Canada 2017·Personal Essay

I taught them English by webcam. They taught me a new way to understand Canada

How roaming Canada through a webcam's lens was an education in the little ways we're all the same.

On coming to learn about the little ways we're all the same

Jessica Webster is an English language teacher who works online. Although she'd travelled the world, it was her experiences with the students that prompted her to venture to Canada's west coast. (Jessica Webster)

As my plane from Toronto landed in Victoria, I worried that I might be doing something crazy. What if I didn't recognize the people I'd come to meet in person?

Indeed, when I got through the gate, I walked right past my friends — I had expected them to be taller!

I felt silly, relieved and full of joy when I finally spotted Elizabeth, Larisa and Soraya. We laughed and agreed that we all looked different "in real life."

You see, I was much more familiar with their faces than with the rest of them. For years, I had been their teacher, connecting with them via webcam to lead them through language lessons online.

I have worked and travelled all over the world, but before roaming Canada virtually, I'd been complacent about seeing more of my own country.

In September of 2016, my students inspired me to step out from behind the screen and visit the West Coast for the first time. 

Like a crazy blind date

The program I work for is unique; it provides language and settlement training for newcomers across Canada who are unable to attend in-person classes. The classes are special, not only because they are offered via webcam, but also because they are one-on-one, and students often stay with the same teacher for years.

I spend at least half an hour with each student every week, so I have more regular contact with them than with most of my friends and family members.

Webster and her student Elizabeth during a weekly lesson. (Jessica Webster )

When I started teaching online, I expected to learn about other areas of Canada. Through webcam windows and out real windows, I saw houses built into mountains, staggeringly flat landscapes and insane snowfalls. I have learned what it's like to work in a fish-processing plant and how cold it is working nights at a grain elevator.

What I never anticipated was that my perspective would be so changed by the little ways in which we're all the same. It's been a startling wake-up call from my Toronto-centric view.

Being assigned a new student is like going on a crazy blind date. They could be from just about any cultural background and have any level of English. 

I have learned what it's like to work in a fish-processing plant and how cold it is working nights at a grain elevator.

This person might or might not be a beekeeper, a new mother, a welder, an entrepreneur, a pastor or a dentist. Furthermore, this person will definitely live in a different region of Canada and have communication issues.

But, this relationship has to work — otherwise we could be staring awkwardly at each other through patchy Internet connections for a long time to come.

A gateway to belonging

When I first met Elizabeth, she was frustrated that she couldn't get a job in her field and bitter about having had to move from Vancouver to the Island due to ever-climbing real estate prices. Her email signature read, "Statistics Analysis, Computer & Math Skills."

I was dreadful at math and had little interest in statistics. I was worried about how we'd get on. I'd have to keep working the small talk.

Webster at work teaching English online. (Jessica Webster)

Many students freeze when confronted with unplanned conversation. They worry about the disparity in language ability and about being judged.

Small talk is one of the most difficult skills to learn and is also one of the most important tools of a teacher. What seems like easy chit-chat actually hinges on an ability to quickly establish common ground.

When I ask my students what we share, I have to tease out the answers. It's hard to get past the labels like "immigrant," "non-native speaker," "Canadian" and "teacher" to our commonalities: we're parents, we're dealing with the weather, we live in Canada.

The common is often seen as mundane, but it's a gateway to belonging. To make effective small talk, you have to find and focus on similarities. It's really the ability to make ourselves a "we" rather than just "you and me."

Can't reach through a webcam

Elizabeth and I kept talking. In the next five to 10 years, she hoped to study and upgrade her career and make good little people of her young twins. I had young kids as well.

"You must be so tired," I said.

"Oh, yes," she replied.

Her short-term goal was to get her twins to sleep the night.

"Everything will get easier with sleep," I said. Her face lit up.

To make effective small talk, you have to find and focus on similarities. It's really the ability to make ourselves a "we" rather than just "you and me."

As the weeks passed, Elizabeth and I worked on improving her writing skills enough to get her into school. We talked about the challenges of being at home with young children.

One morning, Elizabeth fell asleep during our session. She had taken a job working nights at a café — the only job she could take without child care. I didn't quite know what to do. I couldn't reach through my webcam to rouse her, and yelling until she woke up didn't seem quite right.

I hung up and left a message. Elizabeth was worried that I'd be angry. I told her I admired her strength.

Over the years, one of my students in B.C. had a baby, another student's daughter started school and Elizabeth was accepted to college. Two became citizens.

Meanwhile, I was growing obsessed with the idea of travelling across Canada to meet my students in person. 

Our common place

You can try to hug a webcam, but it isn't the same. With my 37th birthday on the horizon, I decided to buy myself a ticket to Victoria.

Before I arrived, Elizabeth had insisted that my trip to B.C. wouldn't be complete without visiting Vancouver, where she'd lived for a few years before moving out to the Island. My trip was short, and I didn't want to spend it rushing, but I could see that this was non-negotiable to Elizabeth.

Webster and Elizabeth beam as the sun rises behind them on the ferry between mainland B.C. and Vancouver Island.

Having only met in person the night before, we got up at 5 a.m. and dashed to make the first ferry from Victoria. I was exhausted. But as Elizabeth and I came out onto the top deck to see the most beautiful pink, orange and gold sunrise lighting the ocean and the dark silhouettes of the trees in front of it, I was in awe. I wondered why I hadn't come sooner.

Later, as we talked while touring Stanley Park, I understood why it was so important for Elizabeth that I come to Vancouver.

In Ecuador, Elizabeth, who is from an ethnic minority, had been treated unfairly because of her appearance. When she had moved to Vancouver, she had immediately fallen in love with the diverse city because she felt she could be anybody and still be accepted. She felt she had belonged in Vancouver, and she missed it.

Before Webster's recent trip to Vancouver, she'd never been west of London, Ontario. (Jessica Webster)

Elizabeth showed me the areas she loved, and told me about all the different people who had helped her feel connected and make Vancouver feel like home. She didn't yet have the same connection to Victoria.

I will never forget that birthday trip.

On that perfect late September afternoon in B.C., 11 of us gathered around a backyard table in the golden light of the early fall to sing Happy Birthday.

My cake read, "Happy Birthday Jessica, in B.C."

Of the 10 people who cheered me as I blew out my candles, only two of the adults had been born in Canada.

Some of the group had only met that day, others at the beginning of the week, but there was laughter and conversation as if we were neighbours.

We were celebrating my students' recent citizenship, our ability to share this awesome physical space and our new sense of belonging — to our lives, to each other and to our common place of Canada. 


Jessica Webster has worked in language teaching for more than 14 years. She’s lucky enough to be able to combine her passion for community-building with her work connecting with new Canadians.


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