As a twenty-four year old teacher of adults, most of my students are older than me; however, I have one student who is actually my age. It’s a bit of a weird dynamic, because we could be friends, but as his teacher I am a sort of role model for his new country. I have a lot of respect for this guy; he’s smart, creative, and driven to succeed. He’s great to have in class because of these things, but I also like that he offers yet another perspective of the Canadian experience. My older students have children, and I’m sure they’d like to know what their kids will be going through soon enough.
The other day, this student (let’s call him Andy) came up to me during the afternoon break. I could tell by his tone of voice and the look on his face that he was worried about something. When that happens I get a little nervous, because I only have so much knowledge and resources to help my guys and I want the best for them. I asked him what was up.
“Do you think that I’m late?” He asked. “I mean, if I have to do one more year of ESL, and then I start university…am I going to be late?”
“You mean, are you going to be much older than everyone else?” I clarified. “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. I know plenty of people who took the years after high school to work and figure out what they wanted to do. Many of my friends went through school at different points in their twenties.”
“Yeah, but they will have Canadian experience,” he countered. “I just have Korean experience.”
I rushed to reassure him. “That’s not true! You’ve been in Canada for a year, working, going to school and living. That counts. Even the people I know who have two degrees aren’t ahead of you; after school, everyone will be starting from zero.”
Andy seemed to be a little bit soothed after that, but I could tell that his insecurities ran deeper than I could attempt to quiet with a few anecdotes about my friends. Really, I understand his concern: the two or more years it takes to learn English can feel like an eternity for these newcomers, and worst of all, they feel like they have put their lives on hold. They have a decision to make, not just once, but over and over as their mettle is tested: should they invest their time, money, and energy into acquiring a high level of English, thus qualifying them for further education or re-entry into their previous vocations? Or, do they learn the bare minimum necessary to get a job, start providing for themselves and their families, but limit their potential for career growth?
Of course, as a teacher and as a university graduate, I would be the first to promote education. My own belief is that continuing studies are essential to personal growth and, in our society, are a mandatory ticket into the world of wage security. On the other hand, I’ve never been in a position to receive social assistance. I have worked for Ontario Works, and I do know that the amount you get to live off of is a pittance (seriously, could you live off of $23/week for groceries?). I’ve been financially insecure as a student, and lived off of credit – but I could also see the end to my temporary financial scarcity, and I knew I would come out with a degree that would make the debt worthwhile. I can only begin to imagine the desperation some of these immigrants feel to get out of poverty and move on.
To be frank, many of them do choose immediate financial independence over long-term gain. They think, “Well, if I can just work for a few months, I’m sure my English will improve.” They have massive guilt about coming to Canada and relying on the country’s social safety net the second they get their residency cards. Their pride gets in the way of logic: “I spent X number of years providing for myself and my family in my own country. I can do the same here. I don’t need help.”
But you know what? They do need help. They leave school for promised full-time employment at minimum wage, and eighteen months later they get laid off, and re-enrol. They spend years working at gas stations, convenience stores, and cleaning office buildings, chatting up anyone who will listen for “practice,” then go home and study for professional exams that they will fail again and again because their reading and writing skills are poor, and their job-specific vocabulary is nonexistant. They work two jobs for the American dream of putting their kids in soccer and ballet, then have no time or patience to show up to games and recitals. Years go by, and they realize they are stuck until they can speak like the natives.
I’ve painted a pretty grim picture here, I know; but this is the undercurrent of my students’ lives, and if I don’t recognize that as an instructor I will fail at providing for them efficiently and effectively. My conversation with Andy was a reminder of the great insecurity and self-doubt that he and others continually experience, and I am humbled to know that my opinion and my advice can make or break their resolve to continue. For Andy, I know this was a moment of weakness for him: he’s strong and resilient, and he’ll be one hell of a successful Canadian one day. But until that time, I can only hope that he continues to find points of motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, that will keep him on the path.