The Road to Community, Leadership and Innovation in the TESL Field 

I recently had the pleasure of delving into TESL Ontario’s past by reading through decades of annual reports, Contact magazines, conference reports and other historical documents. It was fascinating to discover this organization’s rich and remarkable history, and to uncover TESL Ontario’s role in the development of the TESL profession over the past 50 years.   

In a recent interview with some of TESL Ontario’s most influential members, (a project we are developing for our 50th anniversary celebrations at the conference), Shailja Verma stated “TESL Ontario has taken us from church basements to recognized institutions and buildings.”  

I could write a whole book about our humble beginnings, the strategic developments taken throughout the years, and our current and future goals, but instead – in the interest of time – I will summarize the three key stages of our history that have brought us to where we are today. 

Professional Community 

In an interview with TESL Ontario, David Hazell said “It’s [TESL Ontario] provided a sense of community and belonging for its 4500 members.” Developing a professional community was the focus of the early years of the organization. 

TESL Ontario worked to pull together like-minded TESL educators, and to provide them with a space to interact, share knowledge, collaborate, and grow together.  This was accomplished in a number of ways beginning with the development of the first annual conference which was held in 1973.  This foundational professional development opportunity brought together members in a small, intimate conference setting designed to allow attendees to learn from each other and bring new teaching practices back to their classrooms and students.  These annual conferences grew each year, in size and in purpose to include fundamental components such as an annual Panel discussion with leaders of funding organizations, technology features, research symposiums, and career connections events.  With these vital conference features, along with valuable concurrent sessions, the TESL Ontario annual conference quickly grew into the largest conference for TESL professionals in Canada and remains that way today with more than 1,000 attendees each year.     

Along with the annual conference, TESL Ontario recognized a necessity for members to be able to connect locally to colleagues in the communities where they lived.  Ontario spans a large geographical area, and a single annual provincial conference opportunity did not entirely address the unique educational needs of specific regions throughout the province.  With the help of dedicated volunteers, we began forming local Affiliate Chapters and between 1974 and 1979 ten affiliate chapters were founded. Two more Affiliate chapters were later added in 1986 and 1994. These 12 affiliate chapters were established with a mandated focus to provide local professional development opportunities to connect TESL professionals with colleagues in their communities.  Today these community events are an integral part of accessible education to teachers in this profession. 

In those early, formative years of the organization basic foundational goals focused on the development of the TESL community, and enabling opportunities for growth through exchange of information among professionals in the field.  Thus, as a part of this plan, the publication Contact magazine was launched in 1974.  The magazine was re-imagined in 2017 with an online website that features a searchable library of all past issues of publication.   

Creating a sense of community for 4500 members spread across a large province can be challenging. In 2012, as online communities in our field began to grow in popularity, TESL Ontario launched several social media accounts to connect members in meaningful ways. Social media created an impactful way to enable the sharing of resources, exchanging of ideas and provided a platform for collaborative online conversations.  Today, almost 11,000 TESL professionals are following us on LinkedIn, and an average of 11,500 visitors are reading our blog each month.   

Professional Leadership  

Shirley Graham said in her recent interview with TESL Ontario, “TESL Ontario has been a major contributor to the growth and development of language learning and Immigrant integration, in young and old and international students. This has set Canada head and shoulders above the rest of the world in language learning and language training.”  

It was important to begin raising awareness about the impact that TESL educators have on the lives of Canada’s newcomers and ESL learners. Ultimately, a TESL educator is instrumental in helping their students successfully integrate into Canadian society. 

So began our journey to strive for professional leadership. In 1983 TESL Ontario became incorporated, providing us with the foundation to move the profession forward.  Being incorporated allowed us to apply for government funding for projects that would later be vital to the development of TESL certification.   

Following successful incorporation of the association, we began to work with government funders to research and demonstrate the importance of certification and professional standards for TESL educators in Ontario.  

In 1992 TESL Ontario started the first phase of a multi-year funded project simply titled “Standards and Certification Project”. This project was funded by the Ministry of Education and Training; Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation; and Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The goal of the project was to develop standards and certification for the recognition of ESL teacher qualifications and teacher training programs in Ontario.  

In 2000, the multi-phase project ultimately resulted in the introduction of TESL certification for both teachers and TESL training programs.  

This certification was designed to establish the credibility of professionals in the English Language training field and was the foundation for the eventual creation of three registered professional designations offered by TESL Ontario today; OCELT (Ontario Certified English Language Teacher – 2017), ICTEAL (International Certificate for Teachers of English as an Additional Language – 2018) and CTESOL (Canadian Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages – 2018).   

In 2010, TESL Ontario began to offer a PLAR service as an alternate method for TESL educators to achieve certification and professional designation.  Earlier this year, our PLAR service was reimagined to be more inclusive and accessible to foreign trained teachers. 

TESL Ontario certifications and professional designations have served to elevate and enhance the recognition of the TESL education in the province, and the subsequent impact has been considerable to the growth and development of the profession. 

In addition to teacher and training program certification, TESL Ontario further worked to boost the integrity for the profession by introducing an online Registry of Certified members in 2009, and the Code of Ethics for TESL educators in 2014. 

Professional Innovation 

In a recent interview with TESL Ontario, Diane Ramanathan praised TESL Ontario professional development offerings, saying “[TESL Ontario] has been a leader in providing opportunities for teachers to get professional development, to improve their skills and learn new thing, but also to connect with each other.” 

With standards and certification widely recognized and respected throughout the province, it was important to ensure that TESL educators had access to professional development to facilitate continuous learning growth and knowledge. 

In 2014, TESL Ontario launched an innovative webinar program providing all members with free, timely access to 24 webinars year-round, including unlimited access to the recorded webinar library.  The volunteer-run webinar program strives to provide TESL educators in our community with relevant, leading-edge professional development opportunities designed to enrich and improve teaching practices. The program has made a significant impact in helping teachers keep their skills and knowledge current within the evolving landscape of English language teaching. Building on our focus for skill building and professional development opportunities, we launched the TESL Dialogue series in 2020 and introduced the Mentorship events in 2021. 

In 2018, TESL Ontario also launched a progressive YouTube channel providing TESL educators with short video tutorials on new tech tools and leading-edge teaching strategies. The Directory of Best Practice Resources was also launched in 2018, a website offering TESL professionals with quick access to proven exemplary resources. 

The innovation in TESL Ontario’s skills development programs has empowered growth and continuous learning in the TESL community, supporting professional excellence.   

The Road Ahead 

Community, leadership and innovation have been the three pillars upon which this organization and this profession have been built. The work of this organization and our dedicated volunteers and members has helped to elevate the professionalism and integrity of the ESL teaching field. As we embark on a new era, amidst the ever-changing teaching landscape we are committed to continue our work for the betterment of the profession. With the pending release of a new strategic plan this coming fall, we will begin focusing on taking a more active role in supporting novice teachers, we will initiate new strategic partnerships that will accelerate advancement in our community and our profession and we will continue our work to raise the recognition of TESL certification in Ontario and beyond.  

TESL Ontario will be looking to our membership and community leaders to help us navigate the road ahead and continue developing this valued profession. 

Check out this video on TESL Ontario’s historical timeline! 


Allison is the Executive Director of TESL Ontario, and has been supporting the TESL community for more than 12 years through her role within the organization. She is passionate about engaging with TESL Ontario members and volunteers and working with the community for the betterment of the TESL profession. She has focused her career in not-for-profit management for the past 20 years, building diverse, member-centric, supportive professional communities.


One thought on “The Road to Community, Leadership and Innovation in the TESL Field ”

  1. Allison,
    Thanks to you and your team for providing this history in different media. I tried to get a snapshot of the first version of the of TESL Ontario webpage from the site, but the Wayback Machine only started recording it in 1998. If anyone wants to see what the first website looked like, they can go to for a trip down memory lane.


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