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What I Do: Donna Korol, adult education teacher

New York Teacher
Donna Korol

Donna Korol has taught adult education and English as a second language for 29 years, the last seven teaching mostly Hispanic adults in a church community center in Williamsburg. 

Tell me about your class.

My students are from Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They are in my class to learn English. The average age is 35, but I have had students between 24 and 70 years of age. I arrived in the United States at the age of 14 from a small town in Poland, so I know how they feel. I remember the fear I felt when students look at me with big eyes.

How is teaching adults different from teaching children?

With adults, you don’t have as much to worry about regarding discipline, and they are motivated — they’re in class because they want to be there. It’s a lot more humbling experience for the teacher. With young students, you’re the expert. Here we’re all in it together — I’m the facilitator. They bring their lives to the class, the stories of their lives. One student was a refugee from Cuba. Of 12 people who attempted the crossing, only he and another man survived.

How do students hear about your class?

Many of the students come to the St. Nick’s community center, where we are located, looking for jobs — there’s an employment search office and training program at the center. But the No. 1 way they find out about the classes we offer is word of mouth, from other students. I’m one of two teachers during the day; at night, there are four other teachers who teach both GED and ESL programs. The evening classes bring in students who work during the day.

How many students are in your class?

I have an average enrollment of 25 students, but it’s usually a group of 11 to 15 students who will always come. Their lives are difficult: there are health, family and child-care issues. Counting on them attending every day is an illusion. You work your magic and hope you can create a space where they feel they can come back.

Tell me about a typical class.

The students work in small groups. From 9 a.m. to noon, I teach the advanced group — they know more English and can explain themselves. I set up an area for group conversation. I provide folders for them with different themes. We regroup for a conversation at the end of the day to see if they want to move to a new topic such as current events. It’s very important to listen to them. They are adults. Or we’ll watch a speech by a political figure on YouTube and discuss it.

Then, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., I teach students who are struggling — not just less proficient in English, but they might have had only three years of education in their home country. For the lower-level students, our goal might be to read a news story and discuss the who, what, where and when of the article.

For both groups, I create different centers in the classroom for students to choose where they’ll work that day. In one center, they can read and work on their spelling and vocabulary. In the listening center, they can listen to stories on discs and work on their pronunciation.

Are there tests?

There is a test to assess their level of English proficiency on entry and another test to move them to the more advanced class. But it’s not just about language, it’s about literacy. We have all literacy levels. It runs the gamut from people who can’t read and write in their own languages to people with doctorate degrees.

How did you become an adult education teacher?

I was teaching an adult literacy program while I was studying for my degree in elementary education and ESL from Queens College. Adult education was the perfect fit. For 30 years, I have had the opportunity to meet so many people of different nationalities, who speak different languages. You have the whole world in your classroom.

How long do students stay in the program?

There’s no limit on time. People can come back. They can stay the full year or brush up their skills for three months.

What are your hopes for them?

I want them to be lifelong learners and take home the skills to keep learning English. I’ll tell them to open a newspaper, look at the headline and then the picture. I want them to be self-reliant and independent. I tell them, “You have this technique even without me.”

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

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