“You’re Not a Real Teacher”: Reflections on Adult ESL

May 19th, 2015 | By | Category: Adult, Conferences, Levels, Regional
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new recropped photo of Greg Dobie

Gregory A. Dobie

By GREGORY A. DOBIE

—In 1998 I was teaching an adult ESL class for a public school district in San Antonio. The class met at night in a middle school. One evening I needed to get access to a classroom, so I asked the custodian for a key. He told me that he couldn’t give me the key, saying, “You’re not a real teacher.” I understood what he meant—I wasn’t one of the teachers who taught middle school students during the day—but his comment has stayed with me as a good description of how adult ESL teachers are viewed.

IN MY OPINION

I recently attended the 2015 Los Angeles Regional CATESOL Conference, titled “Innovate, Transform, Inspire.” After a full day of going to sessions, viewing exhibits, and conversing with other attendees, I came up with a different title: “Why Isn’t Adult ESL Teaching Respected as a Full-Time Profession?” From speakers and attendees alike I heard such comments as “I’m a freeway flyer,” “The trunk of my car is where I keep all my materials,” “I don’t have my own classroom,” “My hours have been cut,” “I’m kept below the benefit level,” and so on. These are the same kinds of comments I have heard since the late 1980s, when I began teaching. With the increasing professionalism of the adult ESL field since that time—certificates and degrees, conferences, credentials, organizations, and publications—why is adult ESL teaching still treated as if it were some kind of volunteer activity?

The CATESOL conference did offer a novice teacher strand, which covered such issues as finding teaching positions, and lunchtime rap sessions, which touched on workplace-related topics, but I felt in some ways as if we were fiddling while Rome burned. In the past few years, adult ESL programs have been cut or canceled in Alhambra, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Oakland, and other California cities, with ESL teachers losing their jobs. Uncertainties surround the implementation of AB 86, which is to establish Regional Consortia of community colleges and public school districts in California for the purpose of providing adult education, including ESL instruction. A growing shift from credit to noncredit courses, the economic impact of a strong dollar on foreign enrollment in US programs, scholarship funding decisions by countries such as Saudi Arabia, the effect that Obamacare regulations will have on employers—these are other issues with a direct bearing on the well-being of adult ESL teachers.

As part of a future CATESOL gathering, I would like to see a presentation by the organization’s advocacy team, an open-mic discussion for all conference participants, an analysis of the types of educators in attendance, a resource guide of ESL employment requirements, a job board, a booth with California workforce and unemployment information, and a panel with teachers’ union representatives, government officials, and school administrators. Certainly there are other suggestions that could be added to this list—why not solicit the membership?

I’m glad I attended the recent conference—I gained valuable information and was happy to see colleagues from several of my teaching locations. But I attended out of concern for my livelihood more than from a need to learn new teaching strategies. I am a real teacher, and I want to be treated like one, with a stable job, with benefits, with a classroom, with an office, with tenure—with professionalism.

 

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