Tutor Stories

Meet Louise Proffitt & her ESL student, Santos

Like many LVCA tutors, becoming a tutor was on Louise Proffitt’s radar for a long time. Proffitt spent most of her career as a special education instructor, retiring from Charlottesville High School in 2007, and it was during her time in the public schools that the challenges of English language learners first grabbed her attention.

“I always had my eye on the ESL population at the high school because there was always a lot of cross-over. They had trouble passing SOLs (Standards of Learning), and so did [my students],” she explained. After retirement, she worked part-time as a tutor for special needs and ESL students working on their English SOLs, which led her to volunteering with the Adult Learning Center in one of their ESL classrooms. At the time, she was traveling back and forth to take care of her ailing mother in Delaware. “I was afraid to take on any major commitments and it was easy to go in once or twice a week to help the instructor,” Proffitt explained. After her mother passed away, she felt ready to get more involved and signed up for Literacy Volunteers New Tutor Training in the fall of 2012. Shortly thereafter she was matched with Santos, a young man from Mexico with whom she still works.

In some ways, Literacy Volunteers was on Santos’s radar for a long time as well. When he first moved to the United States in 2001, he thought he would only be here for a few years and wasn’t committed to learning English. However, when his eldest son, now age 10, entered school, he began to realize the importance of being able to communicate with his teachers. Soon, his four-year-old daughter will also be entering school, doubling the importance for him.

“I know he’s going to need some help with the homework and it’s not going to be in Spanish. So that’s the first thing that pushed me to start looking for places to go learn English,” Santos explained. He was drawn to Literacy Volunteers program because of the one-on-one format and the ability to focus on his main goals, which are to improve his reading and writing. Now, he and his son are at similar reading levels and practice reading and writing together in the evenings.

“Now [my son] can tell me a little bit about the homework and I can get it very fast and I can help him,” said Santos. Santos’s improved English is also helping him with his business aspirations. Recently, he began his own landscaping company and is growing it partly through Toan Nyugen’s C’ville Central, a benefit corporation dedicated to vitalizing the local economy by supporting small, women, and minority-owned (SWaM) businesses in the Charlottesville region.

Proffitt is impressed with Santos’s ambition. “He’s just incredible. He wants so badly to improve. He wants to get his GED, go into a landscaping class, and become a certified landscaper. He goes from one step to another, without any fear,” she said.

One of Proffitt’s early concerns with tutoring was managing the difficult and contradictory creature that is the English language. “English is a real mess,” she said. “It has more idioms and expressions and breaking of rules than there are rules. It’s crazy.” However, she finds Understanding and Using English Grammar Workbook by Betty Schrampfer Azar and Stacy A. Hagen to be a great help. She also makes sure to set aside time in her sessions with Santos to work on his goals of improving his writing. Each session begins with them reading together, and follows with some writing time for him, and Proffitt draws on Santos’s writing to work on spelling and vocabulary.
“Once you start and get excited about helping somebody, you find the way,” she said. “There are so many resources here and Deanne and Maureen are wonderful. The person on the other side is just as nervous as you are, so there isn’t any judging going on. It’s all about just helping each other.”

Santos is pleased with his progress and makes sure to make his weekly meetings with Louise a priority, even though those are hours he could be working to support his family. “You’ve got to spend time learning English. Before I was taking classes, I just wanted to work and make money. It was hard for me [to make the time]. But now I’m happy to spend that time. Because the money, you can spend in one second, and learning English you’re going to keep it forever.”


Meet Ginny Zeller & her Basic Literacy Student, JT

After retiring from 29 years of practicing corporate law in Minneapolis, Ginny Zeller and her husband decided to retire to Charlottesville in 2011 to be closer to their daughters—one here in Charlottesville, another in Somerset, Ginny was looking for something to do. Having volunteered briefly with a literacy program in Minneapolis, she thought she’d try it again here.

“I had a really good, strong, English program…I was exposed to strong fundamentals,” Ginny says, explaining that she went to a Catholic school and spent much of her primary and secondary education diagramming sentences and learning Latin. “This seemed like a good way to pay it forward.”

Shortly after completing training, Ginny was paired with JT, a basic literacy student who had recently retired and wanted to improve his reading skills. “I went through school and I could sight read, but I was very poor at spelling and reading. I decided I really wanted to read the Bible,” JT says, adding that neither of his parents were strong readers either. “It goes from one generation to the next generation. I tell young people to think. You got the opportunity, you got tutors, you got summer school—when I was going to school we didn’t have all that.”

While Ginny was nervous before her first session with JT—as most new tutors are—she felt quite prepared by the training and the materials Program Director Deanne Foerster provided her. “The Laubach series for adult learners provides you with structure. It’s almost like a lesson plan,” she explains.

JT has been very pleased with his progress over the last year. “Ginny pushes me…and gets me to the next step. She is really trying to understand me and I think we worked out a good bond of friendship with one another.”
The feeling of friendship is definitely mutual. “He’s just a great person, open to learning,” Ginny says of JT. They began their work together focusing on reading comprehension then moving into short writing activities. Ginny has found that doing short dictation activities provides them with a way to review material from prior weeks—for instance, by incorporating words with specific sounds they may have covered—as well as developing JT’s writing fluency. They also incorporate short sentence, paragraph, and essay assignments and review them together—a goal JT set for himself as part of his desire to have a more active role as a deacon at his church. “I’ve been reading the Bible in church, but there are still has a lot of hard words,” JT says, “but I have been working at it. [Ginny] helps me with the words that I don’t know…and it is making me grow.” He credits Ginny’s mix of patience and high expectations with his progress, which has given him confidence to read out loud more fluently and with confidence.

Ginny and JT both feel it’s important for new tutors to see tutoring as a partnership. “Have it be collegial, ask questions, see what interests them. Have a plan that is something you are figuring out together,” says Ginny.

“You got to have patience with the [student],” JT says, adding that it’s also important to not be too lenient. “I tell Miss Ginny, don’t be too easy on me, be a little hard. I want the hardness, that’s what makes you go.”

Meet Cynthia Harrison and her ESL student, Rana

Current Literacy Volunteers tutor Cynthia Harrison considered being a tutor for quite some time before making the leap. Like many of our tutors, she wasn’t sure she could make the time commitment along with working a full-time job. Prior to her retirement, Cynthia worked with the mental health agency Region 10 for thirty years as a therapist, administrator, and also a teacher, spending the last part of her career providing instruction on human services at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“I had thought about tutoring…years and years ago, and I went to an orientation and at the time the training was very daunting, so I said no back then,” Cynthia explains. However, after she retired she was responsible for caring for her dying mother and the idea of tutoring literacy became a way to celebrate her mother’s love of reading. “[My mother] was someone who read all the time. So one of my duties with her was to get her books….She couldn’t imagine how people could live if they couldn’t read. To honor her memory, I got back in touch with LVCA,” Cynthia explains.

Shortly after completing the training in the summer of 2012, Cynthia was matched with Rana, a woman who relocated here from Iraq. Rana moved to the United States with her husband and son a little over a year ago. They settled in Charlottesville as both she and her husband have extended family here.

Cynthia and Rana connected quickly through Cynthia’s curiosity about Rana’s home culture. “I had her teach me some Arabic and she was astounded that I wanted to learn and that I knew something about Ramadan and Eid. She couldn’t believe it,” Cynthia says, adding that talking about culture—be it through Rana sharing stories about her family and friends back in Iraq or Cynthia helping Rana navigate the world of coupons—quickly became a cornerstone of their time together.

At first, Cynthia struggled a bit with managing her time preparing for each session. She worked hard on formulating elaborate lesson plans every week, but didn’t feel like they were working as well as she hoped. Finally, she went to Program Director Deanne Foerster out of frustration. Deanne helped Cynthia see there was no need to reinvent the wheel and that following the book wasn’t “slacking.” From then on, Cynthia let their text, English No Problem: Literacy, serve as foundation from which she and Rana could depart as needed.

One of Rana’s primary goals was to be able to communicate effectively with health care workers, so she and Cynthia used the Oxford Picture Dictionary to review medical terms. “My whole approach was practical,” Cynthia says. She learned quickly how to balance lessons from their text with Rana’s interests and concerns. As Rana’s skills developed, helping her open up about her life and concerns became the focus of their meetings. In preparation, Rana writes in a journal throughout the week. At their meetings, Cynthia and Rana talk about her sentences, or select a text from the LVCA library to discuss.

“I know English, but I don’t speak with [many] people,” Rana says. “[Cynthia’s] helped me with writing, reading, and talking. I want help with talking and she talks with me about my last week, what has happened. She’s very good.”

In addition to taking a genuine interest in a student’s culture and background, Cynthia advises new tutors that teaching adults—especially ESL students—is very different from working with children. “It’s important for a tutor to recognize, to value the fact, that the people who come here were competent adults in their own culture…and they’re incredibly brave to come here in the first place and what an incredible challenge they’re taking on,” Cynthia says. “I have nothing but admiration.”

George Garrett

In June 2009, I started volunteering as a tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle. After attending the tutor training, I was assigned to teach English to a middle-aged woman who had escaped the harshness of life in North Korea. The International Rescue Committee had brought her to live in our small university town.

When we first met, she said that her goal was to improve her ability to speak and understand English, even though she had successfully settled into the local Korean-speaking community. As it turned out, she did improve significantly. After just a year of meeting one-to-one for an hour twice a week, she had risen to the “High Beginning” level. Moreover, during that time she obtained her green card and got a better job with the local university. I felt pleased for having helped her in her efforts to make a new life in America.

What surprised me, however, was how much I benefited from the experience. Our conversations enabled me to learn about a culture and country very different from my own, and at the same time I learned what is distinctive about America by seeing it through her eyes. It was also stimulating to learn about aspects of the English language that we take for granted, but which can seem very strange from the point of view of a non-native. Why is the opposite of “put on my jacket” not “put off…” but “take off my jacket?”

Most importantly, however, I have been inspired by her character, curiosity, and resilience in the face of difficulties. It has been more than just a satisfying accomplishment to tutor her these past two years—it has been an inspiration. I am grateful to Literacy Volunteers for having made this experience possible for me.

Debra Weiss

My mother always said, “If you read, you can cook.” That phrase took on a deeper meaning as I became involved in the LVCA program. I had been interested in volunteering in a literacy program for years before I did something about it. I decided to go to training and see what it was like.

When I got my first student, Alice, she had been in the program for like six years. She was a feisty 62, and she called her sessions “goin’ to school.” I thought to myself, what I am going to DO with her? That turned out to be a non-issue. Adults differ from kids. They know exactly what they want to learn. Alice wanted learn how to read maps. Even though she had been a city bus driver for years, she couldn’t read a map. She wanted to know how her dishwasher worked. She couldn’t understand all the paperwork she got from Social Security. She also suspected she was getting ripped off on her vacation and sick pay at her job, but couldn’t quite figure out the employee manual.

We worked on all that. We would spread out the map, pick a random place, plot our course, write out the directions, and then get in the car and drive to the destination. We did this numerous times, and every single time Alice would say “I think I’m making a mistake. We’re lost.” And I would say, “Are you following your directions?” And every single time, we’d get to our place. And Alice would laugh.

I showed her how to use her ATM card at the grocery store. The little machine intimidated her. After she did it one time, she said, “It just can’t be that easy!!!” Then I found out why she never wrote checks. She couldn’t write out the months of the year or write out the dollar amounts in words. We worked on that, and mastering the check-writing thing gave her a huge amount of confidence.

We were together for two years before she moved away.

Then I got Chris. He was 19 when I met him. We were together for over four years, and finally, when he was reading articles from the Sunday New York Times Magazine with little difficulty, I told him he didn’t need to be in the program any longer. He reluctantly agreed, but didn’t want to quit our sessions. I think he likes having someone encouraging in his corner. Who wouldn’t? While we don’t meet regularly any more, we still get together occasionally to catch up on each other’s lives because we’re good friends.

My next student was Hyan Ah. She was from South Korea. I was her conversational partner. We went on outings around town. We talked and talked and talked about all sorts of things, and I learned that our cultural differences weren’t all that different. We spent our last several months together making a quilt. We finished it just as she was ready to go back home. It’s something she’ll have forever and will serve as a reminder of our time together.

If you’re even remotely interested, go through the training. You’ll make a huge difference in someone’s life. If a person can read, not only can they cook—they can do anything. It’s the best gift you can give someone, and, in doing so, you’ll get an even bigger gift in return.

Gary Sites

When I moved to Charlottesville, I was determined to do something worthwhile in our community, and hopefully be of some help to someone. I started looking for somewhere I could volunteer.

I found out about Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville/Albemarle from an ad in the newspaper. I called about the upcoming orientation meeting for perspective tutors, but learned that I couldn’t fit the training into my schedule. I then forgot about LVCA for almost two years, when I saw the ad again, asking for volunteers. This time I was able to attend six training sessions to become a tutor. All of these meetings were informative and fun. I enjoyed them so much, I was a bit sad when they ended. I learned strategies for teaching reading and writing skills to adult learners. But my learning did not end there.

Through the instruction, the meeting of new people, and the fun, I found a place that has added something wonderful to my life. Along with the training for becoming a tutor, LV-C/A asks for each tutor to be active for at least a year. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure I can meet with someone twice a week for 52 weeks, but I’ll give it a try.” I thought that it could really get to be a chore. Never did I imagine that the sessions with my student would become so fun and rewarding.

No matter what is going on in the rest of my life, I always look forward to our two weekly sessions. Not only are we a good tutor/student match, we have become good friends. We do things together like attend Bible studies and church services. We both have children, so we often discuss parenting strategies and stories. We recently read Bill Cosby’s book, Fatherhood. We did a lot of laughing in those sessions, while working on comprehension and word recognition.

It seemed like no time, but we reached our for two year mark. We’d put together a list of 350 new words that have been mastered in that time period. We’d also read a biography of George Washington Carver, along with many chapters from different books from the Bible. Next, we read a commentary on Proverbs by Dr. J. Vernon McGee. I don’t know what kind of experiences other tutors and students have, but my association with LVCA has been all positive. The staff is always available to help, advise, and encourage. My student has become a better reader. I have become a part of a wonderfully run organization that has made a big difference in many lives, especially mine.

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