I've been wanting to write this post for a while, but I didn't want to sound like I was trying to score points with anyone. But I figure since I'll be staying at home for a while (when not going to work or appointments or the gym--all places that are clean and where masks and social distancing are required), I might as well write about the topics that piled up while I was busy interacting more with the world.
I've been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults at Daley College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) on Chicago's southwest side for 13 years (and it will be 14 in January if I get another class to teach next semester), and overall, it's been a good experience. I won't get into details about the issues there, and if you know me offline, you've heard some of the "interesting" stories about that place. Let's just say it's not the most stable, well-run organization around, thus my appreciation of it has nothing to do with how it's set up. And it's not even located in such a stellar area, nor are the buildings that clean. For instance, I used to teach in dilapidated, small buildings that I think were originally built to be temporary, where mice sometimes roamed (and one turned up dead), the air wasn't fresh, and if there was air conditioning, it took over an hour to activate. Then I moved into the main building, where someone told me garbage still remains (I haven't been to the school, or the South Side, since March).
I've been teaching online, which isn't as enjoyable as in-person, but is still a positive experience. First of all, the students are wonderful. Most of them are Spanish-speaking (I don't speak Spanish though I love it and translated Spanish into English for some years, including when I started this blog), and others come from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In 13 years I have rarely had any issues with students; they are so nice and interesting, work hard, and are appreciative of what they and their kids have been able to do here (which is a subject for another post: what I've learned ambition really is).
My coworkers are also generally cool. Of course, not everyone is awesome, but no place is perfect. But what sets apart Daley from other places I've worked is that I can always find someone to talk to if I'm having issues, or if I just want to chat. In fact, when I first started working there, I was working in a toxic place (which would be a great candidate for Robert Sutton's excellent, must-read book, The Asshole Survival Guide [whose advice I wish I'd followed years ago]), and once a week, I got a chance to work with friendly people instead of mean ones. I would tell some of my work buddies what I was experiencing during the week, and they couldn't believe it, and shared my astonishment that there are places tolerate such behavior. And while other workplaces might have people who try to backstab or say mean things about each other, or falsely accuse others, I haven't experienced that in all the years I've been at Daley. Yes, people have made disparaging comments, but in general, I don't feel like I have to walk on eggshells or walk around avoiding landmines.
One of the many reasons why I like teaching immigrant adults is because of the interesting experiences they have. They have gone through a lot to come to this country, and they have a great work ethic. What's inspiring is how they always find a way to get things done, find work, and help their kids succeed. One time I was talking about an area of the South Side that is fine on the eastern side of a north-south street, but is pretty dangerous west of that street. I thought the students would think of avoiding that area, but a student said that they had sold ice cream in that western area and generated more sales. What they discovered is that all kinds of people in that area, including the gangbangers and their families, like ice cream, have parties, and want to eat something tasty after they smoke certain substances. Another student showed us where they work in an even more dangerous area of the South Side (I'm not being specific because I don't want to malign any South Side neighborhoods, nor perpetuate the already-negative stereotypes of the South Side), and said they wait for drug deals to clear out before they get into their car to drive west to the southwest suburb where they live.
Basically, some students do jobs or live and work in areas that many people wouldn't want to be, and their perseverance is inspiring. Also, since I don't live on the South Side (never have, and probably never will), I get to find out things about the area that are not covered in the media or elsewhere. And it's not just positive stories that are overlooked but negative ones, too, such as why the virus has probably spread in the area where Daley is located (right now, the most cases are on the southwest side of Chicago).
It's also interesting to find out where the students come from. I've learned a lot about other countries, and I've also learned about students' lifestyles. At one point, after noticing that the students have a great work ethic, I asked them if they helped out around their homes, or what they did as kids in addition to going to school. Most of them grew up doing chores and odd jobs, including helping their elderly relatives. Because they grew up working in some way, that lifestyle and attitude have helped them as adults, which explains why they find ways to thrive rather than sit around and complain. They see and seek out opportunities that others might not see or care about, and I never get tired of hearing about what they're doing. It shows me that anything is possible, even when it seems like there aren't many options.
Because the economy and educational situation are not stable or predictable, I have no idea if I will continue to teach adults ESL, and in the past, I sort of didn't care (I have like four or five other jobs, depending on what is available). There were times when I would drive up South Pulaski late at night to go to the expressway to get home, very tired, wondering why I was going all that way to teach at a dusty school in a gray neighborhood. Then a student, or my supervisor, would tell me that I'm doing a good job, and some students would tell me that I'm a nice person or that they like my class. Last week, some students said they think I'm a good teacher. When comparing that feedback with the little or no feedback I get at other jobs, it's really appreciated, which helps to motivate me. A lot of times I'm just getting work done and have no idea what people think, other than they're glad I'm meeting deadlines or showing up to get the job done. Approval and recognition can go a long way, especially in an increasingly isolating world.
And finally (I think I've been able to remember all the points I wanted to make), I don't have to fake introversion at all. As I've said before on this blog, I am not introverted but have had to fake it for years because it's the best way to integrate and survive the introverted world. When I walk into the school after a week of staying silent or subdued, it's great to chat with the fantastic security guards, then speak loudly and openly with some of my coworkers. Then I see the students, who are so nice, and I end up having a great day. It's basically an experience of belonging and freedom, which equals fun.
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