Reflections of an ESOL Tutor

Every year the outstanding Holyoke Tutor Mentor Program provides Juntos ABE programs with high quality, dedicated tutors to provide individualized and small group academic support in the classroom.  These volunteer tutors come from surrounding communities from a variety of backgrounds, but they have in common a desire/commitment to making a contribution to our community by helping people build the academic skills necessary to pass the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) or become more proficient and comfortable speaking English; so they can participate more fully in their children’s education or get a better job.  In behalf of our ESOL students and their families, we want to acknowlege the work of our two fabulous tutors, Jennifer and Johanna in helping our English language learners reach their goals. Many small acts of kindness have a positive multi-generational impact and really do contribute to meaningful social change.

The reflection below below was written by ESOL tutor Jennifer Delozier and speaks to the richness of experience many tutors enjoy through the “two-way learning” process they participate in with our students.

Listening With Different Ears 

I am a volunteer tutor in a nearby city with adults who are learning to speak, read and write English. English is my native and only language. In one class of sixteen students, 9 countries are represented by students for whom English is not their native language. Sometimes, my “English-prone” ears don’t adjust well to their best attempts at English words. To say this indicates there is absolutely nothing wrong with the English that that the students speak and are learning to speak better all the time.

When my lack of understanding of a non-native speaker in a conversation first occurred, I panicked a bit because I didn’t understand what a student was saying.  “I didn’t quite get that. Will you tell me again?” I would stumble and sweat. In the weeks to follow, I also found myself often blurting out, “Can you repeat that please?” or “I didn’t understand that. Can you try again?”

All of these responses to the students’ attempts at speaking English well could have been an unconscious assumption on my part that the student whose  words I  didn’t comprehend needed to speak differently; that something was “wrong” with how they were speaking.

I am now in my 2nd year of tutoring. But there was a time of immense frustration for me during those first few months, which resulted in a subtle understanding that I needed to change my ears and my ways of hearing to best understand what was being said. It began to dawn on me that it was my problem, not theirs. To remedy this entailed listening carefully and with full attention on the student and the words he/she were saying. It helped to be face-to-face but eye contact was not always necessary nor even appropriate depending on a person’s native culture and customs. Just ear to mouth; mine to theirs.

The biggest aspect that needed to change was that assumption that since the students weren’t speaking clearly there was something wrong with how they were speaking. As I continue in this role, it needs to be with outmost humility and patience in myself and with the students.

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About cepholyoke

Executive Director, Community Education Project
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