My journey to become an ESL teacher by Katie Burgess – What’s Your Story?

Katie Burgess
Katie Burgess

Next up on the What’s Your Story? Blog Challenge…Katie Burgess! She takes us on a trip from Hungary to the US to China – what a beautiful story about how she became a teacher.

Köszönöm, Katie!

I knew I was meant to be a teacher when at age seven I gathered my stuffed animals and my reluctant little brother into my room, having them sit in a circle around me, paying close attention to my small chalkboard, introducing them the world of numbers and letters.

My inspiration was my first grade teacher, Miss Varga who taught all 42 of us how to read and write. To me, as a small child it was such a remarkable experience that in a short time I could put meaning behind those characters, the letters which at first looked so intimidating, foreign and scary.

I admired her patience and wisdom. It seemed nothing less than a Miracle that I was introduced to the world of letters and numbers and I contributed it to her Power. Yes, to me, she had the Power of knowledge which she has passed on to us.

And I wanted that magical Power.

I come from Hungary, a small European country with a unique language. From 3rd grade we already studied French and continued with Russian from 5th grade on. I kept studying both because I was fascinated by languages and cultures entirely different from ours.

At university, I majored in French and Latin was mandatory for 2 years. I continued with Italian, just for fun, which seemed relatively easy after the two other romance languages. Then in my 2nd year of studies when I picked up applied linguistics as a minor we were asked to study English so that we could read related articles and that’s when I met English, for the first time.

Even though I had plenty of experience with languages, when I first bumped into the word enough, I became frustrated: how can you possibly write this word this way and then pronounce it in such an unexpected way?

I quit English shortly after enough– it’s too hard… doesn’t make any sense…can’t pronounce certain sounds…

Two years later I was in in the US, in Miss Chloe’s evening class, along with a number of other freshly arrived immigrants, having one common goal: to learn English because it’s a must in order to survive in the New World.

I respected Miss Chloe, our ESL teacher: her dedication to us, her everlasting patience when we have all struggled with the weird sounds and I knew, right there: I want to become an ESL teacher. I want to be there, in front of a class where everyone needs to learn English, for their career, their promotion, for their education, or simply to survive.

So I did learn English. Two years later I passed the TOEFL test, with flying colors and went on studying at University of Oregon.

When later my family and I relocated to my home country I started to teach English. And there was no stopping me, after that.

I continued my education at Cambridge University, eventually got my Masters and have been attending seminars and workshops to better myself.

In my almost 20 years of teaching I had the chance to teach Mexican immigrants’ children in the US, college students in Hungary and over the past 2 years I have been teaching in China.

I feel blessed to have those amazing and encouraging teachers early on and as a tribute to them, I do my very best to continue their paths and be as inspiring to my students as my teachers were to me.

Interview with Péter Medgyes

Péter Medgyes
Péter Medgyes

Péter Medgyes is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. Previously, he was a school teacher, teacher trainer, vice rector of his university, deputy state secretary at the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the ambassador of Hungary posted in Damascus. Professor Medgyes is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Non-Native Teacher (1994, winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Book Competition), Changing Perspectives in Teacher Education (1996, co-edited with Angi Malderez), The Language Teacher (1997), Laughing Matters (2002), and Golden Age: Twenty Years of Foreign Language Education in Hungary (2011). His main professional interests lie in curriculum studies, language policy, and teacher education.

A huge thank you to Péter for this honour!

Vicky: Professor Medgyes, first of all I would like to thank you for this interview – I have admired your work since I was in university!

Professor Medgyes: Thank you very much, Vicky. But frankly I’d much prefer if you called me Péter. It’s far more informal. My students call me Péter too.

Vicky: Thank you so much, Péter! Let us start from the beginning of your career. You started your career as a school teacher. How did you enter the field of education?

Péter: My mother was dismayed when she learnt that I’d decided to become a teacher. “Oh no! You don’t want to become a slave, do you?” she cried. What she hinted at was the low status of teachers in Hungary at that time. Trouble is that teachers are still not given the credit they deserve. Teachers of English were a little better off though, because English was considered a trendy language. The Beatles, jeans, American movies – you know what I mean.

Vicky: What has changed since then? What challenges, if any, remain?

Péter: Well, if English was trendy 30 years ago, it’s since become the unparallelled lingua franca. We can’t breathe without English in our wired-up world. It’s no longer a foreign language, but some kind of a second mother tongue for billions of people. It should become part of basic education all over the world. Kids start to learn English at an ever younger age. CLIL is introduced in more and more schools.

Vicky: How did you move on to the field of academia?

Péter: I taught in a comprehensive school for some 15 years before I became a teacher trainer at university in Budapest. Truth be told, vanity played a part in my decision to move on. But then I’ve never lost touch with school-life. My research has always been rooted in the classroom. In the early 2000s I went back to teach in the same school where I’d started out. I thought, well, with all the experience that I’d accumulated over the years, I’d be a much better school teacher than I was. Sadly I didn’t – I forgot how to teach teenagers, so I quit after a couple of years.

Vicky: You have been very much involved in the topic of native and non-native teachers. Do you believe the distinction is still necessary today?

Péter: The native/non-native issue is a tricky one. Dividing English teachers into natives and non-native is pretty arbitrary. Yet the fact remains that I’m a native speaker of Hungarian and a non-native speaker of English. Having said that, it’s true that the demarcation line is getting more and more elusive these days, due to the fact that the English language competence of non-native teachers is rapidly improving. Thanks to a number of things in the contemporary world.

Vicky: I agree. Now let us move on to your writing and other activities. Have you got any projects in the works? Could you tell us a bit more about them?

Péter: Together with Marianne Nikolov I’ve just finished a longish report on language pedagogy research done in Hungary in recent years. It’s due to be published in ‘Language Teaching’ in the autumn. At present I’m busy working on compiling an anthology of papers and conference presentations I’ve produced in the past 30 years. Each essay is introduced with an imaginary interview between me and a reporter in which I speak about how those pieces came about and lots of other things. Some kind of retrospection.

Vicky: Very interesting projects! I am looking forward to reading more of your work. Now what would you like to advise new teachers, who are reading this interview?

Péter: Huh, this is a difficult question! As a teacher trainer all I can teach my students are visible and tangible things. However, whatever really matters in education is hidden and intangible and so it can’t be taught.

Vicky: What exactly is hidden and intangible?

Péter:  The spark in the students’ eyes. Once I notice that spark I know that I’ve done a good job. I’ve managed to pass on the ultimate secret of teaching – love. Love of your job. Love of your students. No more – no less.

Vicky: This has been a great interview. Thank you ever so much for this, Péter! I wish you the very best.