When the going gets tough…

When the going gets tough…

An ESL Teacher’s Perspective on our Current State of Events

by Jessica Gardner 



Being an ESL instructor just got a lot tougher. On top of all the challenges that our students, clients, and colleagues already face, they are now having to worry even more about being deported or harassed by those around them. It might be tempting for some of us to try to escape this mess – to pack up and go abroad for the next four years – but we have to resist that urge. We are needed more than ever to stand up for those currently under attack.


In the five years I’ve been teaching, I’ve already experienced countless touching moments of overcoming cultural barriers and building bridges, both in and out of the classroom. I remember having dinner with a couple of my Muslim students who shared how difficult it was to reconcile the American lifestyle they’d become accustomed to with their traditional beliefs. They wondered how they would live with that once they got back to Iraq. I also remember the time that my very low-beginner grad students got into a misunderstanding, and how sincerely one of the Chinese students apologized to her Iranian classmate, despite not having adequate language for it. I remember a first-semester Taiwanese student who likened me to a mother figure, and said his classmates were the children, just opening their eyes for the first time. I recall the many times students have taken me out to dinner or invited me into their homes to show their appreciation for me. I’ll never forget how worried I was about the Thai student who called me for advice after he was involved in a serious accident, or how moved I was by the student who gave me a big hug when I shared that my dad had cancer.


On an almost daily basis, I’ll encounter former students who wave or call out to me from down the hall or across the street. It warms my heart tremendously that we have built a connection that has lasted years after they leave my classroom. It’s a connection built on mutual respect and caring, and we need so much more of that right now.


I also remember all the people who went the extra mile to help me and be friendly when I spent a year teaching in Macau. When I arrived, I didn’t know anyone, and could speak neither Cantonese nor Portuguese. Time after time though, people helped me with what I needed – figuring out the bus system, buying household necessities, ordering food in restaurants, going to the doctor. Their kindness was amazing, and I’ll never forget it.


Living abroad gives you a different perspective on your country too. Sometimes you have to answer obnoxious questions like, “Does everyone in America own a gun?” or “Why did you elect The Terminator as your governor?” You see both the beauty and the ridiculousness of your culture in a new light. I have another strong memory of experiencing culture shock for the first time. I’d been in Macau for about four months, the holidays were approaching, and I was sitting in a cafe grading papers. They had soul music playing for some unusual reason, and it made me very emotional. In that moment, the spirit of the African American community was such a powerful reminder of both the great diversity and unfairness that is America. It overwhelmed me, and at the same time, made me incredibly homesick.


I presume that most of the people who are currently speaking out against “foreigners,” in America and across the globe, don’t really know many of the people they’re afraid of. I’ve done some traveling, and in my experience, most people are wonderful – in every culture I’ve encountered. I see advocacy as a part of my job as an ESL instructor, so I find myself intervening on behalf of my students and people of “different” cultural backgrounds fairly often. More than any other reason – this is why we need to stay put. Our students and colleagues and friends and neighbors need us to stand up for them through whatever is coming. We can be the ones that raise awareness between cultural groups, and that is work that desperately needs to be done.


Living abroad is wonderful, and I hope everyone has the opportunity to experience it at some point in their lives. But please, stay here for now. Have courage. Rise to the challenge. Use your knowledge and talents for something bigger. Do what you can to help the people who may not have a voice. Encourage the people in power to experience and embrace other cultures. Since I’m an ESL teacher, I’m thinking primarily of people from other countries, but this is needed for the LGBTQ community, the Black Lives Matter movement, Muslims, veterans, refugees, you name it.


If you want specific suggestions for yourself or others, here are a handful:


  1. If there are people you don’t understand, first go to where they are.
  2. Look for ways to get to know them. Visit an ethnic restaurant and try the food. Go to a community event. Volunteer.
  3. Check out the art and music they make. Read a book by one of their authors. Look at photos of their country or community. Try to relate.
  4. Strike up conversations and be open to new ideas.
  5. Do some research and learn about their history and struggle.


But, whatever you do, do it here. We do need to make America great again, and the greatest thing about us is our diversity. It’s going to take all of us to turn this thing around, so don’t pack your bags yet. America still has the potential to be the amazing place we long for it to be, but it’s going to take some hard work to get there. Are you in?

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