In early-January, Suzanne Paquette found herself standing nervously in front of a Grade 9 class of Spanish speaking students in Central Mexico. An alumna of Selkirk College’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program, the 54-year-old Christina Lake resident had to muster the courage to teach the first class at her new school.
“It was frightening as anything I’ve done, but it was incredible,” says Paquette. “The first few days I questioned my sanity, like why am I doing this at my age? My husband hadn’t joined me yet, so I was in a strange city, in a foreign country where I speak very little Spanish. This was a new field for me, so everything was anxiety-producing. But I knew it was the challenge that I wanted.”
Selkirk College Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program alumna Suzanne Paquette recently returned from Central Mexico where she taught junior high school students English.
The first day of her three-month practicum at Colegio Aranzazu in the city of San Luis Potosi was the product of what many people grapple with when they eclipse the magical age of 50. With 30 years worth of experience in the finance industry and both her kids old enough to fully spread their wings, it was time for a change.
“I love what I do and I still love it because I do contract work,” says Paquette, a chartered professional accountant. “But it was time to make a change and we wanted to do it while we still have our health. You have to do it while you still can and while you still have options.”
Careful Planning, Perfect Execution
Exploring a new career in teaching English in other countries wasn’t a snap decision. When discussions of their future started ten years ago, Paquette’s husband Mark decided to leave his career in the automotive industry and return to Selkirk College’s Professional Cook Training Program on Nelson’s Tenth Street Campus to build portable skills that would enable the couple to have options for travel and work.
Two years ago, Paquette was working at Kootenay Savings when a colleague who taught English in China for nine years started telling her about his experiences. With a degree in Psychology from the University of Calgary earned right after high school and her certification in accounting acquired while working and raising children, Paquette’s thirst for learning is deeply embedded. Inspired by her colleague’s stories, Paquette turned to Selkirk College for the next chapter of her learning.
Paquette with one of the secondary program classes she taught during her her three-month practicum at Colegio Aranzazu.
“We’ve had a very good life, we are fortunate to have been born in Canada and have had the opportunities we’ve had,” Paquette explains. “We’ve been lucky and worked hard to get to this point in our lives. We felt like we were at point where we want to give back and because we love to travel, it fit.”
In 2016, the couple sold their Castlegar house and moved to their Christina Lake property full time. Paquette enrolled in the four-month TESOL Program on the Castlegar Campus and started her journey into teaching English.
The Selkirk College TESOL Advanced Diploma Program is for those interested in teaching English as a second or foreign language either domestically or internationally. Classes are offered in one intense semester of study, during which time learners gain both theoretical and practical knowledge in teaching language. Upon completion, students are eligible for TESL Canada Professional Certification.
“It’s just an excellent program, I can’t say enough good about it,” says Paquette. “The instructors are amazing and the fact that Selkirk College itself has such a vibrant and strong international student population is hugely beneficial. You get to do your practicums and observation right in those classrooms.”
Paquette admits that it wasn’t easy returning to the classroom as a mature student in such an intense program. The supports for all students at Selkirk College combined with an eclectic cohort model in the TESOL Program made it possible to combat all challenges she faced.
“I had to remind myself that even though I was coming in as a mature student and I have had more life experience, the 20-year-old in my class still had things that they could teach me,” says Paquette. “That helped because you learn a lot from your classmates.”
Mexico Provides Fuel for Passion
Paquette’s practicum in San Luis Potosi was arranged through her program advisors. The school she taught at is a private school run by a family whose two daughters attended Selkirk College 15 years ago. During her three months, she taught more than 170 students in Grade 7 to 9.
“I saw improvement in students over the three months, both in the stronger students and the ones who were having a harder time,” she says. “By the end of my time, students came up to me to thank me because their understanding and pronunciation had improved so much. For the selfish part of me, that was the experience and results that I wanted.”
One of the prime attractions of teaching English in other countries is experincing all facets of the culture, including sport. Paquette and her husband Mark are seen here at a San Luis Potosi soccer match with friends from the school she taught at in Central Mexico.
Thanks in part to Paquette’s success at Colegio Aranzazu, Selkirk College has now signed a formal agreement with the school that will enable more TESOL Program grads to head to Central Mexico and will enable young students from that school to come to Selkirk College in future years. Several other opportunities for graduates exist, including a six-month paid internship in Japan with young children.
As for Paquette and her husband’s future plans, summers are for spending in the West Kootenay and Christina Lake will continue to be their home-base. During the winters they plan to travel and teach. A return to Mexico is not out of the question, but the couple also have their sights set on Southeast Asia.
Paquette knows there are many others in her same situation and she has now gained the experience to pass onto others who might be pondering a big change in their lives.
“It sounds so cliché, but just do it,” says Paquette, who arrived back to the West Kootenay in late-April, just in time to see her 23-year-old daughter graduate from the Selkirk College Health Care Assistant Program. “We had talked about it, but if you are serious about it then you have to sit down and make some plans. It took us a few years to absorb it and think about it, but we eventually got to the point where we were ready and made some concrete plans. I’m so glad we did.”