Lessons of the Outlier

Young students with books and notes. Smart young guy and girl doing their homework in University campus. Learning and education for young people.
image source: www.bigstockphoto.com

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” M. Proust

Travel is not new to me. Travel as a newly minted ESL teacher is.

I am in the middle of a month-long TESL internship in Poland, arranged through Algonquin College, as an optional extension to the TESL Program. Though culturally quite similar to Canada, I am plunked in a community where I do not speak or read the language.

As is usually the case in life, I am learning far more than I expected. There is very little, well, no English here and even my attempts to Google information land in Polish (not an easy language to tangle with). I have run the gamut of emotions as I encounter small, yet significant, issues due to being unfamiliar with the language.

I am bumping into situations that our learners in ESL classes encounter daily as they make their new homes in Canada. Seeing, and feeling, this experience from the other side of the lens, I have a whole new appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges our learners face.

5 Small But Big Lessons Learned

  1. Days of the week. Though I did practice some rudimentary Polish before my arrival, I forgot to consider that I may need to know the days – for trains, laundry, stores, and museums. Very important, indeed.
  2. Numbers are key. Numbers in Polish are required for many things, like taking a cab, buying train tickets and ordering coffee. While the fingers of the hand can be useful, it can lead to 2 espressos rather than one double. A little embarrassing to sit there by myself with two coffees. Again, I did not cover the basics of 1-10.
  3. Knowing where to look. As I start to decipher signage, I realize that I am able to rely on my general knowledge of where to look for information. A trip to the grocery store saw me alone in a deserted parking lot in front of locked doors. The store should be open. I looked to the small print below the hours of the store -Sklep Nieczynny. Store is closed, Google translate told me later. Poland has begun a phase out of Sunday shopping and that Sunday was one of the days.
  4. Knowing how. I have ridden a bus, lots of buses, but I couldn’t figure out how to ride the bus here. How much it costs. Tickets or cash. I walk.
  5. Staying close to home. I can nod and smile to a point in an interaction but when I realize I am in too deep and I say “Angeilski”, I am greeted with a look of surprise or terror, not quite sure which, and communication comes to a grinding halt. While I am quite adept at negotiating communication in my own community, my skills are quite lacking when I find myself at the other end of the proverbial stick. I now understand why it is difficult, and exhausting, for our learners to get out and about and how much courage and energy it requires.

As I continue my internship and my intrepid navigation of a community where I am a non-native speaker, I am constantly reminded of the challenges our learners face and how important it is, as they learn English, that they learn all the hows, whats, whys, and whatfors in the community around them.

Sometimes, by virtue of living in a community, we can overlook small, but important, things. Things we take for granted. By listening to the needs of students, asking what they need to know, what they want to know, we, as instructors, are pivotal in the healthy and happy adjustment of newcomers to Canada. And hey, maybe, take them for a ride on the bus.

Jennifer Stolpmann is a lifelong learner who loves to teach. From yoga to Literacy/Basic Skills and now, a recent graduate of the Algonquin College TESL Program and active ESL teacher in the Ottawa area, Jennifer thrives on sharing her passion for learning.
Jennifer is also a new member of the TESL Ottawa board.

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