First hurdle: learning English

Largely unnoticed by most homegrown Edmontonians, English as a Second Language education plays an increasingly foundational role in our booming economy. With foreign workers arriving at a steady pace from every corner of the globe, the need for convenient and affordable ESL education is growing.

According to the Government of Alberta’s 2011 Immigration Progress Report, the number of immigrants arriving in the province each year increased 57.6 percent from 2006 to 2010. In that period, 60.5 percent of newcomers were considered “Economic Class” and were looking for education or job opportunities. Whether they enrolled in post-secondary programs, learned a trade or simply sought to become a citizen, their first and most difficult step was often learning English.

“People’s motivation for being in an ESL class are quite varied,” says Lisa Rochman, chair of Language Training at Norquest College, “but the ultimate goal of settling and establishing themselves in Canada is the driving force.”

Norquest provides career-oriented learning opportunities and is recognized for its ESL offerings. As such, most of its ESL faculty holds high-level education degrees with a specialization in teaching English as a second language, as well as TESL accreditation. However, experience is only part of what makes a successful ESL teacher.

“Education and experience are critical, but they can’t replace the drive or passion for teaching,” Rochman says. “Many love what they do and this is something the students can see and feel. And that’s critical. You need that spark, plus the education and training in order to really make a career of this.”

Amrita Gill, an ESL teacher with the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association, agrees that when it comes to teaching language, there are numerous factors that make a great experience. She says that alongside the language, students are eager to learn about all aspects of Canadian history and culture, from politics to aboriginal issues.

“I try to include all of these things, and it’s important to include different voices in your classroom,” Gill says. “So if you have an opportunity to bring, say, an aboriginal elder into your classroom, it gives students a different perspective.”

Since ESL teachers typically play a larger role than simply providing students with the ability to communicate, it’s essential to be well attuned with Edmonton’s social-services offerings to help newcomers have the smoothest possible transition.

“Often you’re the first person they look to for help with everything from how to make a resumé to where they can find low-cost daycare services, or where they could register for recreational programming. You’re connecting them to services within the community, so it’s nice to have that social work background.”

While the number of ESL teaching jobs hasn’t increased dramatically in the city, the types of opportunities are changing. Rochman says that she sees a significant change in how proactively companies are catering to immigrant populations.

“Intercultural communication training is being recognized as important for immigrants in the workplace,” she says. “It’s important for the immigrant worker as well as for the employer. And this type of training often happens in-house at companies.”

And with the increasing use of technology in the classroom, ESL learning is changing just like any other subject. While it has traditionally been taught face-to-face with students meeting many times per week, new opportunities are arising through web-conferencing and online asynchronous classes.

From the non-profit point-of-view, a career in ESL isn’t always financially fruitful, but opportunities are consistent even as they shift online. Gill says that even if governments have looked to streamline learning and cut costs, ESL specialists can always find work as online instructors or curriculum developers.

“It’s not very easy to make a career out of ESL,” Gill says. “You’re always dependent on funding to keep your job. But as long as the government continues to receive funding and as long as we have immigrants, yeah, you can make a career out of it.”

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