More than just an ESL Class

Volunteer ESL teacher Walker West reflects on a year of service at Sakhi.

Walker West first realized the importance of language when she immigrated to the United States from Korea when she was twenty-four. “No matter how smart you are, no one will see it unless you know the language,” she said.

West saw an advertisement for the volunteer ESL teacher position at Sakhi, and felt her studies in feminism, experience as a life coach, and understanding of the bi-cultural experience qualified her for the job. “Some of my friends asked why I chose to volunteer at a South Asian organization instead of a Korean one, but I said I didn’t care,” she said. “Sakhi came to me, and I have felt so wonderful to be a part of this group this whole year.” Walker Full

West started teaching the class with formal ESL textbooks and regular homework assignments, but soon realized that a traditional lesson plan was not what her students needed. She started creating her own syllabus – a combination of grammar, daily practical conversations, and explanations of idiomatic expressions – that met her students’ schedules and would help them improve on an individual level.

“There’s a psychological comfort in understanding the culture around you,” she said. “The class became a mixture of English and talking about life and culture.”

West is a certified ESL teacher and life coach, has a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner license, completed a teacher training in restorative yoga, and has studied Buddhism for the last decade. She previously worked as a health science policy analyst at the National Academy of Science in Washington D.C., as an organic chemist for a pharmaceutical company in Palo Alto, California, and was a registered pharmacist in Korea. Despite her qualifications, West remains humble and has respect for her students.

“If I list my background or what I learned, they are only a superficial shell of my qualifications,” she said. “The most important is my compassion toward my students and how much I have learned from their courage to reinvent their life.”

When one student needed help preparing for the GED, West incorporated writing practice into her lessons by asking the students to write a composition about a topic of their choice and then share it with the class. “At the beginning, they would all go through their abuses, but then they’d talk about when they were six years old or something like that,” she said. “From there, they are able to reflect.”

West said many of the women do not have the freedom to express themselves outside of Sakhi. She recalled one student saying, “I love to come here because I can say anything. There isn’t any judgment.” The class became a support group for many of the women and they looked forward to seeing each other every week, said West.

“We became a sisterhood,” she said.

West still keeps in touch with her students, and says her email exchanges with them will continue to improve their English. West said she was in tears when she learned that one student is heading towards a college education. “She told me that after she realized she doesn’t have to be a victim, her life changed,” West said. “I’ve learned something about how even though they say they’re victims or survivors, their souls and spirits are still so shiny and beautiful,” she said. “I found these South Asian women extremely strong.”