In Saida Harpi’s English language classroom, immigrants from any country are welcome. The blanket offering means the students in Harpi and her coworkers’ classes often come from a variety of countries — including Vietnam, Russia and Algeria — with an equally staggered set of native languages and English skills.
Since becoming the lead English teacher at United Communities Southeast Philadelphia in March, Harpi has focused on making the curriculum for the organization’s four weekly ESL classes more consistent, leading to an increase in student retention. She is also developing a class strictly tailored to beginners’ needs.
What’s the importance of learning English for immigrants and refugees?
To live here, it is important to speak English and be able to converse with people in the city that you’re living in. I find that with the students coming here, they really have a desire to blend in. They really want to become a part of America and be seen as an American citizen. Not only that, they’re also in the process of working with lawyers, having court dates and having to speak on their own behalf about why they should be able to stay in this country. To do so, they need to be able to speak English. We’re not only helping them acclimate to the city of Philadelphia or America. We are also helping them in their journey of becoming a citizen.
How do you manage having people speaking different languages from different cultures as students in one classroom?
That’s the most interesting and most difficult part about being a teacher in a mixed-level class with low cultural context. The way we navigate it is kind of just remaining open-minded. If you don’t have direct experience with the culture, it’s kind of a learning environment for yourself as the teacher. You’re going to work with them as if they were any other person, but you’re also going to learn a little bit about their culture. From there, you can use that information to help out the next class.
If I find that there’s a bigger need and a few people that have the same questions, we’ll be able to cater a lesson toward it which is really fun. A couple students work in a bakery, some work in a kitchen, so we had a class on words that are used within the kitchen. We are able to be flexible in what we’re teaching and cater it to what the students’ needs are.
Why did you become an ESL teacher?
I was living in South Korea for the last few years, and I was an English teacher there.
I had an interest in teaching. I come from a family of teachers so my mother’s a teacher and I wanted to give it a shot. While I was in Korea, I really got into adult education and when I came back home about a year ago I decided that I wanted to continue in ESL with adults and adult literacy.
What has working at United Communities taught you about your hometown?
It’s been really great to get to know the immigrants and the refugees just in my own city. I wouldn’t have known how many people are here and Philadelphia is becoming kind of like a hub for them. It’s opened my own eyes, and it’s been really exciting to get to know what’s going on in my own city and being a help to those who are in need.
-Text and image by Grace Shallow.