June 2022

how teaching english classes has taught me to live with dignity, tenacity and courage

Susie Boyce, Salt Lake City

when I walked into the classroom as a volunteer English teacher for the first time, I was unprepared for the examples of courage, determination and grit I would be learning from week after week.

This class, for adult learners with limited proficiency in English, is one of dozens offered by the English Skills Learning Center based in Salt Lake City. The center evaluates learners’ English literacy levels and places them in classes according to their learning needs. The center serves people from more than 86 countries; and, the class I help teach consists of individuals from Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan and Ukraine.

The curriculum in our class is for emergent readers, so I was surprised at the variety of educational backgrounds represented.

Some learners are proficient in multiple languages, but are new to this country and want to learn English. Others have little to no literacy in their native languages (often due to limited educational opportunities); and, because some of them are new to formal education, they are learning basic literacy concepts — like letters, words and sentence formation — for the first time.

I don’t know much about my students’ lives in their native countries, and I don’t ask questions for fear of bringing up traumatic memories, even though I see them twice a week. Language barriers, too, complicate our abilities for small talk — but, the media gives me glimpses into what some of them may have experienced before arriving in Utah, and every interaction increases my understanding of and respect for them.

We teach people from Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, 

Sudan, and Ukraine

T he oldest class member is an octogenarian from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She moves slowly, regularly fighting debilitating pain; but she shows up every week ready to learn, with a huge smile on her face.

A Sudanese father of three, completely deaf in one ear and significantly hard-of-hearing in the other, sits in the front row every week and is one of the most engaged learners.

Young moms bring infants and preschool-age children, doing a remarkable job of learning while tending to the needs of their children.

A wheelchair-user from Burundi has never missed a day of class, regardless of inclement weather.

And, the two newest class members are a young man from Afghanistan and a 55-year-old woman from Ukraine.

The media gives me glimpses into what some of them may have

experienced before arriving in Utah

and every interaction increases my understanding of and respect for them.

I’ve been struck by how well these learners are able to learn from, connect with and support one another

— without speaking each others’ languages.

I‘ve been struck by how well these learners are able to learn from, connect with and support one another — without speaking each others’ languages. The laughter that erupts repeatedly throughout class is delightful. And the best part of any class period — hands down — is when a learner comprehends or recalls a new concept for the first time.

We celebrate each of those moments.

I genuinely look forward to teaching these classes, because I always learn a great deal more from the remarkable individuals I teach than they do from me. I teach them English, but they teach me life and how to live it with dignity, tenacity and courage.

I teach them english, but they teach me life and how to live it with dignity, tenacity and courage.

Published in KSL.com

Susie Boyce

Writer