International students at Thanksgiving dinner, Photo and Feature Photo:Office of Technology Integration

Matador intern Mary Richardson shares about how you don’t necessarily need to leave home to gain multicultural ESL teaching experience.

When I graduated from college 14 years ago, I randomly fell into teaching ESL. I got a degree in English, and I just didn’t know what else to do. All these years later, I’m grateful I stumbled into the profession.

While I was initially attracted to ESL because of the chance to work abroad, some of my best teaching experiences actually happened at home in the United States. Working abroad has certainly been exciting and life changing, but I found teaching ESL domestically offers similar personal benefits.

1. It teaches global perspective

I taught ESL in Namibia, Japan, and the Czech Republic, and gained insight into those countries. However, I learned overall global awareness by working in the states. In particular, facing a class of different nationalities lets you observe students interacting with each other. This tells something about how the world fits together.

In addition, you receive first-hand accounts from students about their government and social systems. Students from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Mexico, and the Philippines taught me about world events by sharing cultural perspectives on their own countries. Because news coverage in the states can often be biased and spotty, I often feel that teaching ESL is like having access to unedited international news.

2. It breaks stereotypes

Living abroad challenges our established views of the world. But even simple exposure to a group of people through teaching can dispel wrong ideas. Growing up in an ethnically uniform community, I had little understanding of cultures and religions of the world. Teaching ESL allowed me to interact for the first time with different people.

Some of my most meaningful experiences have been with Muslim students, and given current stereotypes about Islam, I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’ve met students from a range of countries from Turkey to Saudi Arabia with varying relationships to their religion. It dissolved my own misconceptions, gave me more tolerance, and made me realize we can’t judge others because of our false ideas about them.

Kyrgyzstan, Photo: noviceromano

3. It teaches geography

I hate to admit it, but before I started teaching ESL, I never knew there was a country called Djibouti. I had heard of Kazakhstan, but I never knew Kyrgyzstan existed. I didn’t know that Macau, China was a Portuguese colony. Meeting students from all these places expanded my world.

4. It challenges assumptions about immigrants

For years, immigration has been an emotionally charged topic, and there’s no shortage of false ideas out there distorted for political effect. Teaching ESL to immigrants can be perspective changing in a positive way.

In my own case, I’ve developed respect for immigrants’ rights. I’ve been impressed with the level of commitment many have to learning English, integrating into American society, and contributing to their new chosen country. I’m also amazed at the hardships many suffer in transplanting themselves. My own close experience with immigrants has made me wary of negative portrayals, and I have a more informed perspective to consider current issues.

5. It makes you a better communicator

Interacting with people from around the world encourages one to learn different language registers. Some cultures speak in a way that is more reserved or argumentative; some are more joking and friendly.

This realization helped me avoid quick judgments about people based on how they express themselves. Moreover, it enhanced my teaching since I can now appeal to different students. This skill helps me in my personal life too. I’m better equipped in social situations. I can ruthlessly haggle down a price, have a philosophical conversation, and tell a raunchy joke all at one cocktail party.

Korean kimchi, Photo: issac’licious

6. It makes you a more inquisitive traveler

Teaching ESL in your own country introduces you to people from remote regions over the world. In addition to major destinations, I can’t wait to see some of the small villages where former students grew up. In fact, I once traveled to a tiny village in Turkey because a student raved about a special bakery there. I took a crazy taxi ride all over Seoul tracking down one student’s grandmother, a woman who had won a prestigious government award for the best kimchi. And I promise myself that one day, I will sunbathe on a recommended pink sand beach in Puerto Rico.

7. It supplies a wealth of trivia about the world.

Finally, it’s easy to pick up facts and skills from students, helpful to you in the most surprising ways. During a visit to Napa Valley, I won a bottle of wine because I knew that Shiraz originated in Persia. A former student used that tidbit as a way to introduce herself in class. I can make homemade gyoza from leftover Thanksgiving turkey because a Japanese student taught the class how to do it. I know a range of punk Mexican bands, and I can confidently hold my own in a salsa-dancing contest, all thanks to former students from around the world.

Community Connection

Are you an ESL teacher? What have your students taught you? Share in the comment section.

For more on teaching ESL at home and abroad, check out Matador’s Teaching ESL Focus Page.