Learning to Teach & Learning to Learn in the ESL Classroom

by Anne Gentry ‘15
April 13, 2015

Anne is a teacher with the MET Family Literacy Program, a program that offers free bi-weekly English classes to adult immigrants in the Providence community. With her fellow teachers, she strives to give learners confidence in their spoken and written English and to help learners achieve their specific goals.

Walking into the first day of a language class is daunting. Walking into class as the teacher is even more so. Walking into class as a teacher who has never taught before? That was me. I had spent a semester abroad in a different country with a different language, so I was aware of both the daily struggles (well, I don’t know the word for slice in Italian so I guess I’ll just order a whole pizza…) and the larger problems (how do my Italian roommates expect me to be their friend when I can’t even make small-talk with them?) that arise from living in a culture that doesn’t speak your language. Walking into the first day of adult ESL classes, I felt ready. To teach. To learn.

They always tell you that as a teacher, you end up learning just as much from your students as they do from you. I went into the MET Family Literacy Program expecting to learn more about the cultures and individuals that make up the rich fabric of the Providence community outside of Brown. But you learn more than that: you learn how to learn from others. How to promote a classroom environment that fosters openness and conversation. We center our class around our learners. We talk about life in the U.S. and life back home. We tell stories. We ask questions. We laugh. We can all learn, all teach.

At the end of the semester, one of our learners invited me and my co-teacher over to her apartment for an evening of food and celebration. She cooked for us her favorite dishes from the Dominican Republic (where she was from), and we spent the evening talking about our respective homes (Dominican Republic, Mississippi, and Michigan), laughing about moments from the semester, sharing our favorite music, and learning a few bachata dance moves from two children by the end of the night. By the end of the semester, we’re more than just “students” and “teachers.” We’re friends, we’re a support system, we’re a community.

Walking into my second semester of teaching a few weeks ago, this learner was one of the first to come and to pretest for another semester of classes. Walking into classes this semester, I feel more confident about not only teaching English but also learning how to develop meaningful relationships with my learners and how to create relevant lessons that both address the problems and share the joys of learning a language and living in another culture. Walking into classes, I remember the words said at the end-of-semester-showcase by a learner: “I came to the U.S. so that I can find a better job, and so that my children can go to college. And I thank my teachers.” This is why we’re here. Leaving your home is never easy, but we, teachers and learners alike, can make learners feel like they’re not alone in that process. In our classroom, we can create another community here—and that’s what ESL is all about.