I have now been teaching ESL for 9 years (including my volunteer time), and what has stuck with me from the beginning is that we are not just teaching, we are providing a lifelong skill that could turn someone’s life around for the better. Teaching English as a second language is rewarding not only because we are in the position to improve people’s lives, but also because English language learners are some of the most appreciative students you will ever have.
The first time I taught English as a second language I was a 17 year old volunteer at the local county college. I have two memories from that time, the smile on my students’ faces and the effort they put forth throughout the class. I remember one student mentioning that her home country did not have such a thing as volunteers. She was in awe of our services and had such appreciation for the the opportunity to learn English.
Later, when I taught middle school ELL students I worked to help them flourish in the classroom. I built a relationship with them in a way I never got to experience when I was a high school Spanish teacher. The difference was astounding. Teaching Spanish as a foreign language was a privilege that most kids did not need or appreciate. Teaching English as a second language to middle schoolers was something for survival and a skill needed for life. We got to bond over sharing life stories, laughs, and of course some social studies and literacy content. We worked in small groups, versus in high school I had one large group for 40 minutes, taught the content and said goodbye. There was not much time for bonding, but maybe I did not know how to incorporate it in the early years of my career. On the other hand, maybe seeing my English learners in need of a caring adult and role model allowed me to change my approach as a teacher.
Now my career has changed quite a bit because I work online with ESL students, both adults and children. In some cases I don’t get to see their faces, but I can still hear their laughter and imagine their smiles. I get to visit China and Taiwan right from my home office and learn about Asian culture and perspectives. The students remain grateful for my services even though they are paying customers. They talk about the importance of learning English for their career and for their children’s success.
I have also recently started teaching adults Spanish online, and it is still interesting to compare the difference between anEnglish learner and a Spanish learner. They are both self-motivated, but those that want to learn English do it out of necessity for a better life. Here, in the States, you can have a better life without knowing Spanish. In the rest of the world, English can improve your life by increasing your salary some 25%. Whereas learning Spanish in the US only increases your salary by 1.5%. The motivation for learning a foreign language in the US has nothing to do with survival, it’s about self-improvement, personal growth, interest, etc. So when I end a class with a Spanish learner and I end a class with an English learner, what do you think the differences are? Most English learners say, “Thank you,” and most Spanish learners say, “Goodbye.” Of course there are exceptions for both students, but in the end my English learners have always been the most appreciative students I have ever taught. Necessity and your placement in the world changes that.
**No disrespect to my Spanish learners reading this! You guys are amazing and I am so grateful to have you as a student. It takes a lot of dedication and determination to continue on a path of language learning no matter what your circumstances are. Trust me, I have been through it myself.**