What I Wish Someone Had Told Me

I wrote this piece in 1996 for the MATSOL Currents (the Massachusetts TESOL affiliate's newsletter). It was reprinted in the TESOL employment newsletter a couple of years later. Unfortunately, the basic situation I wrote about then is no better now.

Permission is granted to any individual to forward this to any other individual for personal use. Sending it to someone who's thinking of becoming an ESL teacher is especially encouraged. Feel free to link to this site. (It would be nice if you sent me a note telling me if you do.) If you would like to post it on a website or print it in a publication, please contact me first.

Joseph Pettigrew
CELOP / Boston University
890 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02115

(617) 353-7838
fax: (617) 353-6195
jpettigr @ bu . edu

Many years ago, I sent letters to several graduate schools requesting information on their linguistics programs. Among the many forms and colorful brochures I got back was a letter from a department chair. In essence, it said, ďThis is an interesting field, but there are very few jobs, even for Ph.D.ís. Think carefully before you devote several years of your life to getting a degree with so few employment prospects.Ē (I went for a masterís in linguistics anyway, but it was nice to do it with my head clear about what the future held.)

I still remember that letter. It was one of the few times I heard any straight talk about jobs in academia. In that spirit, here is what I wish someone had told me about fifteen years ago when I was considering getting a masterís in ESL.

ESL is a rewarding profession in many ways. Financially, however, is not one of them. No one goes into education planning to get rich, but most people think theyíll be able to make a middle class living. And to be sure, there are many ESL teachers who have decent salaries.

ESLís dirty little secret, however, is that most jobs at the college and adult ed. level are part time with no benefits.

A couple of years ago, the MATSOL Employment Issues Committee, to which I belonged, conducted a survey of 13 higher education programs in eastern Massachusetts. They included most of the big institutions with ESL departments, both private (B.U., Northeastern, Harvard) and public (U/MASS-Boston, several community colleges). Among them, there were approximately 500 ESL teaching jobs. Just under 100 were full-time with benefits.

That doesnít mean, of course, that there were 400 different people working part time at these schools. While some people may only want a few hours a week as a supplementary income, many, if not most, ESL teachers patch together two, three, or more part-time jobs in order to make enough to live on. None of these jobs offers health insurance or a retirement plan. Many will not be there next semester when enrollment goes down.

If you stick around long enough, you may eventually be one of the lucky one hundred. I am, but like many people it was as much a question of being in the right place at the right time as having enough talent or perseverance. Iíve seen literally hundreds of good teachers go from job to job year after year, never landing that elusive full-time position. You may be willing to live like this at 25. Will you still be at 40?

According to other teachers Iíve spoken with at MATSOL, the situation in adult ed. is at least as bad as higher ed., while elementary and secondary education appear to be a bit better.

Things are made worse in Massachusetts by the number of colleges and universities churning out M.A.ís in TESL every year. Those colleges in the survey mentioned earlier rarely have trouble finding enough ďbodiesĒ (as one administrator Iíve heard about called them) to teach their courses. Many of the schools giving out those M.A.'s have some of the worst full-time/part-time employment ratios.

I know of no surveys like this for the rest of the country (and Iíve looked), but at TESOL every year I manage to talk to a few people from other parts of the U.S. I have yet to hear of a city or state with an abundance of full-time jobs.

No doubt, Iíll be called ďnegativeĒ by many who read this. Iíve been called worse. I challenge anyone, however, to point out what Iíve said here that isnít true.

In the interest of fairness, though, Iíll list a few of the good things about ESL. On a purely selfish level, what field besides education gives you so much vacation time? More seriously, working with people from other countries is an enriching experience. Thereís a variety to this job that you donít get sitting in an office all day. And the feeling that - at least once in a while - youíve helped someone, really made a difference in someoneís life, is one that can compensate for a lot of gaps elsewhere. Whether thatís enough for you, only you can decide, because - to be negative again - those may be the only real rewards you get.

So what should you do? Go for that MBA after all? I offer the following suggestions:

(1) Ask yourself why you want to go into ESL. It is because thereís nothing else to do with a B.A. in French, English Literature, or Psychology? Maybe thereís more than you think. Talk to a career counselor. Donít rule out other possibilities. If ESL is still what you want to do, ...

(2) Talk to other teachers in your specific area of interest. Whatís the job picture really like in elementary ed. or at community colleges? You canít get this information from the admissions officers in your masterís program. Talk to them, too, of course, but find some ďcombat veteransĒ to get the whole story. Then if youíre still interested in pursuing a degree, ...

(3) Try not to ring up a huge debt getting your masterís. Some programs are more expensive than others; some may offer paid teaching positions while youíre working on the degree to offset some of the cost. Youíre not going into a high-paying field. If youíre facing years of loan repayments, make sure the monthly rates are something you can afford.

After all this, Iím not saying that you shouldnít go into ESL. But go in with your eyes open.