What’s it like to teach ESL in Montréal: Part 2 (by Lauren Godfrey-Smith)

A few weeks back I wrote about the experience of teaching ESL in Montréal, and I talked specifically about the challenge of what to call ourselves. Are we ESL teachers, or EFL teachers? I didn’t really arrive at a definitive answer to my question, although on my private social media account my friends and I all thought that ‘English as an additional language’ (EAL?) is a more inclusive term than either ESL or EFL and we wholeheartedly agreed that the rest of the world (and the entire ESL/EFL community) should follow in our example and adopt this new – better – acronym. Now that we have that puzzle solved, let’s talk about a different side of the prism that is teaching EAL (alas, I don’t think it will stick, so I’ll continue with ‘ESL’ – under duress) in Montréal: who/where do we teach (or not)? This question is on my mind lately as my 4th-year B.Ed. (TESL) students continue their final field experience and get closer to graduation. Next week, we’re going to do job interviews simulations and they are all thinking about where they can (or can’t) find employment. It tells an interesting story…

To paint things that are not simple in simple terms, in Montréal, we have two kinds of public schools for secondary and elementary education (French and English). Schools in the English school board in Montréal usually don’t employ ESL teachers or offer ESL classes because the assumption is made (often erroneously) that students with the right to attend English school (ayants droit) must already speak English. This assumption is cultivated by a language policy (La charte de la langue français, or colloquially, Bill 101) that stipulates that only children or siblings of Canadians educated in English in Canada can attend schools within the English school board. For better or for worse, there are some exceptions, and these exceptions allow access to the English school board to students whose parents are temporary visitors to Canada, such as refugees or international graduate students. The children of these visitors may not speak any English at all, but attend English schools with little support for the development of their English as an additional language – because there are no ESL teachers at these school and no ESL classes. Their subject area teachers (e.g. math, history, etc.) are tasked with the job of helping these students muddle through as best they can while still trying to teach the subject matter in a way that is engaging and meaningful to all their students. In recent years, the Faculty of Education at McGill has started teaching content-area teachers about second language acquisition and pedagogy just to prepare them for this strange reality.

So, where does that leave soon-to-be ESL teachers poised to graduate and begin the stressful process of trying to find a job? Without the entire English school board as an option, by default most our graduates in Montreal will look for jobs in French schools (in fact, our B.Ed TESL program is specifically designed to cater to this reality – those graduates who find work in private language schools, cégeps, or overseas are the exceptions). These are schools where French is spoken as the primary language of instruction and administration. For the “native” English speaking teacher, it can seem intimidating to enter into a world where only French is spoken at work, except in your own classroom (if you get your own classroom – many don’t and refer to themselves as “trolley teachers”, moving from classroom to classroom over the course of the day). It can be an isolating experience. Many language teachers may be challenged by ideologies from students, staff, and parents about when, where, and by whom English should be spoken and taught. On the other hand, francophone ESL teachers might have to face similar challenges of their legitimacy in terms of whether a “non-native” speaker should be teaching English at all. These kinds of outdated ideologies about how, where, and by whom linguistic resources should be distributed can have a negative affect on the identity of the language teacher, whether or not she is perceived by those around her as a ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ speaker of the language of instruction.

For those teachers who do not find work in the public school system, there is always the private language school route, a world where popular language ideologies (like those mentioned above) collide with globalisation and commerce. That discussion, for another day, perhaps.

This post has been a lot about language and less overtly about belonging, idenity, and diversity. I’m left wondering about how the story told here might interplay with these issues that interest us here at BILD headquarters. Any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “What’s it like to teach ESL in Montréal: Part 2 (by Lauren Godfrey-Smith)

  1. Hi Lauren!

    Thanks so much for sharing this piece on teacher identity in EAL/ESL/EFL teaching. I think you get to the ‘diversity’ and ‘identity’ questions most precisely in your discussion of perceptions of ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ English speakers.

    My first paid job out of teacher’s college was as a ‘Native English Teacher’ in Hong Kong. Most of my most knowledgeable English teacher colleagues were ‘non-native’ speakers. These colleagues were much more experienced than I was. And they knew much more about the science of English language learning. What did I know? I knew how to speak English fluently. But, I was not fluent in teaching English as an additional language. I’d rate my EAL teaching skills as intermediate at best. I think if we are going to talk about ‘Native’ speakers, we also need to talk problematic and uncomfortable things. What assumptions are made about what counts as a ‘native’ speaker? And how is whiteness privileged in the economies of English language teaching?

    Thanks again for making me think!

    Thinking of you on this beautiful Hong Kong morning.



  2. I am currently teaching in a francophone environment and while I do love it, it’s most certainly a challenge. For me, the greatest issue is belonging; I really want to be involved, express my opinion, meet teachers from other departments, I find it really hard to participate in department discussions and meetings…but I am so constantly stressed that I will expose my lacklustre French!

    That being said, this is without a doubt the best place for me to pick up these skills! It is a welcoming and accepting college, where I don’t feel at all at fault for struggling in French. I place that stress on myself.

    On the other hand, I’ve spoken to both FSL and ESL teachers in my research, working in the opposite school boards, and for them, asserting their Frenchness or Englishness has most certainly been problematic and has been met with intersecting language ideologies. I’m glad you wrote about this, we really should talk more about the weird situation of ESL and FSL in Quebec.

    I wonder if anybody could tell us more about it from the FSL side of things?

  3. Not to mention the intimidating (and almost impossible-to-pass) French test that is required by francophone school boards! I just took it, for a rare 90$, and managed to pass one half of the test (yay!) but will have to pay another 40$ to re-take the half I failed (boo). For me, it’s an interesting lesson in gate-keeping. I think English native speakers are often given a free pass, and get to teach EAL without any, or very little, teacher training. I have to be proficient in not one, but two colonial languages. Maybe the french test gives a boost to job access to francophones who want to teach English, but it provides a serious barrier to hopeful English teachers coming from other backgrounds. Interesting things to think about! Thanks for the great post!

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