Ask Mary Cora

americorpHello again, my Friends in Service!  I know it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been around, but I’m back from a long sabbatical and ready to dish out the AmeriVice where needed!  If you have a burning question that you’d like an answer to, you can submit questions at trainings to any of the newsletter committee members and they can get the message on to me. Cheers!

Dear Mary Cora,
I’m teaching ESL for the first time and it’s super rad.  My students are really nice and I think I’m doing a pretty good job. The thing is that sometimes I want to use my student’s native language (which I speak as a second language) to explain things in class. Do you think this undermines their English learning experience?  How else can I explain a missed concept or idea?
Multi-AmeriLingual Teacher

Dear AmeriLingual,
I’m psyched that you like teaching ESL. Our mother organization, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, is always looking for more tutors because the wait list is so long.  I’m also sure that you’re doing an excellent job with your students.
It’s a real boon to be able to speak multiple languages and can certainly come in handy during critical situations (think medical information, important documents, etc). That being said, a lot of ESL teachers will have a rule about only speaking English when the class is in session (if you’ve ever taken a foreign language class in a university, they usually have the same rule, but no English).  This is called immersion learning and can be difficult, but typically yields great results because students are so strongly encouraged to practice their new language.
Learning English is hard, and there will be struggles.  Your students (and you!) are bound to get frustrated at times because communication doesn’t flow as easily as you’d like. But those are excellent teaching moments and can really help you to get closer to your students.  Making mistakes and working hard to be understood are both inevitable and rewarding aspects of any type of language learning, both for the student and the teacher.  It’s also totally normal to end a class and feel like the lesson failed miserably. It’s okay; it wasn’t as bad as you may think, I promise. You’ll have a chance to try again; and your students won’t think less of you. Sometimes the most important lesson for us as instructors is that our students keep coming despite our misgivings.
Something else to keep in mind is that you may have multiple languages being represented in one class.  For example: say that you speak Arabic, but your class is made up of a Korean, a Latino, a Frenchwoman, and an Iraqi. Unless you can assist all the other students, it’s probably best to keep the multiple languages, in class, to an utter minimum.
That being said: if you’re still unsure or have a more specific situation, ask your site supervisor what they might recommend.  ESL levels are varied and fluid in many ways, so what is appropriate for one level may not be advisable in another one.
And if you’d like to practice your second language, you can always ask your students to meet you for a cup of tea to chat and practice.  Many students are more than happy to help you in the same ways that you are helping them!

Dear Mary Cora,
I’m really enjoying my year of service so far, but I have a question about what is acceptable at my service site.  I have a good amount of downtime when I’m expected to do paperwork and case notes.  But I get super bored just sitting there!  Is it okay to listen to music at my desk while I work?

Dear AmeriMelody,
Paperwork and case notes can be a very tedious, time consuming part of our positions.  Here are a few things to think about:

  • Could the type of music you listen to be considered offensive to other people in your office?
  • Would playing music at your desk be distracting to other employees or clients?
  • Are you a hummer/sing-a-longer?  This could be distracting to others and could impede your task completion.
  • Can you adjust the volume of the music easily to accommodate others?  Or, can you use earbuds while you listen?
    • Could earbuds distract you from completing other duties such as answering the phone?

In general, it shouldn’t be an issue.  Low, non-abrasive music can be a great way to help keep you motivated and chugging along with your paperwork.
But, as per the usual, check with your site supervisor. There may be an office policy to not have any music playing and you don’t want to violate that. Never hurts to ask!

Editor: Susie Backscheider

(Thanks to The Washington Retention Project for providing my photo.)


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