A Community of Learners: ESL at Covenant
On a recent Tuesday morning on the first floor of Covenant’s Fellowship and Education Building, a large group of people were singing happy birthday and eating tres leches cake. Hugs and smiles of delight were shared. The occasion was Maria’s birthday. Maria was one of the 50 students signed up to take an ESL (English as a Second Language) class at Covenant that morning.
Each week, 27 Covenant members teach ESL classes to about 64 students from all over the world. The program has grown from five students and two teachers in the fall of 2014.
“This is a community for the students,” said ESL teacher Ann Brown. “It’s a safe place for them to gather and make friends. I think our students feel very welcomed and are surprised at how much of a community develops. It’s more than just English, it’s a huge mission in ways that people can’t imagine.”
Ann, a leader in Covenant’s Refugee Ministry, got involved with ESL when she recognized many refugees being helped by Covenant teams needed better access to English classes, a requirement of refugee resettlement.
“Some refugee women were taught by AmeriCorps volunteers in their homes, but there are not enough volunteers to accommodate the many refugees who find it difficult to travel downtown by bus, often with multiple kids,” Ann said. “That’s when I started to wonder if we could offer daytime classes at Covenant. I talked to the people at Manos and they said they were looking to add more Level I classes.
“Offering the classes at Covenant was a solution,” Ann said. “I knew it could happen if I’d volunteer to teach.”
Manos de Cristo (already partnering with Covenant on ESL classes) assessed the prospective new students’ English skills and last summer, Ann began teaching Level I ESL classes on weekday mornings to seven refugee women. “We started with a small number and quickly expanded to include these women’s husbands, who often work nights. Eventually, we had 15 students, which is where we like to cap it,” Ann said.
It has been challenging to limit class numbers, though, because the students are eager to include others. “Once they came and saw that Covenant was such a welcoming and safe place, they kept inviting their friends,” Ann said. “Whenever a new family moves in, they bring them on the bus and say, ‘Come with us to Covenant.’”
Covenant’s ESL History
Frank Sheppard brought ESL to Covenant in 2014 when he and fellow Covenant member Sue Roberts were the first two teachers in the program. Frank was taking a lay leadership course and needed a project. Other class participants were doing projects that met the needs of smaller churches, such as building maintenance or leading small groups. Frank felt called to do something different. That’s when he saw signs about ESL classes at a Plano church, sparking an idea for Covenant to do the same. He thought teaching ESL would be an ideal way to use the Fellowship and Education Building as a bridge to the community.
He contacted Manos de Cristo as a first step, aware of the organization’s ESL classes and knowledge of community needs. He learned that they needed more class space.
“I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel or spend a lot of time developing the curriculum, so I suggested Manos and Covenant jointly sponsor ESL at Covenant,” he said.
After working out logistics with Manos and getting Mission Committee and Session approval, Frank recruited Sue to teach. Both Frank and Sue had teaching experience and became the first ESL teachers at Covenant in the fall of 2014. “I discovered that teaching ESL is not difficult; neither is it easy,” Frank said. “Using the Manos-approved curriculum, we had access to excellent teacher guides and were able to get advice when we had any problems.”
Frank, still teaching ESL at Covenant, has enjoyed the challenge. “The advent of the refugee program led to a major change in the demographics of the program,” Frank said. “We needed to have a Level I class, which we had shied away from due to not having Spanish bilingual teachers. We have now found that you just jump in and hope that our acting ability will convey the meanings when we can’t find another way to communicate the words.”
He said the need for higher level ESL classes has also contributed to program growth. “From a single ESL class on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and one citizenship class on Monday and Wednesday evenings, we grew to offer Levels 2, 3 and 4 in the evenings and Levels 1 and 2 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We have had students from nearly all the countries of South and Central America, Russia, Myanmar and the Middle East.”
One person Frank recruited this past year is Cheryl Banks. “Frank asked me to consider assisting, so I prayed about it last spring and summer,” Cheryl recalled. “I decided to help on Tuesday mornings and soon realized I loved working with Ann and loved working with and getting to know the students.”
When Ann went to Cuba this fall, Cheryl and Frank team-taught her class, and Cheryl felt even more invested in the program. “There was so much joy in teaching that it didn’t feel like working!” she said.
And Cheryl echoed Ann’s earlier revelation. “A side benefit, but very important, is that we are becoming a small group community for each other. Several of the women teachers were recently invited to one of our student’s baby showers. That was such a wonderful time together with many of our Iraqi students out at their apartment complex.”
Frank, who had been the Covenant ESL coordinator for three years, asked Cheryl to consider taking over, which she did in January. “One of our goals as teacher and coordinator is to mentor/disciple others to continue the work and bring their own gifts to this table of ministry and fellowship,” Cheryl said. “We have actively done that this year by inviting people to come and visit the classes. Many are asking if they can come back and teach!”
According to Cheryl, the students are not only learning English but a lot about our culture here in the U.S. and in Austin.
“I learn so much,” said Rosa, a student from Mexico who has been in the U.S. seven years. “I know a little English now. The teachers are good in every class. It’s very multicultural.”
Saphia is from Afghanistan. She takes two buses to get to Covenant, and it can be very hard with her kids, but it’s worth it. “I love Ann,” Safia said. “She is a very good teacher. She helps so much.”
Ann, however, said it is often she who is being taught. “I’m constantly learning so much more from the students than they learn from me. I usually have such different expectations from the reality.”
Regardless, Ann said the main objective remains the same: “Our goal is to help the students become self-sufficient members of society who feel like they are wanted and welcome here.”
“Several of our students this semester have been able to speak enough English and have gotten jobs,” Cheryl added. “It’s wonderful, and a little sad, because we no longer see them. But, that is what we are here to do!”