It was a grey day and I was fighting traffic on the soulless commute to work. I had the radio tuned to the CBC when a morning announcer brought tears to my eyes with the statement, "Teachers of ESL, you are heroes."
Isn't it everyone's dream to have their work make a difference to the world? While steering through city streets, I thought back to my experience teaching college communications to new Canadians in those hectic, frustrating, but wonderful night classes. The radio announcer had it backward.
I was a veteran college lecturer when I walked into the overcrowded classroom a few years ago. It was silent in the room. Everyone sat and looked forward politely. All were women of varying ages. Many looked apprehensive, even scared.
This was a three-hour night class, a required course for more than one certificate program. We had a strict curriculum to follow and prescribed examinations.
For the first exercise, I had students interview each other. Each was to introduce her partner to the class and speak a little about her.
Here's what we discovered from that exercise: Six students were right out of high school and hoping to become executive assistants. The rest - more than 20 women - were recent immigrants from many different cultures hoping to improve their English. Many had completed all the ESL courses offered at the college, and were taking my class - any class - to help them speak English better. They did not care if they passed or failed - this was simply a way to get more practice.
Follow Facts & Arguments on Twitter
I was alarmed. How was I going to teach college-level communications to such a diverse group of individuals with varying levels of English skills? Some could barely be understood.
By week two, it became evident these students needed me to go back to the beginning. We introduced basic grammar to the course curriculum and trudged through the relationships of subject/object, parts of speech, clauses and phrases, and "what is a sentence." This was no waste of time - my Canadian-born students were missing the basics and required grammar lessons just as much as the recent immigrants.
By week three, a strange thing had happened. When I arrived at class nearly one hour early, several women were waiting for me. The classroom was buzzing with energy.
By week four, the chatting in the room was deafening. Smiles and laughter greeted me as I walked into the classroom. Students were sitting beside each other, reviewing each other's homework.
By week five, I realized some of my students needed more help. We established an after-class résumé review club where students could get additional attention. The stronger students stayed after hours to help the weaker ones. I didn't even have to ask. Together we taught the others how to tailor their résumés to apply for specific jobs.
Join the Facts & Arguments Facebook group
By the end of the course, two students had new jobs, and several more had interviews coming up.
By week six, we were humming. The classroom had become a curious experiment in cross-cultural communication. Women started to bring food into class, delicacies from different cultures. It was a celebration.
One woman said the class was her entire social life, outside of her own family. This sparked a lively discussion on the role of women in Canada and the rights of women everywhere. Many students had been through recent hardship. They had struggled to come to Canada, and were struggling now to make ends meet and to adjust to a new culture. And sometimes, I am embarrassed to say, they had to struggle with the knowledge that not all Canadians wanted them here.
Throughout it all, they worked hard. Tests were written; presentations were presented; reports were handed in on time. I never heard any complaints about the amount of work expected. It was clear my students were learning a lot.
So did I. I learned the joy of learning. My international students were so eager to learn. Their enthusiasm made me a better and more committed teacher.
I learned that exams and marks don't necessarily reflect progress. Some of my C students deserved far greater marks for the progress they had made throughout the term.
I learned that just because someone stumbles while speaking English, it doesn't mean they are any less intelligent.
And I learned that joy and laughter are contagious across cultures.
Subscribe to the Facts & Arguments podcast on iTunes
When it was finally time to say goodbye, I cried along with my students. We made plans to stay in touch, and some of us have. One woman told me this class had been one of the best experiences of her life. I was truly humbled.
I no longer teach communications at college. Alas, you can't make a living teaching night school, even if you teach it every night. But I look forward to the day when I can go back to the classroom. Something is missing in my life now, something important.
Many people come to Canada to make a better life for their children. To those women who come to this country with little English and a lot of hope, you are the real heroes.
Melodie Campbell lives in Oakville, Ont.