Catherine Johnston is a tenured faculty member at Clark College in Vancouver, where she has taught ESL since 2007. Her 19-year career in TESOL includes work as a teacher trainer, materials writer and editor, and instructor of adults and children in Washington, California, Illinois, Mexico, and Hong Kong.
Tell us about the first time you really felt like you helped someone learn English.
Like many ESL teachers, I was a traveler and volunteer before I trained as a teacher. Fifteen minutes into my initial tutoring session, which was with a pre-literate Iraqi man, I knew my career would be in TESOL. However, it took considerable time for me to cultivate a sense of actual expertise. I finally felt helpful when my classes of 6- to 12-year-olds in Mexico finished their first semester. They had started as zero beginners and made amazing progress in those weeks—and best of all, they finished the class so proud, confident, and enthusiastic about English.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger teacher self?
To love your work is even more important than you can currently imagine. It’s a gift.
Tell us about an experience that changed your perspective on yourself or the world around you. Have you ever bumped up against something so new, that it changed your viewpoint? (Of course you have!)
My career itself is an experience that has shaped my perspective on the world. This has happened rarely in thunderbolt epiphanies, but more often in daily moments in the classroom, in my office, or in the hallways. Direct and indirect input from my students contributes to my viewpoint on issues such as feminism, disability, parenting, life-work balance, education, and a cultural notion of time.
If you had a year of paid sabbatical, what would you do with it?
I would choose from among three ideas. (1) I would teach in a refugee camp overseas with my family. (2) I would compile and edit a book: a volume of first-person accounts from ESL students in the United States, both those who have immigrated permanently and those who visit and study. These stories would exhibit the quirks of the English language and American culture along with the frustrating or funny misunderstandings in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and interpersonal issues. They would reveal the desperation of refugees, the privilege of degree-seeking international students, and everything in between. The stories would describe students befriending others from around the world–classmates, host families, and neighbors who are sometimes shockingly different and other times surprisingly similar. The book would provide an overview of the potentially excruciating, potentially exhilarating experience of learning English. (3) I would learn American Sign Language.
Tell us something unexpected about you.
I was a figure skater as a child. In fifth grade, I was Fozzie Bear in an ice show.
If you could give one piece of advice to a new instructor, what would it be?
You will try to master your subject and teach it perfectly, but that is impossible because things will always change. Instead, commit to receptivity, adaptation, and growth.