The Intangible Rewards of Teaching English as a Second Language

Today’s guest post was written by Michelle Bagwell, a member of the May 2011 cohort who graduated in May 2012. Fight on!

It’s no secret that those of us who decide to become teachers don’t do it for the money. Most people that pursue this job have a sincere desire to help others learn. We begin the profession a bit altruistic, idealistic and perhaps even a little bit naïve. New teachers want to change the world one student at a time, and we believe that we can do it, or at least I did. When I graduated from college and received my teaching credential, I truly thought that my passion for English literature would be infectious and that I could instill it into every student that I was going to teach. I believed that the previous teachers had not been able to convince the students how fun and exciting reading could be. I knew that I would be able to do it if just given the chance.

When I began my first teaching assignment, reality set in.

With NCLB, there is often not enough time to teach outside of strict parameters of the curriculum to ensure that the students are academically prepared for the state’s standardized test. I have taught in California, Hawaii, Arizona and Texas and in each of these states there was such pressure from administrators to meet AYP that teachers were left with very little time to construct lessons that would deviate from “The Test” at all throughout the school year.

There are variables in every class that new teachers don’t factor in while envisioning their school year. Often times there are students that are chronically absent, have familial problems or behavior problems that restrict their attention and focus in school. There are also students that may have learning disabilities or are limited English proficient in the same class with students that are reading two levels above their grade. The challenge for a teacher to provide differentiated instruction for such a range of levels in one class can be overwhelming and daunting for an veteran teacher, much more so for a new teacher.

Finally, some students just hate to read. Most people tend to not want to do things that they are not good at. I shy away from math because I have always struggled in that subject. Some students just don’t like to read. It is hard for them. I could give the most convincing “book talk” and tell them how amazing a book is, but it would fall on deaf ears. They may be excellent in other areas, but reading is just not their thing. It took me a long time to realize that it is not my failure as a teacher, but that some people just aren’t readers, and that is okay.

My images of fostering a world full of blossoming readers was quickly eclipsed by the reality of actual challenges. As I continued my teaching career, I felt that there had to be a way to recapture the initial inspiration that led me to teaching in the first place. I decided to become an ESL teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students who struggled with English in a country that they must use it for nearly everything that they do.

I graduated with my TESOL degree in May, 2012. Due to the reputation of The University of Southern California, I had a job at Montgomery College teaching ESOL before I had even received my diploma. My first assignment was teaching a literacy class at a night school for three hours a night, four nights a week. My students consisted of immigrants from all over the world that did not have more than six years of education in their home countries. They were illiterate in their first language, and I was assigned to teach them English. The task seemed daunting and overwhelming. Having just graduated, I knew that I had the tools, but the challenge seemed to be so great that I wasn’t sure of how successful I would be.

To my delight and surprise, I have undoubtedly learned more from these students than I could have ever imagined. Their effort and dedication have been absolutely inspiring to me. Each of my students have come from impoverished countries with the hope for a better life. They work from early morning until the evening as housekeepers, mechanics and landscapers, then they go on to learn English at night. They were in class on time. They studied during their breaks. Each one of my students is my hero for working so hard to overcome the challenge of learning English.

There is one student, Lucia, who is from El Salvador. She came from a family of seven, none of whom went to school. When she entered my class she could only write her name. She had no letter or number recognition in any language. After being in my class for sixty instructional hours (she did not miss one day of school), she not only knows the alphabet, but she can actually read short words! She recently told me that she scheduled a dental appointment in English for the first time. Her progress has been amazing and I am in awe at how far she has come in such a short amount of time. I have no doubt that she will be able to speak English fluently one day. To be able to witness this transformation is the equivalent of winning the lottery as a teacher. I may not be paid much, but there is no price to put on the pride that I feel for her and the success of others in my class.

I have new found joy and hope as an ESL teacher. The students that I teach have enabled me to return to my original reasons for this vocation. I went into teaching to help others and make a difference in people’s lives. I finally feel that I am doing just that, and they have most assuredly done the same for me.