I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but in my mind I imagined I would be struggling to teach angsty teens the works of Shakespeare and Milton. Now I find myself the owner of a language school that caters to CEOs and 30-year-old techies, as well as the underrepresented immigrant community. Most people teach ESL as a part time gig while they follow a spouse across the world or during a gap year. So how did I get here? My journey to business English teacher has been a story 10 years in the making, and I’d like to share it with you.
When I graduated from Berkeley in 2005 with a major in English Literature, I had spent my entire life in the Bay Area. It was time to get out. New York had never interested me and everything else in between was too close, so I bought a one way ticket to France and figured I’d work things out when I got there. With the fluency of a 2-year-old, there weren’t many French speaking jobs I was able to apply for, so the next option was to do what I’d been doing for the last two decades: speak English!
I had done some volunteer work teaching undocumented immigrants basic English in the Bay Area. Most of my students didn’t even know the alphabet in their own language, so much of the lessons were spent spelling their names and learning simple sentences like “Hello, my name is…” and “How are you today?” With very few job prospects, every interaction was hugely important, and just being able to communicate on the most basic level was a big advantage. It was amazing to see how dedicated these individuals were. Even though the lessons were free, the students knew they were invaluable.
While extremely rewarding, that experience did little to prepare me for teaching business men advanced negotiation tactics, but it got my foot in the door when a company was desperate for native speakers with any experience. I worked in a private business school where the majority of our students were professionals looking to polish their presenting skills or learn how to participate in meetings with cut-throat Americans and overly polite Brits.
"The vast majority of English verbs only have four conjugations: the infinitive, -s, -ed, and -ing"
Most English learners are unaware that the majority of native speakers never learn tenses and grammar the same way they do in their own language. The vast majority of English verbs only have four conjugations: the infinitive, -s, -ed, and -ing (walk, walks, walked, walking) and so there aren’t the same complex conjugations that there are in many other languages (think French with its 6 possible conjugation per tense!). I could speak English, but up until then I had no idea how to explain it to other people. So for the first six months in France, I would wake up most mornings before 5 am to teach myself the grammar or the business skill for that day’s lesson.
In the beginning I didn’t see this as something permanent (living in France or teaching English as a second language), but the pay was good and it introduced me to a variety of interesting people and their various professions. While I really enjoyed the technical aspects of the language- the grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc. (and any of my former students will confirm how excited I can get about grammar), what I loved most was how much people opened up to me. Many of my students I saw on a weekly basis for months to years, and I became a confidant, someone they could talk to without any strings attached. It was in these moments that I saw the most progress in my students: when they lowered their inhibitions and just spoke freely.
After just one year at the private business school, I was given a head teaching position where I was responsible for creating new content, training teachers and handling the most difficult of students. It was hard work, but something I really excelled at. I spent 5 years there refining my skills and by the end, I knew this was more than just a fling.
By this time I was married to a Frenchman and while I loved living in France, I wanted him to have the same experience that I had living abroad. So we packed our bags and came back to the only place I could really call home: the Bay Area. Unfortunately, there are a lot more native English speakers in the US than in France, so the job market for English teachers at home was pretty abysmal. I found a position teaching groups in a classroom setting that was a lot of fun, but the pay was terrible and I really missed the intimate feeling I had with my business students back in Paris.
"I spent 5 years there refining my skills and by the end, I knew this was more than just a fling"
So after a year, when a colleague of mine proposed a partnership to create our own Language school, I jumped at the offer. I was also pregnant at the time and knew that my current salary wouldn’t cover the cost of childcare in the Bay Area, so it seemed like the perfect time to take a break and try to create something that really fit with what I wanted to do. What I didn’t know was that starting a business and having a baby are probably two of the most difficult things I will probably ever do in my life, and doing them at the same time was a ludicrous idea, but thanks to my stubborn will and my amazingly talented business partner, I’ve survived both and things are right where they need to be.
I plan on raising my child bilingual in French and English, because speaking a second (or third or fourth) language is such an enriching experience. But I know that he will be one of the lucky ones to grow up speaking English as a native. Unfortunately, the international need for English means that people who don’t speak it perfectly are often considered less intelligent or less employable by us English speaking folk. We have a huge advantage that many of us take for granted. While this is unfair, it’s a fact that dominates the business world. That’s why I think English should be accessible to everyone, regardless of background, ability or financial situation. One of the things I’m most excited about with My English Coaches is our community outreach program. We plan on hosting free Meetups and providing free workshops aimed at giving everyone the opportunity to achieve their potential, regardless of what language they grew up speaking.
"The better we communicate, the better we are at solving problems and working together."
There’s a lot happening right now in the world - increased nationalism, massive refugee displacement, the recent vote in the UK to leave Europe - these events and many more show that people are afraid, or cautious about the ‘other’. That’s why I believe it’s so important to improve communication for everyone. The better we communicate, the better we are at solving problems and working together. I know what I do is such a small part of the solution, but every positive interaction leads to a host of new opportunities, and better communication can help us get there.
So that’s where I am today: co-founder and coach at My English Coaches LLC. And while it’s already been quite the journey, I know things are just getting started. I’m positive about the future and can’t wait to see what the next ten years will bring!
Sophie is a co-founder, coach, and the pedagogical director at My English Coaches LLC