We recently had the chance to sit down with Brendan Murphy, Senior Manager of Business Services at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), who works with A Faith That Does Justice (AFTDJ) on its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Brendan’s role is to evaluate each student’s English competency to ensure they are placed in the appropriate classes for their skill level. He also ensures that teachers have adequate training and understand the curriculum, and provides overall oversight to the program. Keep reading to learn more about the program and what makes this such a rewarding role for Brendan and the volunteers involved.

What is the process for new students interested in the program?

AFTDJ advertises the cycle openings. Anyone interested can sign up through the AFTDJ website or reach out. There are a lot of entry points to allow them to express their interest. Then one of the student relationship managers (SRM) reaches out to collect basic information about them and talks to them about the classes – when they are, how remote classes work.

I do a formal assessment that measures their English abilities, in listening and speaking, to determine which class is right for them.  We usually offer beginner and intermediate class options on Monday and Wednesday evenings and a multilevel class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We recently began implementing a threshold for the assessment so that we are only serving beginner and intermediate students since we have a waitlist for the classes. Once we know which class they’ll be in, we inform the teacher who gets them set up on WhatApp and Zoom to begin the course.

You mentioned a waitlist. How does that work?

There is a big demand for ESOL, so most programs have a waitlist. We ideally want to have 15-20 students per class section, and we really try to find the right people for each class – students who are going to attend consistently and who are at the beginning to intermediate level. We have been really working on consistency with the students to make sure they get the most out of the experience and because there are so many people waiting to have this opportunity. Our attendance rates right now are the best they have ever been, so we’re really proud of that.

The teachers are all volunteers, not professional educators – tell us how that works.

It is amazing that everyone is volunteering their time. The teachers put in so much effort.  This program is built on a desire to serve others – in action, not just talk. These volunteers are giving hours every week to serve people in need. When someone is volunteering their time for free, you don’t want to ask too much of them. But, at the same time, we want to make sure this is a quality program. The people taking classes want to be successful so we want classes to be top-notch in prep, delivery, etc. That’s our goal – to give the students the best quality classes. We are lucky to have volunteer teachers who share those same goals and give so much to this program.

What is the training like for the teachers?

JVS provides training modules and the class curriculum, so the volunteer teachers have a sequential curriculum to follow. When a new volunteer expresses an interest in teaching, I reach out to learn about their prior experiences and what brings them to this work. Then I set them up with modules developed by JVS about best practices for teaching English to beginners, get them set up in our system so that they access everything they need, and make sure they know about all the resources available to them.

One thing we have really been focusing on this year is internal communications – making sure that SRMs and teachers are getting to know each other so that they can collaborate and learn from each other. We have some teachers who have been doing this for a long time and others who are new so we have started getting together so that everyone can get to know each other and rely on each other. There is really a community forming. It’s cool to see.

Tell us more about the students.

It’s terrible that there are negative stereotypes of people that come to our country because the students are the hardest working people in our country. They have so many things they want to accomplish. Many of them were at a certain level or job in their home country and then they moved here and are starting over.

We have classes where people speak Spanish and Portuguese and Haitian and Arabic and African dialects – and they’re all together and learning from each other. Students feel comfortable being vulnerable, sharing, making mistakes, and trying. That’s how they learn. And they are all so supportive of each other.

Classes become a community themselves. There is such a positive feeling in all the classes. Students really cheer each other on. If someone is struggling, they’ll help and support them. People are mostly new to the US and often are lonely, so this becomes so much more than a class.

Visit our website here to learn how you can get involved with our ESOL program.