So you think you can teach English?

By Raichle Farrelly

English language teachers can attest to the fact that teaching English as an additional language (EAL) is not something that you do well simply because you speak English. Sure, we all know that one person–a friend, a cousin– who stepped off the plane in a non-English speaking country and landed a job teaching English simply for being a native speaker. But as long as they have even a little self-awareness, I’m sure they would attest to wishing they had been better prepared for the responsibility at hand.

 Fifty TESOL professionals gathered at the first annual Student Conference on Language Teaching, on April 8. Photo by Raichle Farrelly
Fifty TESOL professionals gathered at the first annual Student Conference on Language Teaching, on April 8. Photo by Raichle Farrelly

Those of us who spent years earning a Bachelor’s, Master’s and even a PhD in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and/or Linguistics would be happy to complicate the narrative for you. In a 2007 brief from TESOL International, the board of directors noted that

“TESOL is a unique, multifaceted academic d

iscipline and profession, encompassing aspects of theoretical and applied linguistics, second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, language pedagogy and methodology, literacy development, curriculum and materials development, assessment and cross-cultural communication.” They added that a terminal degree for teaching positions in English as a second, foreign or additional language is a Master’s degree in TESOL.

Perhaps, then, you can imagine how we TESOL professionals might get our hackles up when people assume anyone can do our job or that all we do is cut colored paper strips, watch movies in class, and play games like Bingo and Memory. We’ll likely smile, but know that asking us to prepare an undergrad to work with English Language Learning students (ELLs) in one meeting is simply not possible–nor is it fair.

As a second language teacher educator, my concerns run deep and touch on issues of educational equity. People learn English for countless reasons; some do so out of necessity (e.g., refugee and immigrant background populations), some do so out of desire or curiosity (e.g., to access media in English), some do so because globalization demands it (i.e., English is the Lingua Franca of the world today)–and the list goes on. Regardless of why people decide to learn English (or any subject for that matter), they deserve high quality instruction delivered by a trained professional. For me, it’s another aspect of social justice and thus I’ve devoted my life and career to professionalizing the field of TESOL through teacher education.

In an effort to contribute to the field, we publish, we present, we provide workshops, we serve in leadership roles, and we mentor other TESOL professionals. This year, on April 8, the MA TESOL Program at St. Michael’s College contributed to the cause by hosting the first annual Student Conference on Language Teaching. This event, organized by students in the MA TESOL Program, brought 50 TESOL professionals together to grapple with challenges in our field, to share innovations from our practice, and most importantly – to network and build professional relationships. Among those in attendance were graduate students, K-12 educators, higher education faculty, and educational consultants. Attendees came from Vermont and surrounding states. Among the presenters were some of our MA TESOL students, including Sophia Chen from China and Francis Manga from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as local educators and TESOL leaders, such as Beth Evans from Burlington High School and Sarah Forbes from JFK Elementary.

As an anchor institution for one of the most diverse communities in Vermont, St. Michael’s College has a responsibility to be engaged in the community in a way that benefits all those involved–students and educators. Given the high number of ELLs in our neighboring communities, we see our work as TESOL professionals to be paramount to mutually beneficial partnerships and experiences. In our commitment to ensuring this work is done with integrity and value, we welcome conversations about the field, about our practice, and about opportunities for being involved in ways that honor the richness that our ELLs bring to our community and our classrooms. So you think you can teach? I think so too. Let’s talk about it.

Raichle Farrelly is an assistant professor of Applied Linguistics