Many ESL teachers start their career in an entirely different field. Ex-nurse, ex-accountant, ex-actor, ex, ex, ex. TESOL is a field of career shifters who all share one goal: to help people communicate better in English. I’m an “ex” too. An ex-server, ex-cook, ex-cashier, ex-barista, ex-operations manager, ex-everything food related.
I’d been in the food industry my entire life. Literally my entire life. My mom was pregnant with me while she worked in a chocolate factory. Her water broke, and I never left the world of food. For decades, ESL was an additional interest while I was working in restaurants, bakeries, and manufacturing facilities. Many of my colleagues and friends wanted to learn English and often asked if I could practice with them or teach them a few words. The joy of teaching English and finding creative ways to communicate with others slowly bubbled to the surface. So, after 15 years in the food industry, I quit my job and got certified to teach ESL. But that wasn’t all. I wanted to solve a problem.
All that time I was working in the industry and teaching ESL to coworkers, a question ate away me. Why was access to English education in the workplace was so scarce? If it is the responsibility of employers to provide safe work environments, on-the-job training and standard benefits to their team, why wasn’t English language learning one of those standard benefits? While English is not the silver bullet that pierces the multiple barriers to entry the immigrant workforce faces, it always appeared to be a clear first step that would benefit employers as well as their team. In fact, the employers I had worked for had made efforts at implementing programs but failed. The instructors they hired weren’t certified, didn’t have industry-specific experience, or ended up leaving because ESL was just their “side-hustle.” I wanted to fix that.
So, I started teaching English as a Second Language full-time during the day, and got a night job to supplement my income. On the weekends, I fed the entrepreneurial glow inside of me and started ESL Works, a company that provides complete English-for-Work training for the food and hospitality industry. Three years and many white hairs later and ESL Works is a full-blown business. We employ 3 instructors, provide 20 English-for-work classes a week to food businesses, and are in the process of expanding into the digital learning world.
Admittedly, owning a business is not for the faint of heart. In fact, 9 out of 10 startups will fail. So what’s kept us going in spite of such terrible odds? I believe it comes down to two key attributes: tenacity and team. Our staying power at ESL Works comes from our deep desire to make a positive impact in the working world through quality language education. And team. A talented team carries you past the times when it feels like failure is around the corner, and runs alongside you when everyone else sits down for a breather. But this doesn’t come as a surprise, because every instructor on our team embodies the fundamental makings of an entrepreneur. That’s because ESL teachers hold many of the same qualities entrepreneurs do.
Entrepreneurs attempt to change the world and do so by shifting the way others view or experience it. They are scientists, welcoming unexpected outcomes. They continually hypothesize and validate their assumptions and move forward or change direction while remaining aligned with their professional mission – whatever it may be. Entrepreneurs are game changers.
And so are ESL teachers.
Having been an adult ESL instructor for over 8 years, I have witnessed this same resilience, craftiness, and scientific methodology in many of the ESL practitioners I have had the pleasure to work alongside. They see a student struggling to keep up, and adjust a lesson accordingly. ESL teachers take thousands of resources and use them to the benefit of their students. They filter out what doesn’t work and amplify what does. ESL teachers build systems for themselves and their colleagues. Even if the job is temporary, I continually witness instructors sharing their best approaches with the world around them. ESL teachers build community in and out of their classrooms. They share, they push, they endeavor. In 2015, there were a reported 27 million entrepreneurs in the US. In the age of information, that number has been growing every year. I can’t help but wonder how many teacher-turned-entrepreneurs there will end up being in that mix.
As all of us “exes” re-specialize and orient ourselves in ESL, there is a concurrent rise in the need for ESP, or English for Specific Purposes. To begin with, there are the regulars: Business English, Policespeak, Seaspeak, Aviation English, Legal English, English for Health Sciences, English for Telecommunications, English for IT. As the world becomes ever-more interconnected and welcomes more entrepreneurs, the need for ESP teachers is on the rise. That means that entrepreneurism and ESP must dovetail.
I’ve learned that entrepreneurism is a game of cognitive dissonance and grit. You have an idea, know the solution, and refuse to believe that you can’t achieve your goals. There is no “no,” there is only “next.” The path along the way will wind and send you backward at times, but the end game is the same. Be the first to get there. Be the best at it. Impact for good.
So what is your calling?
Author’s Biography: Rachael Nemeth is the Founder and CEO of ESL Works. A food industry veteran with 15 years experience managing people and operations, Rachael has worked with some of NYC’s most respected food businesses: Union Square Hospitality Group, Baked, and Hot Bread Kitchen. She began teaching English to food industry employees 8 years ago, and quickly recognized the value of ESL as an industry-specific training tool. The growth of ESL Works is propelled by her firm resolve to make English training a standard workplace benefit. She graduated from the College of Charleston and earned her TESOL certificate at The New School where she is now pursuing her Masters in TESOL.