I believe life is all about learning, and that learning is all about sharing. After years of teaching in Asia and in American colleges and elementary schools, I stepped into teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in a basic studies program last fall. With adult immigrants from all over the world in one classroom, l was not sure what to expect. How would communication be? How would my students act in class; how would they respond to me and to each other?
Some of what I have found is predictable; funny miscommunications, extensive use of hand gestures and repeated, “What?”s. But what I didn’t’ expect was the integrity, enthusiasm, and responsibility that met me. Classes meet weekdays for three hours, in the morning, afternoon or evening. The class length alone is remarkable. For three hours, we cover four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking. When they are not in class, most students are working. How many of us can add three hours of any class – never mind one that demands the concentration of working in a second language – to our day? They come in from jobs in construction, packing plants, restaurants, and factories. They often have children who are being watched by relatives, or they are watching the children of relatives themselves when they are not in class. But – unlike the “regular” American college students I have taught in the past, they don’t arrive with water bottles and snacks in hand; they don’t text their friends, and they don’t groan when difficult material is covered. Moreover, they show a striking patience with and interest in each other. When I divide them into random groups or have them work with partners, they get to know each other, they become friends. We learn about each others’ countries and customs as we learn about the US. Which is, really, what this country is all about.
Most of us don’t realize how difficult English actually is. Someone’s accent will stand out more to us more than the fact that they have just strung together a coherence sentence. A missing “the” or “a” or an “r’ that sounds like an “l” makes us think the speaker doesn’t speak English well. But we don’t often think about what it took to get there; the differences in our pronunciation with other languages, the difficulty of article usage, sentence structure, and myriad idioms that speakers must learn. For the many immigrants who arrived here as adults, language mastery is that much harder. And for almost all of them, it must be tackled “after hours.”
When I walk into the classroom I am greeted with warm smiles and “How are you, Teacher?” (Yes, they ask me how I am.) No one is complaining; rather, there is an air of extraordinary appreciation for the chance to study. Student differences in language ability and cultural competence are taken in stride -a class may have someone who has been here less than 3 months with someone who has been here for more than 3 years – and encouragement is passed around like candy. I have taught in various situations for over 20 years, and except for a few kindergarten classes, this is the most positively–spirited atmosphere I have ever encountered. Yet there are no credits for these classes. There is no diploma for working on your English. The reward is language improvement, a better understanding of American culture, a chance for job betterment. At the very least, a few new friends.
My students are a daily reminder of the importance of sharing and the joy of learning.