It doesn’t seem like such a radical statement, at least not to me. On the most basic of levels it is a question of supply and demand: I teach English and my students want to learn English. On a deeper and more personal level people want to be active participants in our communities and I want them to be able to share their gifts with the society I love and value. My immigrant family raised me to use my talents to benefit others. I never imagined over twenty years ago when I began a Masters in a relatively unknown program in the US called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) how controversial and necessary my chosen profession would become.
I learned about the importance English played in the life of an immigrant before I even started kindergarten. I knew my grandparents didn’t speak the same way I did, we understood each other well enough although we couldn’t use the same words. As long as they remained in the neighborhood, they didn’t need English, everyone spoke their dialect or at least proper Italian, but they wanted to learn it and wanted the same for their children. While neither of my grandparents ever achieved fluency, they were both able to communicate with the world outside of their community in Astoria, NY. All five of their children learned to speak impeccable English even with the primitive second language pedagogy in vogue in the middle years of the last century.
These days ESL is on the front line of the political debate about immigration. As an ESL educator, I really don’t care, my politics never impacted my career, but my philosophy always has. That philosophy values people so whatever help I can offer them is energy well spent. When students arrive in my class with a burning desire to learn English I don’t see titles, I don’t see green cards or passports, or the lack thereof, I see people, precious and valuable people who want to learn something to make their lives and the lives of their families better. When my father and his family pulled into New York harbor for the first time in 1957 people with my training were few and far between and my family suffered for it in many little ways. But just because it was difficult for them doesn’t mean that I have to stand by and allow it to be difficult for others.
I make a difference