Volunteer ESL Teaching: Challenges and Opportunities
I took the ITTT online TEFL course not to prepare to teach English as an employee working abroad, but as a volunteer in the United States to teach refugee and immigrant adults. I completed the units a few months ago, but I waited to do this summative task until I could begin teaching classes as a volunteer teacher and reflect on that experience.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sherri V. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
I’ve found that teaching ESL as a volunteer in the United States is associated with several factors that may be different from the experience of an employed TEFL teacher abroad. This essay describes key opportunities and challenges for volunteer teachers and suggestions based on my experience so far.
Teaching ESL as a volunteer provides important opportunities for learning and growth.
I’ve been working with two nonprofit organizations serving the community, and I’ve been given extended training by one of those organizations. I feel more comfortable allowing myself to take the position of a learner as I teach my classes, knowing that I’m providing a service that would otherwise not be available to some of the students we serve, in a location that is in their neighborhood. I tend to be hard on myself, and if I were in a paid position I would face more anxiety about trying new things in the classroom.
On the other hand, serving as a volunteer teacher poses several challenges.
Because adult students served by a nonprofit are not paying for classes, this can impact their motivation and consistency in class attendance. One might assume that adults in a free class would be quite motivated to attend class and participate in activities, but without the commitment of some sort of fee, students are tempted to let other activities or projects get in the way of their attending class. It’s even more important in a free class to plan activities that are fun and engaging—and bring some joy to students who are attending class after a long workday.
Free ESL classes provided by nonprofit organizations can be quite small, which can make it more difficult to facilitate games and fun activities. One of the classes I teach has just three students—and it is a multi-level class, with one of the students being at the pre-intermediate level, one of the students at the elementary level, and one of the students at the true starter level. Paired activities are the key in this class; I choose to work with the true starter, with the pre-intermediate and elementary level student in a pairing. It’s more challenging to run competitive games with this small group of three because their skill levels are so different than the competition is a little unfair and would be discouraging to the beginner.
Free ESL classes provided by nonprofit organizations in my city (and I think this would be generally true of nonprofits in the United States) generally serve two key populations, which have very different cultural contexts. The first population consists of refugees who are in the process of being resettled in this country. The second population is typically Spanish speakers who have been in the United States for some time (sometimes for years), and who work in companies where the employees speak Spanish to each other and can shop at Hispanic stores and otherwise get along without speaking much English. In the first population, students often have an L1 that is not common in an English-speaking city and they are often highly motivated to learn English to survive. In the second population, students attend a class out of a general sense that they “should” learn English, but not out of a true sense of need.
Working With Different Groups
For the first population (refugees), English lessons also need to incorporate the teaching of American cultural concepts that may be unfamiliar. However, for the second population (Spanish-speaking residents), these cultural concepts are already familiar—they merely need to know the language used for a familiar concept or process. Many nonprofits focus on refugees but open their classes to others as well, and in this case, one might have a culturally mixed class. In this setting, it’s important to decide whether to pair students who need to learn cultural concepts, or whether to pair each refugee student with a student who is familiar with the cultural concepts. The challenge of a class that is culturally mixed in this way is also a good learning opportunity because it requires the teacher to develop flexible lessons that include additional learning materials to accommodate these differences.
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Along with these challenges, there is one great benefit of teaching ESL classes as a volunteer—building relationships with the students over time, learning about their needs, and assisting them to overcome barriers to meet their goals. In another class, I teach (pre-intermediate and intermediate learners), there has been a sense of joy as the students learn about each other’s dreams for the future—such as owning a custom cake shop, building a construction business, learning to be a web developer. The students support each other in these dreams, and we’re working together to make those dreams a reality. Many TEFL students in the United States desire to use ESL teaching as a way to live abroad or aim to teach online from home as a way to supplement their income. But volunteering to teach those in the community, to help them gain skills and achieve their goals in life, is worth considering for anyone obtaining a TESOL/TEFL certification.
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