Teaching, or Trying

By Michael Gutgsell

This month I am starting my fourth year in Chicago. I came to this city with big hopes that I would be able to leave behind part-time minimum wage work and the naive belief that an internship would open doors for me. I came to Chicago educated, hard-working, and excited for my new life.

I showed up at the refugee resettlement agency believing I was to be an assistant English instructor to adult refugees. Instead, after having me shadow all of three classes (in which the instructor read directly from a worksheet and had the students repeat after him for three hours), I was given control of an entire class for the rest of the year.  That was my training. My supervisor was an Ethiopian man, like nearly everyone who worked there, and his English was fine, but his accent was so thick it was difficult to understand. He was the entirety of the English as a Second Language department. And now there was me: a college graduate with a degree in creative writing, whose resume was largely made up of serving jobs.

The men and women looked up at me with sweet, trusting smiles. Some of them, I later learned, were there because they had to be in order to receive some sort of financial benefit. Others were there actually believing that I could teach them how to communicate in their new country.

There were a few people from Eritrea, a guy from Iraq, a family from the Congo, one sweet community member named Yolanda from Mexico, and many, many more from Nepal. With the exception of Yolanda, I couldn’t communicate with them in their native languages. The vast majority of Nepalese students hadn’t had any formal education and couldn’t even write in their own language.

For months I plodded along, mimicking my supervisor, reading from the handouts. I created quizzes as well as homework assignments (which were almost universally unheeded). We shared recipes, stories, and music. My fellow intern Kathy would break up every morning by bringing me a cup of perfect coffee: super sweet, with powdered milk. I looked forward to it every day.

Students drifted in and out day by day, and it was frustratingly difficult to make progress. The organization was flawed. For my last six months there my supervisor was on vacation, and I kept the classes going with the help of a single dedicated volunteer and several not-so-dedicated volunteers. I couldn’t expect more from full-time students who were donating their time (and the one stripper there for community service hours after creating a public disturbance in a department store), but I expected more from an organization whose goal was to help assimilate refugees into the U.S.

My anger changed the way I taught. I abandoned the children’s workbooks and started teaching them about the U.S. government, civic engagement, and how to make a resume, drop it off, and make it through a simple job interview. Since I was pretty clueless about the government, this meant I learned a lot, too. I mastered quickly picking up the basics before teaching the material the next day, and if ever I couldn’t answer a question, I looked it up and we went over it the next day. Suddenly the students were engaged, and instead of smiling pleasantly, passing the morning, there were furrowed brows, notes, and questions. After class, I met with individual students to look for jobs online. Once I even went downtown with one to apply for a job as a cook. He got the job, but it had nothing to do with me. The manager asked him if he knew what to do with a wok. He asked: “Wok?” and made a sweeping moment with his hand, as though he were holding the handle of a wok. “That’s it,” the manager smiled.

That was the single triumph of the job. Kathy and I were there for a service year, yes, but also to develop skills that would hopefully apply elsewhere. What we did learn we figured out on our own, and there was no one who helped us gain new skills or professional knowledge. Until I pushed myself on the Job Development Department as an assistant, my work day was made up of my three-hour class. Kathy had even less to do and pretty much spent her seven hours on Facebook. We would go home for extravagantly long lunches. She would make something from scratch, and then we’d watch an episode of True Blood, and then mosey back to the office to sit in our separate offices in the heat, doing whatever we could to pass the time.

I got the feeling that even if I cared and I worked hard, I wouldn’t get anywhere. There wasn’t a lot I could do for my students. They were looking for jobs as housekeepers, cooks, and factory workers. Usually whether or not they got the job had less to do with how professional they were, how hard-working, or how good their English was, and more to do with their age and sex. All most of them wanted was a job, any job, just some way to support themselves and their family.

When the year came to a close, despite our strong argument not to have this organization host another intern, our service year organization decided to send two other people there, saying “Maybe they’ve worked out the kinks.” This more than anything angered me. It’s one thing to waste a year of two young adults, but another to do that and then knowingly do it again to others.

Because there was nothing for me to do, I wrote the next intern a long letter. I tried to tell her everything I wish I had been told. What to expect, what the students wanted, where the supplies were, and the important deadlines for assessment. I kept it positive, because lord knows she’d figure out the negative side of things soon enough on her own. Once that was carefully edited and saved, I felt I had done the best I could do for my students and the next intern.

When I visited a couple months later, I stepped into my old classroom to a roomful of new faces. The new intern, holding a sheet copied from one of the children’s workbooks, looked at me with a face set hard and unwelcoming. I left quickly, but I understood how she felt. She was trying her best with no help and didn’t want someone looking on, presumably judging. I asked around and found out that they had moved around the computer I had worked on, and as a result, the intern never received my introductory letter or the supplies I had carefully organized for her. I understood more than ever her stony expression. She was like me a year ago, realizing that she had months and months of this stretching out before her, no guidance and no training, and the expectant faces of adults who had been raised to revere teachers looking up at her, clutching a copied page, repeating: “Excuse me, where is the laundromat?” until twelve o’clock, or Kingdom Come, whichever came first.

The last lines of my letter to the new intern were as follows: “You will learn so much from working with the students, they are wonderful people—I am going to miss them so much. Do good work. Give and receive things with two hands. Go slow. Be flexible. Go to El Famous Burrito for lunch every once and awhile. Be honest. Good luck.”


Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.


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