Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Finding One's Niche

They say that the goal to successfully uncovering your niche is by noticing a need in your surroundings and figuring out how to fill that need based on your own skills.  What they don’t tell you is that your niche may not come with everything you would hope.  You may need to compromise in order to do work that you love.

The needs in my community are endless, but what are the skills that I can offer?
I speak Polish, but there isn’t a need for anyone to learn Polish or to have things translated between Polish and English in my community.

I also speak Spanish, though not fluently and I am self-conscious about my limited vocabulary.  Still, there have been many opportunities when I was able to translate for random folks wherever I happened to be - at work, at court, at school, at the store.  In fact, I taught Spanish speakers English when I first got into ESL.  They were so basic in their level, that for the first 6 months or so, I actually taught in Spanish.  I also taught Americans Spanish for a summer.  That wasn't nearly as fulfilling as teaching English.  But then, I got greedy.

I loved the work, but not the pay.  On a fluke, I inquired about a teaching position at my local community college, which ended up being an interview, and voila!  A couple of years of doing what I love for more than twice the money followed.  But then, I found something else wrong with the arrangement.

I had to commute to another campus to teach, and I often had early morning classes followed by late evening classes.  My choices were to make the commute twice each day, or to lolligag all day long in between classes.  I chose the latter.  I still found fulfillment from teaching immigrants and older folks, but I wanted it all.  So when the opportunity to teach all of my classes at my local campus opened up, I didn't think twice.

It actually took me several years before I realized that I was now teaching a different segment of the population.  I already knew that it mattered who you taught and what you taught, because I had the opportunity halfway through my ESL teaching career to substitute teach linguistics at my alma mater for an old professor.  I hated the experience, even though the schedule was great and I had a corner office!  There was no appreciation from the students, and I wasn't nearly as competent in teaching linguistics (my major) as I was in teaching ESL.  I turned down the opportunity to teach there again the following semester.

Yet, I only made a partial discovery when I opted not to teach linguistics.  The part that terrified me was that I was still in a PhD program for linguistics with the intention of teaching it after graduation, and I had just had a first-hand glance at what it would be like and I didn't care for it one bit!  Which of course led to panic as to whether or not to finish the program and if no, then what would I do instead?

The part that I didn't fully appreciate until just recently was that it was not just the subject but the student population as well.  Yet by this time, I had been teaching more and more daytime intensive English classes due to the better schedule and pay.  Slowly, it dawned on me that my foreign ESL students, those here on student visas who usually didn't have to pay for their own tuition, were more interested in goofing off than in learning.  It was the rare student who truly showed an interest in self-improvement.  I had been duped!  I was teaching the fresh-out-of-high school students just like when I taught linguistics at my alma mater, and there wasn't much difference in their work habits, behavior, or attitude.

And that's when I came full circle to understanding that I simply cannot have it all.  It turns out that if I want my work to have meaning, to be fulfilling, then that work correlates with a schedule that isn't ideal for me, and that doesn't pay what I would hope.  On the other hand, the work that comes with the perfect schedule and decent pay just doesn't do it for me anymore.

This past semester, I had another great class.  About a year ago, I got the opportunity to start teaching more advanced ESL, which also came with a more secure schedule and better pay.  Nearly all of these students were fresh out of high school, and most of them still acted as if they weren’t fully grown.  But this semester, out of financial need, I agreed to teach a Saturday morning class.  

I lamented losing my weekend, but what I got in return was a class full of thoughtful students who took the content of the class seriously, whose behavior I didn’t have to constantly correct, and who showed pride in their work.  The majority of them were older students, working during the week and thus needing a Saturday class to accommodate their busy lives.

Currently, I am taking a sabbatical from teaching ESL.  For one thing, our international move is still up in the air and likely to happen in the next couple of months.  For another, I will need time to be home with our baby when s/he is born later this year.  So maybe this is as good a time as any to reflect on where my work-for-pay has taken me over the years, what turns I’ve taken, mistakes I’ve made, and experiences I’ve had.  

Perhaps it’s good that I can ruminate on what all of this means without having to make immediate decisions about it.  My life’s priorities have to be readjusted.  Either I want as much money as I can get, or I want as much fulfillment as I can get.  If I cannot have both, I must choose one.  Which one would it be?


  1. In lieu of leaving a hundred comments on your blog, I'll leave this one :).

    1) I love your wedding dress and reasons for choosing red!

    2) I know about this "finding your niche" and was surprised, very surprised when God showed me (so clearly it startled me) that I'm supposed to be where I am professionally. Still working on the whole mommy or not a mommy thing.

    3) I will be praying for you and your little Dino! Grow baby grow!!!