January 2015 – Teaching English as a Second Language

Two years ago I started tutoring English as a Second Language (ESL) to immigrants and refugees from around world. Two days a week I volunteer as a tutor working one-on-one with students and also as a teacher’s aide assisting in the regular coursework at our local community college’s adult ESL program outside of Seattle. But why?

Well, Sonia and I are preparing for long-term world travel and we may relocate outside of the U.S. We believe that teaching English could be a way to supplement our income as we travel and more importantly, as a means to integrate into the community if we relocate in a foreign country. To meet those goals I wanted to gain experience in teaching English in addition to completing a TESOL certificate (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Then, with the combination of the certificate, hundreds of hours of experience and letters of recommendation from the teachers I’ve assisted, I’ll have a convincing resume for future employers.

My original motives for teaching were admittedly selfish, but I’ve since found that teaching is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. As a bonus I’ve learned a lot about cultures all over the world before taking the first step on our trip. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is if I even like to teach or not – I do. Other tutors found that they didn’t and they’ve left. Teaching isn’t for everyone – it takes patience, lots of it, . . . that was my first lesson. The questions students ask about English has forced me to re-learn a lot of English structure that I normally never think about. In other words, I’ve learned a lot about my own language from teaching it to others and ironically, it makes me a better English-speaker too.

Since I also speak Spanish, most of the students I tutor one-on-one are Spanish-speakers from Mexico or from Central and South America. Knowing the language of the students you’re teaching isn’t necessary, but it sure helps. But the students in the regular classes where I assist the regular teachers are from all over the world so my Spanish isn’t as helpful there. They come from Korea, China, Ukraine, Russia, Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Iraq, Iran, Syria, India, Mexico, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, mostly Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the immigrants are married to American citizens or in state sponsored work programs. The refugees have been granted asylum in the U.S. and they have some hard stories of escape from war and oppression. It’s an all-adult program and students’ ages run from the twenties through the seventies. But all of them share one thing – a thirst for learning English.

As a tutor I’ve learned a lot about the stumbling blocks foreigners have for learning English, and how complicated the language is. Things I take for granted cause great confusion to students just starting to learn English and most of the rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation are too confusing to be of much help. For example in English, more so than most other languages, the same word has many different meanings depending on the context it’s used in. Then there’s all the silent letters – sometimes a “w” is silent, sometimes not, sometimes the” e” is silent, sometimes not. And everyone struggles with pronouncing the ”th” sound or how to use the little words in, on or at.

As a teacher’s assistant I’ve learned how to teach a diverse group of students most of whom have nothing in common. I’ve learned how to handle a classroom full of students and keep the lessons moving forward while keeping their attention. The teachers start by focusing on one letter, a vowel, and important words that use it. Although the focus letters are vowels the teachers don’t call them that. In fact the latest ESL teaching methods don’t focus on grammar directly at all, there’s too much variation in the educational background and structure of the students’ native languages for that to be effective. Instead the teachers use lots of visual aids, computer programs and examples to associate words with actions or things. As the students move into higher levels, grammatical concepts are introduced but the first classes are focused on basic communication. And the success rate is amazing – almost all students are speaking basic English after the first quarter of classes.

I’ve seen some heart-warming success stories. Like the group of Bhutanese refugees; a remote hill tribe forced out of their Himalayan kingdom when China encroached into their area. There was a whole village of them, twelve or fourteen; small , polite, gentle people about five-feet tall, all in their sixties. None had been inside a classroom of any kind in their lives. Rain, snow or sun, they would shuffle into school wearing their silk slippers and jackets embroidered with Hindu symbols, greeting us with a quiet bow and a respectful “namaste.” A little over a year later they all spoke conversational English and even the other ESL students stood and applauded them when they picked up their certificates of completion at the year-end graduation ceremony.

And I’ve made friends with some of my students too. Siphon from Cambodia that shared her wedding pictures in Phnom Penh with us. Sepida who escaped the fundamentalist Muslim takeover of Iran where her Baha’i faith was used to prevent her from working or going to school. Karina that told me all about life in Cote D’Ivoire in western Africa. Emillo from El Salvador who survived the infamous “train of death” freight train that runs through Mexico from Central America. Yeicy from the Colombian Caribbean that is learning English to continue her practice as an oral surgeon and Ling Bai an noble, aristocratic Chinese woman that always looks like a princess in her hand-embroidered silk dresses.

The students appreciate our efforts as teachers and tutors. When my fellow tutor Mary Ann was hospitalized they made signs to wish her well, and despite their basic English some even found their way to the hospital to visit her. They bring in food from home, hand-made specialties from around the world, and most of it is delicious, some of it not so much. I always bake an apple pie – what could be more American than that.

I think I’ve learned as much as the students have. I learned that I like teaching. I can see that teaching English can be a great way to integrate into a foreign community. And I learned a lot about HOW to teach; where to start, what to focus on, and how to listen to the students. Through teaching I’ve made friends around the world before we even leave home on our travels.

So, if you’re thinking about teaching English as a second language, try volunteering as a tutor at your local community college, high school, church, or find out about immigrant/refugee assistance programs through your local chamber of commerce, colleges or state employment agencies and try it – costs nothing but your time. See if you even like teaching before committing to the time and expense of getting formal certificates. For me the whole experience has been a great adventure and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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