Teaching English as a Second Language is not new to me, but the class I’m starting this week kind of has me scared to death. In a good way.
I began teaching and tutoring ESL my last year of college, and my first student was a Taiwanese lady who owned the Taste of China buffet in Waco. It was a volunteer job that I got through the literacy center on campus at Baylor, and every week after our class at the restaurant I came back to the dorm with a take-out box stuffed full of enough dinner for both me and my roommate.
Later, I taught a volunteer class at UT Arlington and had students from several Asian countries, most of them working on advanced degrees or research in science or engineering and in need of help with conversational English. Two nursing students from Thailand and Beijing talked me into having a separate class for them on another night each week, so I then found myself answering questions like, “What’s a better way to say the word $#!+ when we’re talking to patients?” That wasn’t something they prepared me for in my graduate classes at UTA — how to explain the subtle differences in usage of the words bowel movement, feces, poop, and number two. (Side note: In another food-for-English exchange similar to the one in Waco, these nurses took me to a sushi bar in Dallas as a thank you, and also because they wanted to help me improve my poor chopstick skills before I moved to Asia.)
Fast forward several years worth of experience — teaching English camps in China, Thailand, and India, a year of high school English at a minority school in China, business English for hotel workers, and countless hours of conversational practice with friends. And now here I am in Washington, about to start a new class with Somali women who came here as refugees.
This class scares me because, for the most part, I’ve only ever taught conversational English to people with a high school education or higher. From what I’ve been told, none of the ladies in my class has any formal education. In addition to not speaking English, they don’t read in any language. They will be starting with the very basics — how to hold a pencil, how to write the alphabet, how to make the sounds for each letter. Very different from teaching a mechanical engineering post-doctoral researcher from Shanghai how to have a meaningful conversation with his American coworkers.
But I’m up for the challenge and very excited. Excited to be teaching a new level of content, as well as teaching students from Africa for the first time. Wish me luck!