What do you think?


For this lesson, I was prepared for misunderstanding. I made a list of questions the students would likely pose. I had clear and simple answers ready for those questions. And, I highlighted vocabulary which I knew would be unfamiliar. I laid out these unfamiliar terms like a roadmap of traffic patterns. We established the known before broaching the unknown. The itinerary was a good one, and the route was manageable.

Until Donald Trump hijacked the car.

They Just Don’t Understand!


Just over a year ago, I was asked to visit a kindergarten classroom on the Northwest side of Chicago. The purpose of my visit was to join the class and to pay extra attention to two twin sisters from Burundi. The girls were a source of constant stress for their compassionate teacher, Miss Chavez, who suspected that they were utterly lost during instruction. She reached out to the community center where I worked, who sent out a call for anyone who could talk to the twins in Swahili or Rundi–the languages spoken by their family at home–and assess how much they understood.

Our School



This week, a fellow volunteer and I have taken charge of Grade 7, which was left without a teacher when another volunteer finished his two years of service. The Grade 7 learners (the official term for students in Namibia) are fascinating. They have achieved the impossible and are somehow simultaneously outspoken and shy. Eagerly, they shoot their hands into the air and snap for attention. Once they have been called on, then, they cover their mouths with their hands and whisper into their fingers. In total, the group is 38 learners, and this makes fitting into one room a challenge on its own.

64 and ْStill Swinging


Today was my last day of teaching, as well as Salma’s 64th birthday. We celebrated with curry, pakora, homemade yogurt, and cake. I also want to share that yesterday Salma told me that sometimes she goes to the park after midnight to swing on the swing set. I very much hope this wasn’t something lost in translation, and she really does. What a fantastic human. ! عيد ميلادها سعيد


“Very Miss You” and Offensive Numbers



Apart from subbing, I was only able to teach one term of ESL at the community center. My creative take on grad school and brief return to Zanzibar means that I won’t be around enough to commit to teaching the Spring or Summer terms. This is bittersweet, because I’m excited for what is to come, but truly sad to leave my students.



Mr. B. (the same from my first post) doesn’t say things; he exclaims them. This man was born with a politician’s voice, and he often interrupts class to give brief presidential speeches. I think he could have been a congressman except that he was busy getting married at 15, and supporting a family before most Americans finish high school. Once he told me that Hyderabad, India, reaches 50 degrees Celsius and I believed him until I went home and did a quick Google search. When I asked him to describe his house, he took the chalk from my hand and drew a blueprint on the board–down to the location of each doorway. There is charisma behind his words.

Therefore, when the class ganged up and set off on a disparaging complaint about one of the other teachers, Mr. B.’s silence was noticeable.

One student explained that “All teachers very good, but she is–she is…eh.”

The others nodded, and another said, “She’s voice very loud.”

Salma said, “She is not smiling. Never smiling…”

Then finally, Mr. B. spoke up and exclaimed, “Smiling is very healthy!”

That settled the matter. We all agreed, and smoothly transitioned to non-count nouns.

“We are staying home”


One of my students is an Iraqi woman who has been in Chicago for a while. Her quirks include shushing the others when they talk too much in languages that aren’t English and bringing candy corn for everyone to share. She is also always the last to leave and she always apologizes for it. Let’s call her Salma.

At the beginning of class, I asked Salma what she did this past weekend, and she told me the usual “going to shopping,” and “walking to the Devon market.” I asked her to use the past tense, and got some impressive went’s and did’s. She also told me that she “watched the T.V. news,” and that there was bad news. She passed me a note:

55_Ilham's Notebook

She added, “We are scared. We are going home, just, we are staying home.”



As an ESL teacher of low-level, beginner students, I follow along with eager anticipation any time my students volunteer to speak. One student in particular, who is a middle-aged and proud grandfather from India, speaks up especially often. In the fourth week of the term, this student–who we’ll call Mr. B.–got my attention toward the end of class, saying, “Excuse, me, sir.”

As usual, I was all ears. That class had been a lively one, and I awaited his question. I expected something about clarifying the difference between courtyard and patio, or maybe a request to convert 30 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit. But, that isn’t what Mr. B. wanted. Instead, his speech was jumbled from the start and I could tell his ideas were difficult to express. I didn’t interrupt him, but patiently waited with my best calm, and kind, teacher-face. Teacher-face means looking as interested and encouraging as possible without being patronizing.

“You going–you go–went college? Pre-graduate? Teacher for secondary–er–college…I–er…”

Mr. B. laughed and looked flustered, so I suggested, “Did I go to college?”

He shot back with, “No, no…you going to school, work for…”

Then with sudden clarity, he looked me in the eyes and exclaimed, “Qualifications! … What are your qualifications!?”

The best way to describe my reaction might be spooked–not the way horses get spooked (thank goodness), but more the way someone who saw a ghost smiles awkwardly to prove he isn’t nervous. After the flurry of words like ‘college’ and ‘graduate,’ my brain went into job interview mode, and I began to question my very existence as adult ESL instructor. I saw a ghost named self-doubt.

What are my qualifications? Am I qualified? What gives me the authority to teach these people?

After snapping out of it, I told Mr. B. about my time in graduate school receiving my MA in TESOL. I also learned that he just wanted to compare what it took to become a teacher in the United States to India, and he didn’t really care about my personal qualifications as much as what teachers studied in general. But, the question stuck with me. It made me question myself and my career choice. Even more than that, it made me question all teachers. What leads people to decide that they are fit to educate? When does student turn into teacher?

There might be just as many things that motivate students to learn as there are that motivate teachers to teach. It’s a job, so it pays. Many teachers are inspired by family or by incredible teachers they had when they were younger. Depending on where you are, it is a good career for continued learning and networking. I know why I teach, but the question is always worth considering:

What are your qualifications?

What gives you the right to teach me?

Anyway, I digress because this is a blog about sharing stories. So, I will leave it with something I heard Maya Angelou say on television once:

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”