Terri (left) with her student Assane (middle) and his wife and daughter
I have worked with Terri on a few small projects during my first few months at the Brunner Literacy Center. We have shared stories, and she has shared advice. Terri has been tutoring at the BLC for years, and she volunteers her time throughout the spring and summer on the committee that plans the BLC's annual 5k walk/run.
Terri's passion and enthusiasm for teaching are evident in every interaction I have had with her, and I hardly suspect I am alone in that feeling.
When I sat down with Terri at the beginning of August, I intended to have a personal but brief conversation about her experiences with tutoring and her journey to it - a conversation to last no more than 15 minutes. Or so I thought. Well, 30 minutes after we began talking, I realized we needed to wrap up our discussion because there was no way I could include the entire interview in our newsletter.
What you have here is the full version of my conversation with Terri. A shorter version is published in the August 2016 issue of The BLC Bulletin, which you can find here.
Questions are in blue, and Terri's responses are in green.
B: I’ve never used this [voice recording app] before… I’ll just set it over here.
T: And that’s fine!
B: So the first thing that I would want to know would be, how you got started tutoring. What have you done before this, and how’d you come here?
T: Yes. Mmm, I began my professional career as a teacher, and I was a French teacher. For eighth graders and ninth graders at West Carrollton. And I really enjoyed teaching, very much enjoyed teaching. I then transitioned into a position as a junior high guidance counselor, then a senior high guidance counselor. So I’ve done both of those things. Luckily at the time I began teaching I also had a Master’s Degree in counseling that I got from the University of Dayton. And, um, so throughout my professional career, my positions have been more counseling-oriented than teaching, but the wonderful part of counseling is I would go into classrooms and do group guidance types of activities with children. And we were reading stories and talking and focusing on problem-solving. Being a good friend and so forth.
At one point I had a position where I was working with preschool parents as a family resource coordinator. And so I put information out, did a lot of parent training, family training, and it was wonderful because I was invited into people’s homes. I did home visits. And so some of the home visits would be talking to the parent but also, “Mrs. Gilbert, do you wanna see my bike?” You know? And I loved it. I loved it.
What I… What I realized at that point, and I don’t think I had been very aware of it up to that point, in working with the parents, and this would be a preschool that, um, worked with children whose parents wouldn’t have been able to afford other preschool experiences. All the way up to people that were very able to afford them. It was a full range. Sometimes things would go home, and they would not come back.
B: Wow, oh.
T: Yes. And I’m thinking, “What- What’s going on here? What’s going on here?” And I’m in the home, you know, so the papers might go home, so the parents are very - the ones I’m thinking of - the parents are very friendly and kind to you when you’re there, but then they’ll… Things aren’t coming back.
So I, in doing my home visits one-on-one, was sitting on a couch one day with a parent that looked at me - and this was one of those parents - and she looked at me, and she said, “I need to tell you something.” I said, “Sure! What?” And she goes, “I can’t read.”
T: Now. This is a woman who has small children. She said, “I have to wait ‘til my husband comes home, and then he tells me what I’m supposed to do.” And she said, “Sometimes it just doesn’t get done.” And I understand that.
So at that point, Bridget, I said, she knows something! I mean, that was like a… “Terri, you need to do something about this.” So I’m teaching, and I promised myself. I said, “If I retire I am going to address literacy issues. And even as a guidance counselor there would be meetings with parents for students who had special needs, for instance, and in the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) process we would go over with the parents a document that might be 12, 13 pages, right? And I would see them do this: *Terri mimes quickly looking down a paper*.
They’re not reading. They’re saying things like, “I didn’t bring my glasses today.” Okay. “Could you repeat that?” or “Could you read that to me? I forgot my glasses.”
B: I’ve experienced this in grocery stores, where someone will ask me to tell them what the packaging says.
T: That’s correct.
B: I’ve wondered…
T: Yup. Yup yup yup.
B: Okay, hmm.
T: Yes. It is possible they didn’t bring their glasses but more often…
Here Carole, another tutor and 5k Committee member, interrupts to return a document to Terri, an article recently sent to the Catholic Telegraph for publication consideration. The three of us talk about the excitement of it getting through, and Carole and Terri laugh through most of the conversation. They believe so strongly in the importance of the work being done at the BLC; failure is not even on the horizon. As Carole leaves, Terri doesn’t miss a beat.
T: Anyway! Okay. It was one of those situations where I said, “You know, I need to do something.” So when I retired, I retired in 2013 from Brookville, and I was a counselor [for grades] K-6, which was a wonderful job.
But I think one of the things I appreciated most about the job there was being able to work not only with the kids but also the parents. And so I worked very hard to develop relationships with adults - the parents - who needed support, who needed that network.
B: And what impacts have you seen - through all of these varied experiences, whether counseling or teaching or group or individual - what is the importance of a parent’s illiteracy on the child?
T: Oh! It’s huge. Just in terms, I mean if you think about it, in terms of how comfortable. Because we want parents to be part of the educational process, we’re asking them, “Come in! Come in!” You know, “Meet with us! Talk with us! Advocate with your child to be prepared, to be at school on time.” All of those things. And you know you’re walking into a room of people and you’re very probably the only one that’s not a reader. How daunting would that be?
B: What does that do to a person?
T: They don’t come! They don’t come. You know, if they can not come, they don’t come.
Or they develop those coping skills, and you’ve probably seen it here, where they’ve got a memory that is incredible. So they can hear something, and they can spit it back to you, but it’s not because they’ve read it. It’s because they’ve learned that coping skill. There were times when I was able to - especially with children who had special needs at school - I was able to meet with their parents in the home, and maybe explain to them: At this meeting that’s coming up next Tuesday, this is what’s gonna happen. And I would take them a copy of whatever they were gonna get in the meeting, and we would pre-read it.
B: And how did that work out for them?
B: Did they come [to the meetings] more?
T: Some of them couldn’t get a ride, so I’d say, “I will take you!”
I think illiteracy, if you think about it, blocks access. It really does. And part of that, perhaps, is how that person sees themselves. But it’s also how comfortable or uncomfortable they perceive themselves to be when they’re in that space. Now, think about it. If you were not a good reader, would you volunteer to be the room parent?
B: Of course not.
T: No! Somebody might say to you, “Here, Miss Shingleton, please come and read to the children.” *Terri mimes panicking.* No!
B: How does your counseling experience tie in with what you’re doing here? Now that you’re working with adults?
B: And addressing these things because illiteracy issues are so tied in with self esteem and agency?
T: Right! I think because self esteem is so, so critical to the learning process, you have to see yourself, or you have to begin to see yourself, as competent. Capable. “I can go and do this because I’m able to do this.”
B: How do you begin to build those foundations at the adult level?
T: I think your friendliness, openness, enthusiasm, and at every step when you can find something that the person has been able to do that perhaps two weeks ago, three weeks ago they were not able to do, you acknowledge that.
Absolutely you acknowledge it.
And I think the relationship with the person themselves is critical, and that’s one of those counselor things, that you just build that rapport. Certainly ask about their family. Ask, you know, “What did you do over the weekend?”
And because I work in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), that’s an extra opportunity at conversation, which is critical because conversational English is difficult. It is, because you’re on the spot. You’re trying to get your verbs going in the right direction, and you’re listening, and you’re translating, and then you’re trying to get the correct answer out. In speaking with some of my students, they have remarked, “When people think I can’t speak English, they speak louder to me.” Basically, he said you don’t need louder. You need slower. So you practice saying, “Could you say that again, please?” Or “Could you repeat that?” Something so that they feel more empowered to ask for what they need.
B: What are some unique challenges for ESOL students? For adult ESOL students in particular?
T: Oh, there are many.
B: And then how do you address them?
T: I think, and I think of the student I am working with right now, but I have worked with four others. Three of my students have been extremely accomplished in their native languages. Yes. I have worked with a woman who, in her own country, is a dentist. Yes.
I am working with, currently, a student who has graduated from the Arabic University. He is able to speak his native language, which is Wolof. He’s also able to speak and write Arabic. He is able to speak French and Spanish!
B: Oh wow.
T: So he is literate in four languages. One of them happens not to be English! So how do you take someone who is literate in all those areas and allow them - or give them permission, I guess - to be vulnerable enough to say, “I can tell you that in four languages, but I don’t know what it is in English.”
B: I think that vulnerability probably prevents a lot of people from seeking the help that they want and need? Then I wonder about your experience here, too, in this way because here people choose to come. They take that step, and they-
B: -and say-
B: “Now’s the time. I’m ready.” What do you think- How could we intervene before that? How could we reach out to the people who are not taking that step? Or provide resources for people who maybe don’t feel confident enough even to say, “I don’t know.”
T: True. I think one of the things that we already do - and I’m not even sure the scale of it, but I have a sense that there’s a population that comes here because word-of-mouth tells them, “I went to this place, and they can help you learn English.” And so people come in. For instance, I’ve seen people in the door and recognize somebody, and you get a “Hey!”
I think one of the difficulties for students who begin and then are able to continue is they are supporting themselves in some way.
Yes. And sometimes the strains of the job make it very difficult for them to consistently say, “I can always be here on Monday and Thursday,” for instance. Because maybe I don’t get my day off that day. Some employers are very willing to work with folks on that, and some aren’t. If the person coming in takes a job, you know, sometimes the level is gonna be very low in terms of wage and so forth, so they may have to say, “I’ll take any hours you have.” Yes. “This is for my family.”
B: You’ve mentioned families a few times. What exactly is the impact of an ESOL parent maybe raising a child who speaks English better than them, who grows up in the schools here?
T: Absolutely! Absolutely. Yes! I’ve had it with one of my folks, ‘cause two of my folks were not parents. But one of my folks, the child… You know how children, you put them in a situation where they’re hearing English everyday. They’re watching television. They’re doing all of those other things. They are like sponges. They just soak it up so incredibly quickly. And so it’s very possible.
In the past I’ve had this experience where the mother says to the child something in their native language, and then the child asks the question. So it’s possible that the people that may choose to come here want to be helpful to their children but their children are ahead of them. Especially in conversational skills and so forth depending on when they got here, or how long they’ve been here, or what their exposure was in their country before they came here.
B: What could you say to someone who has never tutored ESOL before but is interested? What are the challenges to ESOL education? How can you prepare for that in advance, if you can?
T: I think there are several issues.
Initially when someone speaks very little English, I think tutors want to try to fill in all of the voids. Yes! You do! You wanna understand languages you’ve never heard before. You want to be able to help someone because that’s the nature of what you like to do. You like to be helpful. You want to be able to be helpful. For me what I think was very helpful is, in working with people that I didn’t have any understanding of their native language - I don’t speak Portuguese, and I don’t speak Wolof, and I don’t speak or read Arabic - using a combination of visuals plus speaking and then ease in the written form of the language. So your student is seeing pictures of things. Then they are hearing your explanation of that. And then conversationally adding in, “What does it look like?” Or “How would you ask that question?” Or “How would you ask for help in this area?” That sort of thing.
And so the person then has more of the whole story. They’ve got a picture in their head of what is being talked about. They are hearing the words. And then they are seeing what they’re hearing. That combination.
I use, very often, the iPad. I use the computer. And we would look things up, and you know, make those connections. Because I think the connections are really important because I’m looking at my students that have been to university - three of them with degrees. One was here because she was getting a Master’s degree at UD, and she had English but she didn’t have specifically English in counseling. So coming and speaking with me she was able to learn the counseling vocabulary.
B: Are there any particular apps or websites that you like to use that you think people should know about?
T: That is a great question. I think what I would do is, as I was preparing a lesson - and our lessons are very reading-based and then conversational and then writing - I would see what our topic would be, and then I would go online and find supportive information, documents, snippets of even YouTube snippets of things that would bring whatever we were talking about alive for them. Because if you’re using a personal experience to be the anchor of your new language, you’ve gotta make sure you’ve got that experience.
I’ll give you a for instance: The gentleman I’m working with right now. One of our lessons talked about “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” And so I went online, and I found people singing “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” (http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/) There were all sorts of different ideas that the language in the song gave directions, or the language in the song was a code so that certain people would understand what the directions were but other people wouldn’t. Looking at that, my student listened. He got a really happy look on his face, and I said, “Do you want to listen to it again?”
For probably two or three weeks he would listen to that again, and there was something about that that helped him understand the process of our slaves escaping, going someplace that was perceived to be safer. Sometimes it was safer; sometimes it was not safe.
The music gave him a context, I think, for understanding. And he liked that, yeah.
B: Did you have a favorite teacher when you were younger? What about them do you emulate, whether consciously or unconsciously?
T: I did have a favorite teacher. But it was not a teacher that I had in school. I had wonderful teachers in school, but my aunt was a professor at the University of Dayton. She was in the department of Home Economics and Child Development. It was my Aunt Betty. And she was warm. She was accepting. Very kind and very caring. She initiated a nursery school at the University of Dayton. She started there in 1950. We as her nieces and nephews - she did not have children of her own - we became the people she would read to and be excited when she would see us.
Aunt Betty would come to any family gathering with arms full of books, and I think she supported Books & Company before it was 2nd and Charles. She would come in and all of the kids would just drop everything and run to Aunt Betty.
I was really close to her, and, I gotta tell you, it was her kindness and her love of reading. She would read the book Caps for Sale, this little children’s book. It’s about a man selling caps, and he’s not doing very well getting this caps sold. They were fifty cents, and he finally left this little town he was selling them in, and he sat under a tree, and he had his caps and colors. He fell asleep. When he woke up, the monkeys in the trees all had his caps on. He was trying to figure out how to get his caps back, so he could sell them, and what he realized is that “monkey see, monkey do.” He would do like this: *mimes shaking a fist*. And they would do like that to him: *Terri mimes shaking a fist*.
Well, [Aunt Betty] would read it with such… voice and enthusiasm, that you just couldn’t wait for her to read Caps for Sale to you.
As I would go into group guidance, as I would go into classrooms and work with children in their homes, and parents, and all of those things… I think so often I tried to connect with that sense of, of… welcome that you always felt around [Aunt Betty]. You always felt like, you know, you were it. She was a wonderful teacher, and she taught at UD from 1950 to 1985.
She was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. My favorite teacher. Oh, she was phenomenal.