This column will tackle the intersections of teaching ESL, language, the economy, immigration, the American middle class dream, and sometimes food.
At the turn of the 21st century I received a four-year English degree from one of the most prestigious public universities in the U.S.. Afterwards, however, I could only find work in office jobs that paid around $30,000 a year. Maybe I was expecting too much at the time; at least I had benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation time in these positions. I worked a second job modeling for art schools at night back then so I could earn extra money. After getting my hours reduced to half-time in 2008 as a result of the economic crisis, I went back to school to become an adult ESL educator, taking night classes at a private university so I could work during the day. That first semester I was laid off completely.
What I learned in graduate school was invaluable, and I see what happened in the economy as a bit of good fortune that pushed me to do something meaningful with my mind and my life; but, during those two years I had to rely on the services of the local food bank for groceries. The food bank system in Seattle is amazing, and truly helped me stay fed as I completed research for my thesis in preparation for my new career. They gave me so much food that the grocery stores were just going to throw away because of expiration dates. I would recommend it to even someone who is not financially straddled, and simply wants to prevent waste in our society. At one point I had so much in my fridge that was going to spoil, that I organized a dinner party for members of my cohort, not revealing to them where I received the goodies.
After graduating in 2010 with more than $40,000 in student loans, I found out that most community colleges only hire teachers part-time these days, and without benefits. On top of that, the market was saturated in my field and I had to hustle just to get one class. Luckily I got hired right after graduation through a personal recommendation, but actually ended up making less per month than before I had my Masters. The non-profits pay less than the colleges, many expecting teachers to work on a volunteer basis. (Let me clarify, it’s not that colleges pay too little per teaching hour, it’s that it’s difficult to get enough teaching hours. $35-$50 per hour is great, but to make a living one would need more than eight teaching hours a week.)
If you can get hired to work in another country, many overseas schools supposedly pay a living wage and then some. A great number of people get a TESOL Masters because they indeed want to live overseas, I suspect, or they have taught overseas before and want to gain additional clout in their certifications. So far I have taught in Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, and now California but have not been able to earn enough income to pay living expenses, bills, and student loan payments. Maybe I was too impatient. My husband and I have talked about going to live in Peru at some point, where he is from, because there is a famous adult ESL school in his hometown where I could utilize my degree. I was going to teach one night class this fall, but the Dean of Instruction at the local community college decided to drop half of the ESL classes according to the program coordinator, for reasons I am not sure of at this point.
That’s enough complaining for a moment. I don’t want this to be a depressing read. One perk of teaching ESL, in addition to how rewarding it is to see your students learn English and move on to improve their lives by starting college or getting better employment (you may be surprised that I will maintain that teaching is one of the BEST jobs), is that my students bring me delicious dishes to try from their home countries. Maybe I am guilty of encouraging this when I have asked honest questions like, “Do you know how to make kimchi? I want to learn how,” or “Where can I get good pupusas?” Dishes from China, Korea, El Salvador, Nepal, and many other places often unexpectedly land on my desk, or students bring them for the end of semester parties. Because I have had to live so frugally as a teacher, I sometimes joke that I am a teacher who “will teach for food.”
My husband now has a full-time salaried position (he is in the sciences, not the humanities,and has no student loans), so we can pay rent and most of our bills. However, I am thirty-five and still have to ask my parents for financial help from time to time. We live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and our living room doubles as a nursery for our three-month-old son. We are two adults with Masters degrees but are nowhere close to having the down payment for a house. We are just starting out, though, so we will hopefully be in a better position in a few years.
I recently received an email asking me to sign a petition to ask Obama to forgive student loans. Despite my large student loan debt, the federal government has been generous and flexible with my repayment. The interest is relatively low compared to our credit cards, and they have an income contingent repayment plan so that the monthly payment is according to what our family is earning at the moment. Student loan debt is part of the problem that is crippling individuals and families, but it is more than that.
To untangle the question of why I and many other ESL teachers are unable to find work, or full-time work, I am trying to think back to what I learned in high school economics. My Masters degree had a high perceived value that I was willing to pay quite a bit for. An education from a quality private institution like the one I attended, where the classes are small and professors focus on teaching, is indeed as MasterCard would say, priceless. It seems what do not have a high perceived value are teachers in my field, people who received a degree in order to educate immigrants, refugees, and international students in English. Our services are not worth a high amount in the scheme of our national economy. It appears that educating immigrants is not valued in our market. (Please, economics people, help me with these statements if I am wrong.) Maybe I should have paid more heed to one of the opening sentences of a textbook my first semester of graduate school, which was something like, “Beware: Do not enter this field if you are expecting wealth or fame.”
With the talk of immigration reform, I am hoping that there will be an increase in adult educator jobs. I am currently trying to get a local agricultural company to start an ESL program for the hundreds of undocumented immigrants it employs because I would like to work part-time while raising my son. Most of their employees barely speak English. I am wondering if the company will value English education, or if they see that once they pay for their employees to learn English, they could possibly leave the company to go out and get better paying jobs. Frankly speaking, you don’t need English to plant strawberries and clip roses.
I once had a student from India ask me, “Teacher, how much money do you make?” I laughed at his question. People from other countries always seem more open about topics of cost and earnings.
“$80,000 a year?” he ventured. “$60,000?”
“I make less than that,” I answered. “How much money do you make?”
“I make $50,000 a year, with benefits.”
“What is your job?” I asked.
“I repair machinery for Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Good for him. He was nineteen, less than a year in the U.S,. and already making that much. Maybe that’s a field all unemployed teachers should look into”¦ But then, how would people learn English? How would I order my donuts from the immigrants who I see working in Dunkin’ Donuts, or better yet, how would they get jobs outside of the sciences or engineering? How would the immigrants I order my donuts from and I have basic human exchanges such as, “Awful weather today isn’t it?” “Yeah, but it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow.” And, how would we all grow?
Reposted from my blog, Will Teach for Food. Will Teach For Food is actually the title of a book by Cary Nelson. I found this out after I thought of the title for my blog and then did a Google search to see if it was used already. I hope to read the book and let you know what I find out.