Esta como montando una bicicleta*

Black and white photo: adult Latino students in a classroom

*It’s like riding a bike.

Following a two-and-a-half year hiatus, thanks to COVID as well as my own health challenges, Debbie and I had the privilege of teaching an English as a Second Language (ESL) class last Thursday. We were by turns intimidated, energized, encouraged, and finally, drained at the end of the evening.

Given the uncertainty of my potential treatment regimen, we were unwilling to commit to taking a class for the entire semester (which began on Thursday), but we felt comfortable committing to help as needed. When we showed up late Thursday afternoon, we expected to help with administrative tasks: greeting returning students, making sure the classrooms were organized and had the supplies they needed, perhaps even helping to evaluate new students to determine the best fit, level-wise, for their needs.

We had also agreed to “baby-sit” any classes where the regular teachers weren’t able to attend. The only caveat we placed on our commitment was that we wouldn’t be comfortable teaching beginning students…those with little or no English whatsoever. We didn’t feel comfortable with our ability to be effective teachers for those folks. Our previous teaching experience had been with intermediate level students, people with a fair grasp on English.

God does have a sense of humor.

New students started showing up, and one after another, they demonstrated that they needed a basic beginners class, and there was no room for them in the other beginners classes. About thirty minutes later, Debbie and I found ourselves facing seven new students — 4 from Honduras, 2 from Mexico, and 1 from Venezuela — who were eager to begin learning a new language. And their smiling (and a bit apprehensive) faces were pointed in our direction.

So, we did what anyone would do in our shoes — we ran screaming from the classroom. OK, not really. Oh, maybe we were doing that internally, but it was obvious that we had been placed there for a reason, and so we decided to try to bluff our way through the evening.

We started with the English alphabet…basic pronunciation of the letters. Most letters in the Spanish alphabet — the abecedario — are pronounced differently, and Spanish even has some additional “letters” such as ch and ll. We later worked on numbers (1-20) and colors. We gave them a simple script to introduce themselves in English while practicing the alphabet: “My name is _________ and it starts with __.”

We succeeded in putting them at ease as we mangled their native language, helping to take the intimidation out of their attempts to speak ours, and keeping the mood light and relaxed. Our perception was that we had challenged them without frustrating them too much, and that was the best we could hope for.

About halfway through the class, a new ESL teacher joined us, and we learned to our relief that she would be the permanent teacher going forward. However, she told us that she had only worked with advanced students in the past. We offered to be teaching assistants whenever we were able to attend (our Spanish is just a bit better than hers; none of us are fluent).

Teaching a class of adults is both challenging and rewarding. All of them show up voluntarily after a day of work. They walk into a strange environment full of people who (mostly) don’t speak or understand their native languages. We don’t know what their motivations or goals are — perhaps they want to become citizens, or perhaps they want to have an easier time at work, or maybe they just want to better understand what the checker at the grocery store is telling them or answer the doctor’s questions when they have a sick child.

And what we’ve found time and again is that they are grateful for our attempts to help them achieve those goals. We don’t judge them; we don’t ask nor care about their immigration status. They want to be better employees, parents, neighbors…and whatever their status, achieving those goals strengthens our community.

At the end of the evening, I closed us with a prayer (this is a church-sponsored program, so we can do that 😃) and as they started to leave the classroom, first one and then another and then most of them turned around and shook hands with each of us and thanked us. One asked if it would be OK to bring a friend next week. We left tired but happy.

God does have a sense of humor…but as we’ve learned time and again, He never calls us to do something but what He also equips us for the calling.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’m glad you were finally able to return to the classroom. After she retired from teaching kindergarten, my mom taught ESL through her church, which led to tutoring ESL students’ children, prepping applicants for their citizenship exam, helping people with medical paperwork, invitations to fiestas and first communions and weddings, deliveries of Christmas tamales, and lasting friendships with the people she taught and their extended families. From your description of the curriculum, I can see how her career teaching kindergarten prepared her for ESL instruction — patiently and cheerfully teaching letters, numbers, and colors, and making her students feel loved.

    1. Michael, you’re exactly right! That kindergarten experience is invaluable. I neglected to mention that the woman who will be the permanent teacher, while inexperienced with beginner ESL, was an elementary grade school teacher, so she’ll adapt very quickly. I’m sure your mom treasured the relationships she developed. I love that story.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I am going to share it with my pastor. We have just started a series in Sunday school and church about finding our spiritual gifts and how God reveals them to us, sometimes in unexpected ways! What a blessing!

    1. Brenda, there are so many ways to serve others, aren’t there? But sometimes our faith needs to be strengthened so that we’re willing to take that first step! (I still struggle with that continuously.)

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