Last week I finished a short stint of volunteer English teaching with the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. First it must be said that the full-time teachers there are some of the most dedicated and affective professionals I have ever met. To me, it seems easy to congratulation one’s self in these types of working situations. A small-minded provincial, even well-meaning, could easily adopt a condescending attitude toward these students. Not these teachers. They are practical educators (and friends) and they are experts at empowering others.
The students in these classes are refugees and asylees, from countries like Burma, Somalia and Eritrea. A refugee, by definition, is one who is allowed into another, presumably more hospitable country because things are so unbearable in thier native countries that they are forced to flee. Here in the United States, they are offered basic assistance and services, some of which are obligatory, such as English language instruction. Some students are young, some could be my grandparents. Each one of these people has a story, but all of them have something in common: they were simply kicked out of their native countries for various absurd reasons. Just the very notion of spontaneous deportation is so foreign to most people in developed countries it is almost impossible to conceive.
For two days a week, I brought my language, and my desire to teach it, to a classroom, packed into a module at an east county elementary school, and every day I learned much more than I taught. Yes, that is obvious cliché. But let’s itemize.
I learned that I, in fact, could lead a group of 40 students without melting down. I learned more about how to manage class time, and how to write on the board. I learned how to better evaluate students of different language levels and how to better use communicative tools in the classroom. I learned about pacing, not boring the students to death, and how to use my sense of humor to stimulate learning. I think my favorite part of volunteering was seeing students laugh and have a good time while overcoming the ridiculous obstacle of English language acquisition. You’d be surprised to discover what you have in common with a Burmese man who cannot speak your language, and a joke bridges the two of you, just for a moment. I never would have thought that I could make a 60-year-old woman laugh while teaching her how to write the number “4.” Many times I would see in their eyes a deep tiredness, for reasons I cannot begin to speculate, but undoubtedly influenced by their long journey here and by the incredible, full-time job of raising a family in a foriegn country.
It should be made clear that I was only an assistant. I have limited time in my work week and could only show myself two days a week to provide my wonderful services. Sometimes I just wanted to sleep until noon and watch TV. But my time volunteering reminded me of the things in my hectic life that I really enjoy. The real teachers who devote themselves, day after day, to language education deserve recognition for what they do. I look forward to the day when I can devote all of my time and effort to teaching English.
This volunteering opportunity has been more rewarding than I expected, and I wish it could last longer. As I soon leave the country and feed my own wanderlust, I will take what I’ve learned here and hopefully return one day to help the IRC again.