Several months ago, when I was invited by a missionary to assist local students who had fallen behind amidst the pandemic, I could never have imagined the adventures in the immediate future. They were either refugees themselves or children of refugees. “They need more support; some are really struggling,” he said. “You don’t have to be a teacher, but you are. That’s a plus,” he noted. “And there are women, too. They need to learn English.” I was already interested and terribly intrigued; but, the journey was simply unfathomable.
I’ve been out of the classroom several years, though teaching fuels the energy in my veins. As I plunged deeper into the industry, I fell in love with coaching teachers in early childhood education, providing literacy consulting, offering professional development and pursuing a doctorate with an emphasis on Reading and Literacy; but, this was a classroom of a different type.
As I entered the home-turned office and learning center, I met women and children from Somalia, Iraq, Mexico, Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, each with breathtaking stories, beautiful demeanors and uniquely endearing personalities. Nevertheless, I was most captivated by these women – who wanted to learn English.
Throughout the week, I am privileged to teach women several times my senior in a class for which there is no charge at a time intently set for their ease of access. Pulling from my experience teaching 2nd – 4th grade as an ESL certified educator, pouring into high school English students and working with teachers from Asia and South America, I began drawing from everything I could remember. Nevertheless, the most exciting thing upon my arrival, where we welcomed them with tea and fare indigenous to their countries, is that I was invited.
I was invited to step into their world. I was offered the opportunity to learn their philosophy and culture. To listen and learn from their laughter and their heartache, to contemplate and consider. I never dreamed of teaching “Consonant Vowel Consonant” patterns to adult women. Until recently, it was an objective I only associated with primary students; but, I was unprepared for the excitement I’d feel as I watched my new students who eagerly desired to learn our language enjoy the satisfaction of decoding a word that was otherwise unknown.
These women let me into their most vulnerable spaces – their hearts and their minds – allowing me to teach them. I worried, at first, that perhaps what I was sharing seemed too simple. I didn’t want to offend them by appearing to take them through “baby” steps; but, they were not offended at all. They rose to the challenge, often exceeding my expectations, and I was royally impressed.
After all, though we were practicing constructing conversations with “sight” words (those which occur most commonly in text, but don’t follow typical phonetic patterns, so they must be memorized by “sight”) and matching pictures to words to increase vocabulary, I was fully aware of their complexity and sophistication as women. Most of my students speak five – seven languages, fluently. Several have families that can include four – eight children. Some speak Arabic. Most speak French and traditionally tribal languages. Most are pre-literate. I still marvel at their ability to be multilingual in the absence of written words, but they are fascinating!
Suddenly, my own efforts at learning another language seemed infinitesimal! I’d been studying Spanish very casually on my own. When they asked me if I was bilingual, I told them I speak 1.2 languages. They laughed. It was all I could muster, but they inspire me deeply. They fill me with excitement and enthusiasm because their commitment to learning is unlike anything I’ve seen before. With the constructs of COVID, we were unable to house all of the students for our twice weekly hour and a half lessons all at once. So we met outside in the back of our facility with outdoor tables instead.
They came in the cold. Several of them walked. Sometimes (when warmer), they came with babies. Infants, toddlers, small children. Sometimes the eldest attendee would calm the baby of a young mother with effortless gentility. She’d ease her anxiety about a fussy child, intentionally creating the opportunity for her to to be able to study her materials better. On chillier days, they were aptly wrapped in layers, heavy coats, thick socks and their masks – because they wanted to learn. It was the first time I taught in 40 degree weather and gloves; but, I couldn’t help but be moved by their desire.
Today, I am enriched both by teaching and being taught (including my lessons from them in French, to add to my Spanish). I am elated with every milestone the women reach and deeply reflective of the things that I learn when they are teaching me – not only as students, but as women. As human beings.
I am amazed that many of these women left war torn countries, unaware of the challenges that awaited them in a foreign land, but desirous of a better future and a hope for their families. I am devastated to know of the atrocities they experienced and hardships endured that are simply unfathomable. I am saddened by the struggles they experience because the language barrier can be so unsettling, but I’m excited to be the bridge between their desire and their learning.
I am heartbroken to have met a woman who was crossing a lion-inhabited savannah in Africa with her eleven children in unforgiving heat. She ran out of food and water despite her efforts to bring them along. She lost seven of those children during the arduous trek. Some were killed. Some died from hunger, and some died from thirst. I’ve yet to understand the depth of her grief. Nevertheless, she is a pillar in the community, making it here safely, and she is immensely thankful for the four children that survived.
I am honored to be these women’s teacher. I am privileged to learn to be more thankful for blessings that they remind me without saying, that I’ve taken for granted. I am determined to give them my best efforts, my sincerest thoughts, and my fervent prayers. Never have I been so delighted to be invited to such a grand affair – the language of literacy and love. I am confident that what we share between us can make the difference of a life time. For many years, I’ve loved being a teacher, but today, I feel this profession is priceless.
#teachingchangeslives #literacylove #toteachistobetaught #imalifelonglearner #carlamichelle
To learn more about this organization, volunteer or donate to the education of the refugee families supported here, visit http://www.hopeinourcity.org.