Classroom Perspectives, ESL and ELL, Featured, Professional Development

Finding Purpose in Teaching ESL

Finding Purpose in Teaching ESL

Originally published January 2021

By Angela Marre

I stood in the empty classroom surrounded by piles of boxes, the walls bare except for the crucifix hanging over the chalkboard. The room still seemed to echo faintly with laughter from Halloween parades and reactions to the Magic Tree House books I had read to my students. But as the memory of that laughter faded and all was silent, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was I going to do now?

I’d spent the last nine years teaching second grade at a local parochial school, and had thoroughly enjoyed my time there. But everything had changed in 2010 when it was announced that the remaining parochial schools in the city would be combined into one academy. This meant more than half of the teachers would be without jobs, as we couldn’t all go to the new school.

After months of interviews and meetings and rumors and general chaos, I finally received a letter in the mail: I wasn’t going to be offered a job at the academy. All that was left for me to do was pack up my classroom, so the supplies could be shipped off to the new school without me.

I was heartbroken.

After being laid off, I truly didn’t know what to do next. There were too many unemployed teachers and not really enough jobs. For a while, I debated leaving the teaching profession altogether. The past few months had been too hard and too draining. I thought about getting an office job instead, at a place where I wouldn’t be as emotionally invested.

It was my parents who convinced me to stick it out. They reminded me that teaching was something I loved, and that having passion for my chosen career was invaluable.

I did some substitute teaching for a while to try and gain experience working with different grades. I also decided to go back to school and start working towards a Master’s degree in ESL. During my years of teaching, I’d noticed that I frequently had students who spoke a language other than English at home, but parochial schools never offered ESL classes. My thought was that perhaps a degree in ESL would make me a better classroom teacher.

In 2011 I was hired as a building substitute at the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, MA. I covered classes during the day and attended graduate school at night. Then, two years later, I was told some permanent classroom positions were opening up, as was an ESL teaching position. I was at a crossroads. Which job did I take: the classroom one I knew so well, or the new and challenging ESL position?

I’d worked with a few of the English learners at the Banneker as part of my graduate thesis and had really enjoyed doing so. I liked finding new ways to teach material, and knowing that I could potentially make a difference in these students’ lives was very rewarding. Maybe this ESL job would give me the sense of purpose I’d been looking for. I decided to take it. I was equally terrified and excited.

ESL teaching was definitely different from the classroom teaching I was used to; however, I quickly realized that experience from my two years as a building substitute would come in handy in this new position. During those years I had formed relationships with the other teachers, and those relationships made it easier to start collaborating with them immediately. As much as the students I was now teaching were indeed my students, they also spent a great deal of time with their regular classroom teachers. I could only do so much during my time with these students during the day; if they were going to succeed, it was going to take all of the teachers working together.

I made it through my first year as an ESL teacher, and watched with pride as one particular student, Jayden, graduated 6th grade. He had moved to the United States from Haiti two years prior and was an exceptionally bright student. Throughout our time together I had seen him work very hard to develop his English language skills. When he was chosen to be the keynote speaker at the graduation, I was thrilled that his efforts had paid off.

I can still hear the gasps from the audience when he told them he had not been speaking English for very long. He spoke of having perseverance during difficult times and of never giving up. I remember thinking that he was wise beyond his years.

I have continued to teach ESL at the Banneker since then. Over the past six years I’ve taught students from all over the world, each of them bringing something new to my classroom and to my teaching style. My students never cease to amaze me with their never-ending drive to learn and their willingness to meet the high expectations set for them.

This past June I had the chance to touch base with Jayden. During a remote learning session due to COVID-19, I was working with his younger brother and Jayden came on the computer to say hello. He told me that he’d just graduated high school and had earned a four-year scholarship to a college near Boston. He truly had never given up.

That was when I realized: it’s not the Master’s degree that makes me a better teacher, it’s my students. They are the ones who challenge me to think differently and creatively. It is thanks to their enthusiasm and endless perseverance that I am able to continue growing and improving as a teacher, and that I am able to continue doing what I love.

*Student names have been changed.

Angela Marre has been teaching in the Boston area for 20 years. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts. She has one Master’s degree in Elementary Education from Eastern Nazarene College and a second Master’s in English as a Second Language from Cambridge College.