“It is very rewarding to feel, time and time again, that you are pursuing what you love and exactly where you are meant to be.”
This was the last line for one of my assignments this past semester. I had to write an analysis about my experience of shadowing an ESL classroom. I had reached out and was welcomed by Keystone Opportunity Center to shadow their Adult Beginner class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Despite the fact that it was after a long day at work, and despite the fact that I would often have a few hours of schoolwork awaiting me when I returned home, I always left that class feeling energized and inspired. I felt lighter, somehow. Content. This is where I’m supposed to be.
My journey of working with English Language Learners started almost ten years ago, in 2012. I was a first semester freshman in college and stumbled across a flyer searching for volunteers for their “Language Buddies” program.
I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I had gone to school with a overwhelming majority of kids who all looked like me, sounded like me, ate like me, dressed like me, and – up until that point – thought like me. Thankfully, I realized early on that college was a great way to expand my horizons.
The “Language Buddies” program introduced me to Cherry from China, and over the next three semesters we met regularly, forming a friendship. I helped her develop her English, she helped me develop my understanding of a world beyond Pennsylvania.
The following year, I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad in South Korea (still one of my favorite experiences to date, & I blogged while there!). My program had different organizations we could volunteer with, and helping teach English at a senior citizen center once a week in the city was one of them.
I didn’t hesitate to sign up. I had absolutely no experience teaching senior citizens or even English, but I would learn that my energy, passion, and dedication would carry me through. There was some trial and error, but the students welcomed us so warmly, eager to practice their English every Friday morning. So! Much! Fun!
The teaching didn’t stop there. The summer I returned from Korea, I enjoyed one month of normalcy in Pennsylvania before jetting off to Haiti to teach English as a volunteer for three weeks. (At this point, I somehow still had no idea I wanted to pursue this as a job?!? Someone help this girl.)
I could write about my experience in La Croix for days, but instead I’ll choose to illustrate it through the memories that stick out all these years later:
– Drinking hot Haitian coffee on quiet hot Haitian mornings, planning out my day’s lesson.
– Children’s laughter bouncing off cement walls, able to be heard anywhere on the complex.
– Parades of people coming by, megaphones shouting words in Creole I couldn’t understand. An election on the horizon.
– The kind, soft-spoken doctor who met with me every evening for one-on-one English help. A familiar routine of listen, repeat, listen, repeat.
– The kind, soft-spoken doctor offering to teach me Creole after our English lessons. Hello, Bonswa. Good night, Bòn nwi.
– Sitting on the rooftop each sunset, conversations under the star-speckled sky each night. Enjoying shooting stars & the Milky Way!
– The familiar hum of the fan blowing on me as I went to bed. The still, stiff quiet the night the power went out.
– The earnestness of my students, showing up each day despite no one telling them they had to be there. Singing songs, playing games, asking so many questions. Learning for the sake of learning.
I mean, truly, this should’ve been it. I was hundreds of miles from home and surrounded by strangers (except my mom who joined for a week!), so the excitement I felt in class everyday should’ve been enough to tell me I wanted to do this forever. But life is funny and the path is winding. I returned from Haiti to finish my final year of college, still set on doing work in nonprofit though no sure exactly what that meant yet.
After I graduated, I ping ponged around jobs for a bit, trying to find my footing. In that time, I got paid to teach English for the first time – online. I taught one-on-one lessons to kids in China. It was fun, but the hours were not (teaching late into the night). The company also provided me lessons, which made my work very easy, but not as creative and free as my time teaching in Korea or in Haiti. In my head this was still a temporary gig until I found my forever job.
And then I moved to Philadelphia. After I settled into my studio apartment and my Americorps position, the very first thing I did was look up volunteer opportunities with English Language Learners.
I began helping high school refugee students with their homework once a week through HIAS PA, which soon grew to a Saturday program with both homework help and ESL activities, which soon grew to a full-blown mentoring program. I am coming up on my fifth year being a HIAS volunteer, meaning I’ve seen some kids come in as shy freshman and go on to graduate high college and attend amazing colleges. It was through this opportunity that I met professionals in the ESL sphere who were kind, thoughtful, passionate, and saw the potential in me. I talked with them about their careers, and finally – FINALLY – the lightbulb went off. Hey, this could be something I can do as a career.
Now here I am, currently halfway through my Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I’m not sure why I felt compelled to write this blog post and document the path that lead me to this moment. To those who are reading this, to those who have made it to far, I have to say this: look at your life and look at what brings you joy. Search for the patterns – what do you keep gravitating towards? What makes you feel lighter? Once you find the answer to that, your path becomes easier. The trees clear, the sun shines down, and you can start to see the incredible view.
My Professor had us do a “free write reflection” in my class last week. She had a lot of questions on her powerpoint, and told us to pick a few and just write. Here is part of mine:
I want to have a very open classroom. I want to learn about my students as much as they learn about me. I want to be a welcoming face to America, an inquisitive force. I remember going to a job interview for an agency that worked with immigrants and refugees, and the woman there had all these trinkets on her desk. “They are gift from students,” she said, and I realized in that moment: this person was exactly who I wanted to be one day. I want to try different cuisines made by hands who know it best, learn words from languages they’ve mastered, and introduce English in a positive way. It is in no way to lesson their culture and their home language, but rather to give them a ticket to life in America. To allow them to embrace themselves in this new country and see the opportunities for them. To be able to communicate is power. I think I’ve always believed that – I think that is why I am also a writer.