I have always been a bit of a procrastinator. At high school, I changed my choice of A-levels three times, and I only started my initial degree in English at the age of 22 after four years of working in all sorts of low paid, low skilled jobs such as driving, cleaning, warehouse and factory work, and assorted jobs in the hospitality industry. After completing my degree in English (I switched from International Politics at the last minute), it was another decade before I had the money and the confidence to tackle the MA in TESOL when I was 34. And then, at the ripe old age of 38, I started the PhD in Education and Social Justice (but only after switching at the last minute from the PhD in Higher Education).
Why did it take me so long to decide what to study? And why did I change my course of study at the last minute? I think, in large part, people “like me” (working class people) don’t pursue a life in academia. Until my siblings and I left school, my mother was a housewife. Since then she has been working as a restaurant hand. As for my father: he was an odd job man before depression led him to end his life when I was seven years old. In fact, in our extended family, I am the only one who ever made it to university. Not having anyone’s footsteps to follow in (nor any guidance) may explain why I was so unsure of what I should study. At university I was what Bourdieu would call a “fish out of water”. Most people spoke differently to me, and whenever I contributed in seminars, the words came out all wrong. It didn’t help that I suffered from social anxiety. And I knew that because of my background (I grew up in a household where the only books on the shelves were an autobiography by Doris Stokes and a book on houseplants), I would be at a disadvantage compared to many of my peers. But, a lack of confidence in my own abilities and my lack of “habitus” may have also motivated me to work harder.
In the end, the choices I have made were, I feel, the correct ones. The English degree (which included a module in TESOL) helped me to get a job as a teaching assistant with the British Council in Austria. When I realised that I was actually capable of teaching (something I never would have considered as a possible career prior to going to university), I then eventually decided to do the MA in TESOL while working as a teacher trainer for Cambridge English in various locations around the world. My distinction grade on the MA and some positive encouragement by my MA supervisor gave me the confidence I needed to pursue the doctorate.
For anyone who may also be a procrastinator and may also be considering continuing their studies, but may, like me, feel like a “fish out of water” in academia, my advice is (in the words of the Nike slogan): just do it. Do it until the doing it becomes the justification. I always remember Sylvia Plath’s analogy of the pear tree. She envisages a pear tree where all the pears are ripe and juicy. Unable to select a pear, she watches them all fall to the ground and rot. If I had not chosen, those opportunities may have shrivelled up and died. I finally chose English because I had an interest in fiction, but that interest was enough to sustain me throughout my degree. I chose the MA in TESOL because I was working as an English language teacher, and so my research was relevant to my job. And I chose the PhD because I know that it is essential if I want to pursue a career in academia. I specifically chose Education and Social Justice because I want to help others as I have been helped, and because I care deeply about addressing the lack of equality of opportunity all around the world but in Colombia specifically, where I currently live with my Colombian wife and daughter. For me, Education has been a worthwhile investment, and education has opened many doors: these are not just meaningless slogans. And, if money is ann issue (as it was for me), the distance learning route may be an option as it allows you to keep working while studying.
Lee has over 15 years of experience in the field of ELT. He has worked on CELTA courses spanning four continents as a teacher trainer for Cambridge English. In addition, he has worked as a Director of Studies in both Europe and South America. He holds a DELTA and an MA in TESOL. He has published on native-speakerism, Colombian language policy, peer tutoring and teacher reflection. He is currently working on his PhD in Education. Originally from the U.K., Lee is currently based in Barranquilla, Colombia, where he works as a Business English lecturer and ELT researcher