When interviewing Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) volunteer Charlene Gates via a video call, one notices a beautiful oil painting hanging on the wall behind her in her study. The piece depicts a 17th century neo-gothic church towering over the rooftops of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.
My father was a painter and we spent several summers in Mexico when I was growing up,” Charlene said. “My parents were teachers and we were very fortunate to be able to travel in summer.”
Charlene’s ambitions and interests led her to a career as a physical therapist. Her childhood experiences in Mexico planted a seed of interest in the Spanish language and other cultures. When she retired, Charlotte enrolled in a TESOL certification program for teaching English to speakers of other languages at the International Language Institute in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“The training was focused on how to support individuals to become learners,” Charlene said. “I love the program.”
Helping people become learners has proven a wise strategy since Charlene joined VAL as an English Language Learning (ELL) volunteer in January 2020. She started tutoring students 1:1 and, shortly after the pandemic started, was invited by VAL teacher Joy Gaine to expand her volunteering to teaching a class—virtually.
Charlene now meets with classes three times per week; she still tutors. Her current roster includes students from Afghanistan, China, Japan and Brazil. Charlene likes to integrate video into her teaching. She includes current events, popular music and the arts as tools to help students gain fluency while also learning about U.S. culture and politics. From the works of National Youth Poet Amanda Gorman to Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue, to Nat King Cole’s Three Little Words, Charlene creates ample opportunities for students to engage with their new language.
“Recently we have talked a lot about civil rights,” Charlene said. “My students are often not aware of the complexity and contradictions in American History.”
Learning English opens up educational, employment and social opportunities for New Americans. Gaining fluency and an awareness of the culture of one’s adoptive home can ease the sense of isolation, particularly if one has left family behind in their county of origin. Creating connections in one’s new country has been especially important when many students are feeling isolated due to the pandemic.
“Moving is not always pleasurable, especially when you need to learn a new language,” said Rhaiza, one of Charlene’s students. “We have ups when we feel confident remembering new vocabularies or pronouncing correctly a hard word, and downs, when we feel that we are not improving. Charlene is warm, and I felt that I have been improving my English a lot with her. She always challenges us with new vocabulary and listening. During this tough time, she made me feel comfortable with trying a new pronunciation or asking her the meaning of a new word. I will be forever grateful to her (and all the team of Vermont Adult Learning) for helping me!”
“Charlene is a warm, caring and serious person,” said Mia. “During my studies, she would understand my English level and give me appropriate courses and suggestions. Now, my friends have found that my English has improved a lot. I appreciate her patience and dedication. You are all ordinary people, but you keep doing extraordinary things. It is this selfless spirit that influences and changes the people around, making the world a better place!”
“Charlene stepped into her volunteer role at VAL—when many of us were reluctant remote teachers—and created ELL classes that engage and inspire her students,” said Joy. “We are all incredibly grateful.”
“Volunteering at VAL is a lot of fun,” Charlene said. “I’m really grateful to Joy for giving me this opportunity.”
April 18th to 24th is National Volunteer Week. Thank you to Charlene and all of VAL’s wonderful volunteers!