Teaching ESL and Building Confidence

A young man stands among vendors at a farmers market
Justin strolls along a street market during one of his many travels abroad.
Teaching English created a unique opportunity for me to develop my skills as a blind professional and problem solver.

“Yeah…that sounds interesting. Let’s do it.” I had just committed myself to spending a semester at University of California – Berkeley teaching English to Guatemalan refugees with a friend. She had found a local Bay Area-based nonprofit that helps to connect refugees from Central America with services and resources, and one of the things that they offered was English as a second language, taught by volunteers in refugee's homes.

I had no idea how I was going to do this. I had never really taught English to anyone before, and the most language experience I had was studying Spanish and completing a 10-week immersion program in Mexico. I did not know how I would teach as someone who is blind. I had learned a language, but I mostly learned it in a way that was nonvisual. How would I convey common lessons that used lots of pictures and textbooks to my students?

Yet this opportunity was going to shape me in a number of important ways, while creating a skill set and options for the future as I went forward.

My friend and I met with the representative of the program, who explained to us the expectations, and presented us to our students. As he reviewed what we would be doing, I felt a mix of growing apprehension and curiosity. Didn’t he notice that I was blind? Wasn’t he going to announce that he did not think that this volunteer opportunity was appropriate for me and that I should look for something else that would fit my abilities? Yet he didn’t say anything, which made me think, that maybe I could handle this.

However, that first lesson that I had with Javier, a middle-aged refugee who fled his country with his family, supporting them with his job as a handyman, did not go smoothly. We had a good conversation in Spanish about his story, and what he wanted to get from these classes. He was clearly a nice man and eager to learn, and ready to work with me, his teacher.

I was aware that I had to present a veneer of confidence, value, and authority, yet leaving his house that night with my friend, I wondered whether I could handle this. During our lesson, I was having trouble communicating grammatical concepts, and realizing that, since my student could not read even in his native language, that I was going to have to get creative for him to learn anything from me. It seemed like getting pictures of objects that would be relevant for him in his job was the answer, though how would I be able to find those things?

Yet, I was determined to do a good job. After some time, the answers came to me.

Next time I visited my student, I came prepared with a binder full of pictures of the vocabulary words, each labeled in braille. I went through each one, showed him the picture, and indicated what each item was in English.

We went back through after a few lessons, and I started checking what my student was learning. "What is this," I asked? "That's a wrench," he answered. At the end, after packing up and a "great job" from my friend, I left strengthened in my own self-confidence. Yes. I can do this and so could he.

Teaching English to Guatemalan refugees in the Bay Area was the experience that forced me out of my comfort zone, and that would ultimately open the door to future volunteerism when I studied in Chile for a year teaching computer skills to other blind people in a Santiago-based nongovernmental organization.

It’s being open to explore what’s out there, to engage in areas where there’s great need for more intercultural interactions, that makes each of us better understand what we can do and what we can do for each other.


Justin Harford