From STEM to ESL

Why I Switched from Teaching Physics and Maths to Teaching English as a Second Language

Having dedicated (or sacrificed, depending on your point of view) the final 5 years of my 20s to taking a foundation degree in physics and maths, followed by a Bachelor’s degree in physics, I am frequently asked why I am an English teacher rather than a physics and/or maths teacher. Allow me to explain.

The truth is that I did teach physics and maths. Throughout my degree I worked for SEPnet giving educational STEM workshops, lessons, and talks for primary through to U3A students, I was a teaching assistant to lower university years and within a secondary school science department, I privately tutored primary, secondary, and A level students in physics and maths, I wholly encouraged young girls to embrace STEM subjects and I enjoyed it. I even focused my dissertation on "teaching complex subjects to non-expert audiences." (Or in other words: "explaining Baryon Acoustic Oscillations (BAOs) to kids."). I knew that I wanted to teach; I even applied for and was offered a placement at the same University to take a PGCE in secondary science. But when the time came, I graduated and ran from higher education as fast as if I were being chased by a clown with a machete, while a mojito dangled in front of me like a carrot from a donkey.

Why? Because I had experienced teaching in an overcrowded, mid-range, suburban secondary school, and while it had given me an immense respect for secondary school teachers worldwide, it had also shown me that it was not what I wanted to do five days a week for the rest of my working life. Class sizes were very large and lessons were mainly a mix of crowd control and justifying to the students why they had to take science, rather than explaining the topic in question. As I was walking around the room helping those who needed it, students would complain — “I don’t need to know science, I want to be a: hairdresser; footballer; fireman...” and I’d go around the room explaining to each of them why they might need to know how to safely mix hair colouring chemicals and cut hair at the correct angles for different styles, or how to judge the approximate angle and force you’d need to kick a ball at to score a goal, or the most stable shape to cut a hole during a rescue. They would look at me how school children often do and say “well, they’ll tell me!” and I would go home and pretend that this wasn’t deeply concerning for my career.

So, at the end of it there I was; fresh out of university. I had hit 30, accrued thousands of pounds of debt, and was despairingly glancing between my degree certificate, bank account, and career options while every person in existence seemed to be merrily asking me “so, what are you going to do now?” and I did not know. What I did know was that I had a problem. I had a degree in physics but I did not want to take a physics Masters or PhD, I did not want to be a research scientist, nor did I want to be an accountant, computer programmer, IT technician, engineer, lab technician, secondary science teacher…

Meanwhile, completely unaware of my ongoing career crisis, real life continued on. My post-graduation role at SEPnet turned to part time database maintenance, data analysis, and workshop content writing, while fresh faced new undergraduates began to take over the more hands on teaching roles, and I knew it was time to move on. Plus, without the backup of a student loan — I needed full time employment. Ultimately, I took a full time job in an office to give me a chance to survey my life choices, so that I could still manage to pay rent and bills and at least be warm for the duration of my breakdown. I was still analysing data and writing educational material, only now strictly for professional adults within a particular field, but not teaching as part of my day job. 

However, I was still tutoring part time and I loved it. The students were enthusiastic, they wanted to take the subject and they were delightful to work with — my favourite being the littleuns, how so much energy is contained in something so small continued to astound me (I say continued rather the continues as I have since looked after a very young puppy for three weeks. I can honestly say that nothing, NOTHING, can be more energetic than that puppy... and he was SMALL!) Point is: lessons can be made so fun for primary students! They will engage in the daftest educational game with more enthusiasm than I have ever witnessed from a gaggle of teenagers (but definitely not as much enthusiasm as a puppy has for my slippers…) yet, despite this, being a primary school teacher still didn’t seem to fit what I wanted to do. UK primary teachers are required to teach all subjects and anyone who has ever witnessed my map reading “skills” will testify that I should not be allowed anywhere near a geography classroom!

So, while I was still unsure as to what on earth I was going to do with my life which would afford me a car, a wedding (for I was now engaged), and any form of savings should I ever wish to go on holiday ever again; I was approached by the parents of a child who I was tutoring in maths. These wonderful people asked me whether I would be able to tutor their son in English as well. Having A level English literature and language, I said I was happy to do so if they wished, otherwise I was equally happy to help them find an English undergraduate through my university connections. Amazingly, and somewhat thankfully, they asked me to start tutoring their son in English straight away and thus began my foray into English teaching.

Before long I was offering English tuition as standard, and trying to do less physics and maths tuition and more English. I was truly shocked by how much I enjoyed it. To be clear, this was UK National Curriculum English. But offering English in any shape or form meant that I was approached by students who had never messaged me before — students who did not have English as their first language. At first I was hesitant as to how much I could help, I knew nothing of second language acquisition and not the first idea of teaching methods related to the subject. As a result, my initial ESL teacher-student interactions were more of a support role than an actual teaching role. I would help with interview terminology and practice, proofreading, general conversational English practice, I discovered that there was a market for physics and engineering ESL, but I was by no means a fully-fledged ESL teacher. Not by a long shot.

But the important thing was that a new potential career path had been opened up to me. After discussing the potential career route with a friend who is a fully-fledged ESL teacher, I began to learn more and more about the job. The types of students, the methods, the classes and the more I learnt — the more interested I became!

Before long I was taking a TEFL and I was amazed at just how much I enjoyed the training, how natural it seemed to be that I was doing so and how I could use all of the best bits of my teaching experience so far in a new, exciting way. Not to mention the fact that my career options had not just been opened up in a new direction, but were suddenly worldwide career options!

Unsurprisingly, I no longer offered tuition in or taught physics and maths. But more importantly, I no longer offered tuition in or taught English for UK National Curriculum either. I had officially made the switch. I passed my TEFL with a distinction and have not taught anything other than English as a second language since.

So, while for many the change may seem odd, for me it was an entirely natural development — and I've not looked back!

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From STEM to ESL