In April, I decided to make a significant change in my life. I decided to leave my job as a teacher in Jackson, Mississippi and move to Spain to become a language and cultural assistant. Basically, I stopped teaching my Mississippi students to move across the world and teach Spanish students how to speak English. The reasons for that decision are a topic for another day, but always the achiever, I then enrolled in an 150-hour teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) course that required 130 hours of course work (bleh) and 20 hours of observation. I completed my observation at LADO International College in Silver Spring, Maryland.
It cannot be understated how much can be learned by observing and practicing. First, it is important to mention that the place I observed is an English language school on the outskirts of Washington DC and therefore draws in people from a variety of backgrounds. I was able to observe and participate in several classes which involved people of Honduran, Brazilian, Colombian, African, and Thai backgrounds. I watched as these learners practiced English in a variety of different dialects, with different L1s, different grammatical structures, and different life stories and reasons for learning English. Every moment of being in class was motivating and humbling. My first day of observation was in an upper level evening class where students would learn English after long days in fulfillment of their F1 visa requirements. Another significant chunk of my time was spent in a classroom with two students, a father and a son, who spoke no English at all and had only been in the United States for a few months. I observed a Saturday class filled with young women that were au pairs/nannies in different segments of the nation’s capitol. My final day was spent in a class of people with truly mixed intentions and of mixed ages just trying to navigate the language and improve themselves.
My last day happened to be the first day of a new cycle of classes. The teacher, a feisty Brazilian woman named Camila, learned British English in Brazil where she earned her Master’s Degree in the English language. She led the class with a strong yet approachable manner. She effortlessly navigated the snafus of the English language that even trip me up as a native English speaker. When one of her Honduran beginner students asked why some words add –ly to become adverbs and others didn’t, I sat dumbfounded and confused because I had no idea the answer. That’s just the way it is. This happened several times as students asked “Why is a person called a loose cannon and not a loose gun?” “What is slimy?” “When do you use ‘good’ and when do you use ‘well’?”
There are so many small things that are complex within English and I am daunted by the task of teaching it. However, a motivating moment was watching the students desire to learn more and more with each word that was spoken. Even in the first class of the session, students old and young worked hard to practice the language. Something I have been afraid to do with my learning of Spanish for years. After introductions, Camila asked the students to think about how they viewed the United States before coming to the country, how their friends view their life in the United States and why they decided to come to the United States instead of other English speaking countries.
She wrote the answers on the board.
Family here, safety, buy things cheap and send them home were among the answers, however, I found it most meaningful when they mentioned, “make American friends” “opportunities and possibilities.” There is something amazing about wanting more and accepting the risk associated with obtaining those goals. These students ventured to a new country far from home, family, and friends, paid absorbent amounts for visas and travel all with the intention of bettering themselves and enjoy the limited time we have on this Earth. Language is a powerful—being able to communicate with others who are admittedly different is empowering, bold, and challenging. As I sat through class and listened to the things they found interesting about America (obsession with youth sports, the difficulty of obtaining credit as a foreign student, the sad absence of healthy food), I found myself amazed by the beauty of it all. When else do you find such a diverse group of students that are just “being.” They weren’t doing anything special. Just conversing in English about life—their husbands and host families, their experiences in their native country and the newness of the United States.
I often envision a world like this. A place where people from around the world can just talk, live, be, and get along without the threats that are often posed to us surrounding difference. Although it is a tad ethno-centric, I am glad that English was able be that connecting agent for this group. And although I am scared shitless, I am glad that I can now be a part of this interconnected world. The certification was just a check in the box, the experience of sharing language and knowledge with people from across the world—now that is powerful.