BY CAROL ROEHM
A handwritten sign on the door of Mary Catherine Roberson’s classroom at Danville Area Community College simply reads “door.”
Inside the classroom there are more handwritten signs: “desk,” “window,” “light switch,” “pens,” “pencils,” “flag.”
“We label everything,” Roberson chuckled.
Roberson is DACC’s newest English as a Second Language teacher, replacing veteran ESL instructor Ruth Koenig who retired after 20 years of service.
Seven students sat at two tables earlier this week, which was the last week of the first semester. One group of four students studied present-tense verbs and phonics while the other table of students conversed freely with a tutor about current events and everyday life.
“We practice conversations you might have with your doctor or on a job interview,” Roberson said.
“I try to tailor it so it’s not just learning English, but what they need to know to communicate,” she said.
With the group of beginning English language learners, all of whom were Hispanic, Roberson alternated between speaking Spanish and speaking English.
The group of advanced students sitting nearby at the other table, however, is not allowed to speak Spanish, not even to each other, and Roberson’s alert ears make sure of it.
“It’s a fine line,” she admits of her teaching methods. “I speak Spanish so they understand the concepts, but I try not to make it a crutch.”
Roberson adds that learning is a two-way street in her classroom, with her gaining knowledge from her students, also.
“We’re on the same playing field,” she said. “I encourage them to correct my Spanish if I make a mistake.”
It is Roberson’s willingness to speak Spanish in the classroom, however, that has generated interest and increased enrollment in the class.
“The appeal she has has really brought people to the class,” said Scott Heatherton, Reader’s Route coordinator and tutor recruiter.
Roberson was more modest about her appeal, saying the class has grown in her first semester teaching it because of the students’ “word of mouth.”
“The students tell others, ‘Hey, the teacher speaks Spanish. It’s OK to come. She understands,’” Roberson said.
“I encourage them to bring others who need help learning English,” she said.
Seventeen-year-old Reyna Ramos, who is from Mexico, is one of the class’ success stories.
“When she arrived here, she was 16 and had been in this country one week and knew no English,” Roberson said, adding that Reyna hadn’t attended school in Mexico for years because she had to start working when she was 12.
When a student from Guatemala joined the class this semester, Reyna had gained enough confidence in her English language skills that she now helps the student who started out the same way she did.
“Once they gain confidence, the walls fall down fairly quickly,” Roberson said of her students.
The success of the class is largely dependent on the students themselves.
“It’s about how bad they want to learn it,” she said. “Their attitude is ‘I’m in America. I want to learn English.’”
Roberson said one young man who is now one of her advanced students so desperately wanted to learn English that he taught himself by watching television and movies.
To make it easier for students to attend her class and to accommodate the students’ work schedules, Roberson said she tries to remain flexible with the time students spend in class.
“A lot of them work 12 hours a day, so I have to be flexible,” she said. “Anybody who wants to come, even for a few hours a week, they’re welcome to come.”
Roberson, a 2001 graduate of Danville High School, said she feels fortunate to be able to work at something she loves.
“I’ve always been interested in Spanish, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it,” she said.
Then her dream job teaching ESL students became available.
“I’ve been fortunate that in my first semester here that most of the students are Spanish,” she said.
For a short time during the semester, Roberson taught a young man from Palestine and a group of Germans who were in Danville for a few months while working at ThyssenKrupp.
“The ThyssenKrupp students just needed help conversing,” she said. “They already had learned English in Germany, but their accents were really thick, so we had to work through that.”
Regardless of their native tongue, all of the students in her class start out every morning by writing in English in a journal.
Roberson also has fielded her fair share of questions from students who are confused by slang terms and idioms that pepper the everyday speech of native English speakers.
“I had a student ask me what ‘Waz up?’ meant,” she said. “I teach them slang and informal greetings so they know about them when they hear them.”
Roberson said her volunteer tutors, who are mostly retirees, are an instrumental part of the ESL program.
“The tutors help me split up the students so we can focus on specific things,” she said.
Although tutors are not paid, they gain a wealth of knowledge about the different cultures that the students represent.
“The diversity is what makes the class so interesting,” Roberson said.
“I leave here with a smile every day,” she added. “It’s a job where I’m fulfilled and serving a purpose.”