by Elsa Steiner

Up until I went to Rwanda most of my volunteer work had been with children. I had my first experience teaching ESL to adults at the Ruhengeri Hospital. Rwanda recently changed its official language from French to English, leaving many professionals at a loss. The hospital staff, who had all studied in French, have suddenly found themselves needing to read English forms and do much of their administrative work in English. Another UNC student and I began teaching an English class three nights a week, with her teaching the more advanced people and I teaching the beginners. I was nervous at first because adults are much more judgmental than children. If they don’t like the way you are teaching or the material you are covering, they will stop coming or complain. In my experience, children will just go along with whatever the teacher comes up with. I made a point to ask all of our students exactly what they wanted to get out of the class and what their goals were in terms of English. At the end of every class I asked for feedback and suggestions for the next class. The size of my class had tripled by the third session, so that was also encouraging. I think that had more to do with the fact that word got out that we were offering a class, rather than the fact that they thought I was doing a particularly spectacular job, but I still felt good about it.

The other thing that took some getting used to was the fact that I was and eighteen year old teaching a bunch of people age thirty to sixty. The teacher traditionally has the position of authority but I didn’t feel comfortable with having that level of authority over these adults. Handing out worksheets and watching them all do exactly as I had instructed was a weird experience. Usually I am the one doing what teachers tell me to do, not the other way around. I tried to incorporate lots of discussion into the class as a way to place myself on a more even ground with them.

I came to appreciate that adults didn’t need any motivating, and they didn’t get up to sharpen their pencil every three seconds, or go take a bathroom break every fifteen minutes like children sometimes do. After the first class we fell into a very nice rhythm and became more comfortable around each other.