From an ESL Learner to a Teacher

Conceptual hand writing showing Be With Those Who Help Your Being. Business photo text Surround yourself of motivating showing Color Graduation Hat with Tassel 3D Academic cap on Books.
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I came to Canada as an immigrant from Bosnia – a war-torn country – which, to this day, is difficult to return to when I want to visit family. Not only do I remember things no child should, but physical remnants remain at every corner of the country itself. My family was one of those that escaped with a random truck driver in hopes of getting out and not being denied entry into Croatia, which was safe.

After our escape, we moved to Sweden as they were welcoming refugees from various countries. I went to school there, learning how to speak Swedish and making new friends. I felt comfortable there because I was with children who were just like me – children who survived a war. Even though we never spoke of our experiences, we knew we all had a rather sad connection that helped us survive, emotionally.

We moved to Canada 22 years ago because a lot of our family was already here and we hadn’t received permanent residence status in Sweden.

As a child and a young adult, I struggled a lot with the question “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Eventually, the enjoyment of helping others led me to enter teacher’s college.

In the final year of my master’s degree in teacher’s college, I took part in practice teaching placements at two elementary schools. I was exhausted after each day of observing, planning, recording information, and marking; I thought I’d give up because I don’t remember ever being as tired in my life as going through that experience. Instead, I realized how rewarding it felt to help students achieve something difficult and feel confident at the end. Not only that, but I felt accepted and appreciated, and that was my motivation.

After not being able to obtain a job in primary/junior education due to a low demand for teachers, I decided to pursue my TESOL Ontario certification. I wouldn’t just be doing what I loved, but I would also be helping those students who were just like me – struggling because of a language barrier and feeling anxious. I hated feeling that way as a newcomer to Canada because it caused me to disconnect from the world around me; I focused on not looking and feeling silly speaking a new language. All my attention was on how I sounded, looked, and behaved in front of my Canadian classmates. So, although I didn’t fail any classes, I did very poorly, which resulted in even more negative thoughts and poor academic performance. It was a vicious cycle, year after year.

I knew that my friends had always accepted me; I was just having a hard time “fitting in” because I thought that I had to be one thing and not the other. I had to be Canadian, only, and not a foreigner.

After years of resisting to simply accept who I was and feeling like I didn’t belong because my culture was different, I didn’t want anything to stand in my way of being academically successful, especially my perception of myself. That was the biggest battle!

Once I obtained a position teaching in an English for Academic Preparation program, I started to see myself in others and, automatically, I knew how to help. I see the things that my students are going through and, instinctively, know how to assist them in redirecting the negative perceptions of themselves in relation to their learning of English. They, too, sometimes lack confidence in themselves because they don’t think they are “good enough” to be great English speakers, which, as a result, causes them to turn to their mother tongue to communicate with one another.

After almost ten years of teaching them, there is not one day that goes by where I don’t feel grateful to my students for allowing me not only to teach them the curriculum but also to help them realize that everything will be okay as long as they work on focusing on what is ahead and loving themselves for who they are!

Martina Finnegan, being a former ESL learner from Bosnia, truly enjoys teaching ESL students! She has been teaching at Niagara College for 9 years and when she isn't in the classroom, she enjoys spending time with her family, going for walks, watching movies, and reading a good book!


16 thoughts on “From an ESL Learner to a Teacher”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Martina. Your students have a lot to gain from your experience. Do you ever share your stories with them?

    1. Hi Anna, thank you for your comment!
      I definitely share my experiences with them of having to get used to a new culture and a new language and the struggles behind that. It helps them see that I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and it gives them hope to work hard and get there, too!

      1. Thanks for sharing this, Martina. It’s so important to remember the courage that students need to come to class every day, trying to be a part of something, not always allowing themselves to believe that they can belong. I just ran into a student I had 12 years ago. She reminded me of how important her ESL teachers were to her when she first arrived. We carry a big responsibility as teachers. Your knowing both sides of the desk in a classroom is that much more vital for your students.

        1. Hi Carolyn, thank you so much for contributing to my blog!
          I, too, am very grateful to have had such amazing teachers! They’re one of the reasons I became a teacher myself. A teacher can really change a student’s perception on learning and help them get and stay motivated to keep learning. We learn so much from our students, too! I really love what I do!

      2. How lucky they are to have a teacher like you. I hope you share more of your stories publicly. It takes a lot for people to comment on a blog post; you are making an impact.

        1. Hi Anna, thank you! 🙂
          I have shared my story in Walk a Mile: A Journey Towards Justice and Equity in Canadian Society (2nd Ed.) and I have made presentations to Sociology students where I work. It’s not easy because it brings up bad memories, but if it helps people get through things, that’s all that matters. 🙂

  2. Your instincts are pure gold! I have great admiration for you. Your value to the community cannot be overstated. Great blog.

  3. Incredible and inspirational story.

    So much of our job is having empathy for our students, and helping them overcome the blocks to learning–whether it is the culture shock of adjusting to somewhere new, feeling self-conscious about learning a new language, or dealing with emotional trauma from past experiences.

    You have done a great job of using your own incredible story to connect with and inspire your students.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Great post, Martina.

    Your students benefit so much from your sharing these experiences.

    What a role model you are!

    Thanks for sharing.


  5. A very valuable post Martina! I truly relate to my personal experience in Canada as an EAP Instructor. Thanks for the share!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story Martina. I applaud you for your courage to keep moving forward. I’m originally Syrian myself and even though I haven’t experienced the war there myself, I’ve heard and seen enough to allow me to feel your words. Our students a volrenable people who have been through a lot to reach Canada. They need our assurance in their ability to achieve.

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