Reviewing writing with my student Norma. Photo by Nataly Smakhtina.
This blog post was prompted by a coffee date I had last weekend, with someone who wanted to know about my journey as a language teacher. It made me reflect: Wow, I have been doing this for ten years! What’s more: I’ve worked in many, many of the worlds of language education. Here is a round-up of those worlds, my big reflections, and where I envision going next.
Practicing English phone calls with a Japanese paper salesman in Vancouver. Quizzing a Chilean woman for the IELTS test. Preparing a Sri Lankan immigrant for the Canadian citizenship test. Now teaching Turkish to Canadians who work abroad… the diversity available in tutoring is something I love. Upsides: human connection on a one-to-one basis; ability to customize teaching. Downsides: can be emotionally draining; not sustainable as a full-time gig (for me anyway).
Private ESL Schools
I have forgotten the names of the big private ESL schools where I taught, which tells you something. For the most part, they are money-making machines, exploiting both students and teachers. My experience teaching at Eh Plus, though, was completely different. To my knowledge, it’s the only teacher-owned school in Vancouver. There, classes are 4-6 students max., students are a mix of international and newcomer, and the materials are provided so teachers can focus on having fun in class. It’s probably the only private school I would work at again, unless I was truly desperate. Upsides: opportunity to hone classroom teaching skills. Downsides: all the unpaid prep time; feeling like a cog in a machine.
Ahh, life abroad. Morocco. The Galapagos. The locations were so good that I suspected the jobs were scams until the moment I arrived. I mean, I had found them by Googling “ESL Jobs” and scrolling through international job boards. Happily, they were not scams. I swam with turtles and taught in flip flops. I learned Moroccan tile design and breathed jasmine on my way to evening classes. Upsides: learning other languages (Spanish, French, two kinds of Arabic); constant new experiences; opportunity to travel. Downsides: the money? In Galapagos I made $8/day, as I was technically a volunteer, and in Morocco I made about $800/month. Still, in both situations I spent so little, that I actually saved money. So no huge downsides, except potential homesickness.
Back to Canada. I volunteered at PIRS and ISS of BC before landing a series of paid contracts through the ELSA program, a government-funded program for new immigrants and refugees. Imagine a classroom of people of all ages, from difference countries, with different educational backgrounds, striving together to learn a new language and forging community in the process. It really is that awesome. Upsides: heart warmth; increasingly good curriculum and materials. Downsides: potential for burnout because the full-time positions tended to be split shifts, and part-time positions demand that you work a second job.
- Materials development in the Downtown Eastside: I scored a great summer contract to develop ESL materials for a community English program run by the UBC Learning Exchange, down on Main Street. I loved the work, learned a lot, and got paid well, though it was only 10 hours/week.
- Ecotourism in the Middle East: Last spring, I visited 5 village families in southeastern Turkey every week, to help them learn enough English to confidently host walking travellers, in a project with Abraham Path Initiative. It gave me a unique and valuable insight. I was a volunteer, but had expenses paid for.
- University language exchange program: I started UBC Tandem during my masters program, and when it grew, I actually convinced the university to pay me to run it and develop a handbook. The program is still going strong!
- Advanced English for the workplace: For the second time, I am teaching in a certificate program at SFU for newcomers. The students are thoughtful and passionate, I have full control over what I teach, and I am paid better than in any other position. The only catches: I have to commute to Surrey, and the 4-month program is not necessarily offered every year.
Big reflections on working in language education
I feel extremely lucky to have found, very early, a field that supports me financially, that allows me to work with diverse and compassionate people, and that pushes me creatively and intellectually. I also love the autonomy in the classroom and the range of jobs within education. These are the upsides for me, and I cannot imagine an office job knowing that teaching exists. The downsides: the money is not great for most jobs; job security and benefits are hard to find; and unless you or your employer really pushes for it, professional development and a strong community of teachers is rare.
Where I envision going next
These are some of the areas I can see myself growing into:
- More Turkish tutoring
- Offering Turkish classes
- Curriculum creation and development (for Turkish, English, writing…)
- Language exchange program development (especially for newcomers)
- Using my facilitation and mentoring skills in education around politics