Teaching in Canada when English is your L2

As you may know, teaching a foreign language is no small feat. It involves deeper knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, phonology, discourse and functions. It also involves methodology, training, practice, experience and vocation – though teaching anything also requires these.

Now imagine teaching a language that is foreign to you in a country where that very language is the official one. Yep, I guess you get my drift.

So this has been my reality for the past 8 years. And this blog is about what it felt like to me in particular. It may feel differently to different people.

Language Proficiency and Certifications

As part of teacher knowledge, it is probably a good idea to have a proficient level of English if you are teaching English, regardless of your place of birth. While you might not need to prove it, it is always easier to make a point if you have evidence to back it up.

Another box to check is the ‘certification’ one. Again, this has nothing to do with which language one speaks: everyone is required to have a TESL certificate to be able to teach ESL in Canada.

Preconceptions and Misconceptions

Native-speakerism is alive and well, sadly. It is the (mis)conception that native speakers of a language make better teachers. You can read more about it here.

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It would be naive to think that such “ideology” would have no place in Canada, although I must admit it is a very inclusive country. Still, regardless of my qualifications, certifications and experience, I ended up feeling that there was that extra bit to prove.

Fortunately, there were only two instances where my knowledge or ability as a teacher was questioned by students. The first was right when I first started and it had more to do with the fact that the student didn’t want to do any work than my ability to deliver. I did go to my DOS when I felt something wasn’t going well and had his support 100% through the process.

The second one was quite interesting. It was a more mature student from my home country. We had been having classes for a week and she was quite happy with it all until she learnt that we were both from the same place. She requested to change classes to a “native teacher” immediately and explained to me it was nothing personal. The funny thing was that a couple of other students took offence and were quick to let me know what they really thought about that other student.

Being a good teacher has nothing to do with the place where you were born. I’ve previously discussed whether being a native speaker has any bearing on being a good teacher here.

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My fellow teachers, for the most part, were welcoming and tended to take it for granted that I was exactly where I should be. That, of course, apart from the couple of times that the second question they’d ask me – after “how are you” – was “where are you from?”. I’ve also discussed the impact of this seemingly innocuous question here.

Accents and names

People sometimes equate accent to knowledge (or lack thereof) and this is extremely unfair – to say the least. First off, everybody has an accent: Australians do, Neo Zealanders do, South Africans do, Canadians do, the Welsh do, the Irish and the Scottish do, North Americans do and so do the English (and all others who speak English as L1).

Accents indicate identity. Accents make you unique. Accents have nothing to do with knowledge.

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Now, incorrect pronunciation may be a different story; however, not every slip means lack of knowledge or lack of proficiency. Newsflash: native speakers may mispronounce words too. Nobody is infallible.

Even more appalling is the way that teachers with anglicized names may be preferred over others. Hundreds of years have passed and little have we learnt from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Opportunities

Canada is a country that welcomes and incentivizes immigration; it is a place where speaking a second language is almost a given. This means the workplace is made up of people of different backgrounds.

Canadians and new Canadians share the workplace in pretty much any industry that there is. There are plenty of Canadian trained teachers as well as internationally trained teachers. Nationality is not (or should not be) a determining factor in the hiring process. And I can say for a fact that where I used to work, teachers were hired based on their training, experience and knowledge regardless of their place of birth.

In the end, in spite of the hurdles, in spite of my grappling with an impostor syndrome (anyone else?), in spite of working extra hard, the message I want to convey is that it is possible to be successful as an ESL teacher in an English-speaking country regardless of your place of birth. Just don’t give up and don’t give in.


Melissa has been working in ELT for nearly 20 years and holds an IELTS, a CPE, a CELTA and a Delta M1.

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