As an ESL teacher of low-level, beginner students, I follow along with eager anticipation any time my students volunteer to speak. One student in particular, who is a middle-aged and proud grandfather from India, speaks up especially often. In the fourth week of the term, this student–who we’ll call Mr. B.–got my attention toward the end of class, saying, “Excuse, me, sir.”

As usual, I was all ears. That class had been a lively one, and I awaited his question. I expected something about clarifying the difference between courtyard and patio, or maybe a request to convert 30 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit. But, that isn’t what Mr. B. wanted. Instead, his speech was jumbled from the start and I could tell his ideas were difficult to express. I didn’t interrupt him, but patiently waited with my best calm, and kind, teacher-face. Teacher-face means looking as interested and encouraging as possible without being patronizing.

“You going–you go–went college? Pre-graduate? Teacher for secondary–er–college…I–er…”

Mr. B. laughed and looked flustered, so I suggested, “Did I go to college?”

He shot back with, “No, no…you going to school, work for…”

Then with sudden clarity, he looked me in the eyes and exclaimed, “Qualifications! … What are your qualifications!?”

The best way to describe my reaction might be spooked–not the way horses get spooked (thank goodness), but more the way someone who saw a ghost smiles awkwardly to prove he isn’t nervous. After the flurry of words like ‘college’ and ‘graduate,’ my brain went into job interview mode, and I began to question my very existence as adult ESL instructor. I saw a ghost named self-doubt.

What are my qualifications? Am I qualified? What gives me the authority to teach these people?

After snapping out of it, I told Mr. B. about my time in graduate school receiving my MA in TESOL. I also learned that he just wanted to compare what it took to become a teacher in the United States to India, and he didn’t really care about my personal qualifications as much as what teachers studied in general. But, the question stuck with me. It made me question myself and my career choice. Even more than that, it made me question all teachers. What leads people to decide that they are fit to educate? When does student turn into teacher?

There might be just as many things that motivate students to learn as there are that motivate teachers to teach. It’s a job, so it pays. Many teachers are inspired by family or by incredible teachers they had when they were younger. Depending on where you are, it is a good career for continued learning and networking. I know why I teach, but the question is always worth considering:

What are your qualifications?

What gives you the right to teach me?

Anyway, I digress because this is a blog about sharing stories. So, I will leave it with something I heard Maya Angelou say on television once:

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”

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