There is no other field in existence today more valuable to a positive future than Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). It brings cultures together, and forces them to acknowledge the others right to exist.
I lived and served for three years in Indonesia with Peace Corps at a time in American history full of widespread mistrust and prejudice toward Muslims. I had no gun or army or group of American friends to sequester myself with. It was just me, an ordinary American, alone in a small village with ordinary Indonesians, teaching English and learning about the world.
And there were so many firsts… My first Durian. My first Indonesian sunset. My first time swimming in the Indian Ocean. I smile when I think about the next one: my first time teaching a class of 40 Indonesian students alone. My first successful conversation in bahasa Indonesia. My first meaningful connection with someone from a different culture. I think I felt 10 feet tall after that one.
It was like being a kid again at age 27, operating in that space where you have to guess about what is really going on because you have simply never encountered it before. (And usually finding out your guess is not only wrong but absolutely hilarious to the locals you were sent there to “help.”) But as you live alongside these people, work with them, have friendships and relationships and experience the highs and lows of daily life together… as you struggle together… you become more accepting of who people are, and, strangely, of who you are.
For it is not possible to be a successful ESOL teacher by dominating a relationship, whether it be your colleagues or your students. There is no ‘winning,’ because that would mean that somebody’s culture is winning. Language teaching is not a game to be played, but a philosophy to be learned. To deny this is to deny that culture and identity are a part of language, that they are a package deal, and that they are not something to be messed around with.
At the end of my service, when all those ‘firsts’ were becoming ‘lasts,’ the Director of Programming for Peace Corps Indonesia told me those experiences would never really go away. “You’ll take them with you back to the United States,” she said, “and live with a foot in both worlds.” It isn’t easy doing this, but it is a blueprint not only for a more peaceful future, but a more enriching life. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “How can it be, in a world where half the things a man knows at 20 are no longer true at 40, and half the things he knows at 40 hadn’t been discovered when he was 20?”