two…or three). Maybe it’s your gap year or you’re still figuring out what you want to do later. Maybe teaching ESL started out in one of these ways, but you’re now realizing all the amazing things it has to offer. Whatever the reason, as an ESL teacher, you are without question:
1. Making a difference.
Imagine (…there’s no pandemic…) you’re landing in a foreign country, and you’re building a new life there. If you have to learn the language, your language teacher and classmates are like a lifeline to you. As an ESL teacher, you are that person to somebody who needs English, and since it is the current lingua franca, people need it more than ever.
2. Building a foundation for other languages.
Educating yourself on the grammatical structure of your own language can be helpful in improving your comprehension of other languages. So, if you haven’t already tackled a second language of your own, try it. It’ll give you a much-needed perspective on the experience of your students. You might find your own second language journey smoother after studying and gaining some teaching experience.
3. Sharing culture.
In a language class, you’re constantly teaching one another about your cultures and seeing your own cultures through new eyes. Something in particular I miss from the pre-pandemic era are the awesome potlucks my classes and I would share. This also forced me to learn what actual Canadian food is, because my sad boxes of Timbits couldn’t really hold a candle to the amazing dishes my students would bring in.
4. Having flexibility.
Maybe you’ve tried the 9–5 thing, and like many, it simply isn’t for you. We’re lucky to live in an era where we can opt out of it. When implemented properly, being an ESL teacher can be a great job to balance with other interesting pursuits such as writing, content creation, business coaching, youth mentorship, and game design (all of which can partially comprise the role of an ESL teacher). Which brings me to my next point:
5. Fulfilling an interdisciplinary role.
If you’re anything like me, you have a tendency to nerd out on pretty much everything you see or hear, and you are interested in literally everything. You might even get a few degrees in things you don’t end up using. In ESL, you can find a way to use them; it’s a perfect vehicle for sharing multiple areas of knowledge and interests, and the wider the range, the better.
“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”
— Rita Mae Brown
There you have it. The world of ESL is vast, ever-changing, and in my opinion widely misunderstood. I think there’s a need to debunk some myths out there that all you have to do to teach ESL is know how to speak English, that you don’t have to go to school for it, or that it should be treated like a stepping stone to something better. These all definitely echo doubts that’ve crept into my mind at some point; but, the longer I teach, the more I can see and appreciate the value of what I do.
All this to say, teaching is anything but an inability. If you ask me, it exists in a realm of its own as something beautiful and different. It isn’t any better or worse than “doing” something else. It simply is.