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My Turn: The rewards of teaching English as a second language

I am a retired English teacher who taught in high school and college for many years. Looking back at those years, I realize how lucky I was to have been able to earn a living doing what I loved.

 After retiring from public school teaching in 1995 (following 38 years working in North Babylon) and before I began teaching at Suffolk County Community College about 2006, I worked for three years teaching English as a second language for BOCES, first at Wilson Tech in Dix Hills and later at Copiague High School’s night classes. This experience came about after I read a Newsday story about the shortage of teachers available to work with adults who wanted to learn to speak and understand English better. After reading the article, I went to the BOCES offices and got myself a position as a volunteer ESL teacher, first working in a classroom with another teacher and then on my own.

I had enjoyed my previous teaching experiences, but the three years I spent as an ESL teacher remain a particularly important part of my career. Most of the adult men and women I worked with were from Central America or Mexico, and they had been living here for a long time without becoming proficient in English.    

Teaching these men and women was a challenge. Most had been out of school many years, and they had often left school when they were still young to work and help support their families. The countries these men and women had emigrated from were mostly poor and often war-torn.

I was reminded of those years teaching ESL recently when I went to the gym wearing one of my favorite T-shirts. The message on my shirt was simple — “Immigrants are Americans” — but wearing this shirt got me thinking about the wonderful men and women I had spent three years teaching.

I remember Dominick, a student for three years. He had come from El Salvador, where he said he had lived in constant fear. There were gangs everywhere, he said, and when he saw a man killed by men with machetes across the street from his house, he decided to come to America to start a new life.

Another student was Rosa, a woman in her 50s who had been here for almost 30 years without really learning English. She lived with her husband and two adult sons, both of whom graduated from college in the United States. Her husband, Manolo, was not in my class because his English was pretty good. She worked in a produce market where I would often buy fruits and vegetables. She struggled to learn, but she never missed a class, always did her homework and when the class ended, she thanked me for being her teacher.

At the beginning of my second year, two sisters from Poland joined the class. They had recently arrived in America. These two women soon became important members of our group, rarely missing a class. When they finally missed a class, I asked them why.

“Oh, Mister Teacher,” one exclaimed. “We have no circle, no circle!”

“What do mean, 'circle'? I don’t understand.”

This went on until I gave them a sheet of paper and asked them to draw a picture.

“Oh, yes, teacher. I do it,” one said. She drew a picture of a car, circling one of the tires.

Finally, I realized why they had been absent: Their car had a flat tire! One of the other Polish students who spoke a little English confirmed my understanding.

These are just a few of the students I taught during three years, but they made a lasting impression on me. It was not easy for these people to leave their countries and come to America to find a new and a better life, but to them this life was far better than the one they had escaped.

Bruce Long,


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