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Rebecca Wagoner: What I’ve (Unexpectedly) Learned from Teaching ESL

I was originally hesitant to enter the world of online education, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sufficiently connect with my students, but I’m now three years in and have found the opposite to be true.

Working from an online platform has given me access to teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) learners from at least 50 countries. I’ve worked with a woman from Iraqi Kurdistan living in the UK, a Syrian refugee living in Saudi Arabia, pharmacists from Egypt who live in the U.S. and wait years before their professional certification can be transferred; and students from India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Haiti who moved to the United States to be with their significant others.

These particular learners were conversationally advanced in English, hard-working, open-minded and friendly, but I noticed a particular level of loneliness in them because they didn’t feel connected to their new cities or the people around them. Some expressed intimidation of meeting native English speakers for fear of not being understood. Others found it difficult to break through the inevitable bubble that surrounds immigrant communities. Even after years of living abroad, I was sometimes the first native English speaker that my students had a meaningful conversation with.

Distance learning has played a huge role in helping overcome the feeling of isolation for new immigrants. Some of these individuals are working so hard to pass their English exams or receive American degrees that the only time they have to meet someone is once a week from home, making it a challenge to connect with their local communities. The core of the learning process in ESL is conversation, which results in a willingness to share personal anecdotes that are often more intimate than typical conversations. The one-on-one environment allows for empathy between strangers, giving way to a unique relationship that helps learners feel more culturally connected to where they live and essentially fit in.

Tutoring has given me a small window into my students’ lives and taught me to think twice when it comes to the people around me locally. I live in Miami, a city with a large immigrant community, and I don’t hear their stories. Through these connections online, I’m constantly reminded of how hard it is to be a foreigner—especially because of a division between locals and immigrants. ESL has the potential to help immigrants connect to a culture that could otherwise remain foreign to them. While distance learning helps connect individuals who never would have otherwise met, tutoring and conversation in general can play a significant role in helping immigrants feel at home.

Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.
Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.