Teaching English at the Circus

By Shana Kennedy

Ed. Note: I stumbled upon the blog Running Away With The Circus a few months ago while doing some research unrelated to ELT. I was delighted to find a writer who shares three of my own passions – teaching English, blogging, and the circus. When I invited Shana Kennedy to write a guest blog post for ESL-Library, she agreed! Shana Kennedy’s husband is part of the Cirque du Soleil’s show TOTEM. When her family ran away with the circus, she began teaching English to the performers. You can read more about Shana’s experience on her blog. ~Tara]

English Tutor on Tour

They are sitting around a table in the kitchen, cracking jokes and laughing uproariously. All men, and most of them have muscles bulging out of their shirts. They are from Italy, Finland, Brazil, China, Germany, Mongolia, and Russia. They are laughing about something that happened during a rehearsal onstage today. These are the artists from Cirque du Soleil’s show, Totem. They are all speaking English, though for none of them is it a first language.

I witnessed this scene a few months ago, and spent a lot of time thinking about it. Why English? And what does it feel like, for each of them, to be in an environment where everyone around them speaks English with some level of difficulty?

These questions have become more pronounced for me as I have evolved into an English tutor on tour. As the wife of an artist, many of my students are fellow wives, who find themselves adrift as they accompany their husbands around the world. For these women, English feels like a hobby, and not a necessity; they spend as much time as possible surrounded by their families and tour friends, with whom they can speak their native languages.

A few of my students are artists themselves. The biggest obstacle I have with them is that all week long they are speaking English poorly, with other poor speakers. No one corrects their mistakes, and they reinforce each other’s bad habits. My one or two hours a week just doesn’t feel enough to counter this.

With nearly all of my students, the other problem I face is that academics do not come naturally to them. These are athletes – and families of athletes – of the highest order. Since very young childhood, athletics have been their complete preoccupation, with school a distant second. Study habits are nonexistent.

But after that, we are grappling with the same problems of ESL students everywhere: grammar, spelling, common mistakes. They want to be able to communicate more clearly, because there is nothing more frustrating than being unable to make yourself understood. And so we study – in the kitchen, in the tent, outside at the picnic tables between the shows. And in the meantime, the 11 different tour languages continue to circulate on site, making for a truly diverse circus community.

Shana Kennedy

[If you teach English in an untraditional setting, and would like to write a guest post for ESL-Library, please contact the team.]


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