I am partaking in the most dynamic philanthropic experience of my life – I teach English to kids that speak Hebrew while I learn to speak Hebrew.
Surprisingly, benefits outweigh the hardships here. As any one of the fellows on my 10-month program could tell you and as you probably expect, it’s difficult to communicate at times. Words get thrown out into the language atmosphere and dangle hopelessly, waiting for Google translate to come and sweep them off their feet.
Confused faces sometimes fade over the children that I am speaking to and in that moment all seems lost. But somehow, some way we manage. It usually involves hand signals and/or voice inflection, or if the discussion is a little more difficult, we hope at least one student catches on and can correctly translate for his or her peers. We hear the collective “ohhh” of understanding and smiles slowly reappear across room. Sigh.
If we’re lucky, we don’t just get by, we actually make progress. I already see it in the eyes of my 5th graders: it’s their willingness to try and make mistakes. All they want to do is tell me about their family, friends and life outside of school. I sit patiently, happy as a clam, as their butchered English somehow strings together into something understandable.
The English journey they are taking is not so unfamiliar to me, especially right now as I attempt to learn the Hebrew language in a class that I take two times a week. Learning a language (and a new alphabet to boot) has posed quite a challenge these past few months. I’ve realized there’s a major hurdle that must be overcome – I must get over the fear of making mistakes and just go for it.
At the store or in a taxi, I do my best to get by on the little I know, but the awareness of my horribly conjugated, mispronounced attempts makes me cringe. I try and take note from my kids who have the bravery and enthusiasm to get past the worry of sounding like an illiterate junkie and just speak, but sometimes it comes out as one big sigh.
Not all of my kids are of the brave sort and I empathize with their language difficulties. I’ve found that when I swoop in with the, “you teach me, I teach you” deal, something clicks. They love to quiz me and help me pronounce words of their choosing. And why wouldn’t they love this? All day they are quieted, told what to do and how to do it. We, as fellows, have the opportunity to create a special relationship – a relationship that creates an outlet for creativity and experimentation. Pressures of the class are absent in my English room. I am not the grader or the disciplinarian; I am their big sister who happens to be good at speaking English.
This relationship comes with its responsibilities. I am their mentor and someone they look up to. I do my best to stay active with them and give attention whenever appropriate. I walk out to the schoolyard and kids crowd around me, asking my age and how many siblings I have. There’s nothing like being in another country, weathered from a hard day, and hearing your name chanted throughout a schoolyard right before attempting one of their “jump rope” type games or hearing them successfully repeat the entire “We Are” chant (luckily they don’t know Penn State’s record this season). Some days are more difficult than others, but this somehow makes everything worth it.
I’m in this bubble now where helping and learning are almost interchangeable. Sometimes the edges are so fine, I don’t know whether I am supposed to feel grateful or accomplished. Usually I just feel both. Grateful that I am working with kids who have no boundaries. Accomplished when I get a note from a student thanking me for teaching him new things. Grateful that I get to experience Israel through the most innocent, unaltered lenses. Accomplished when I can use what I’ve learned in Hebrew class to help explain an English concept.
It’s pretty obvious what I am thankful for this year, but if you couldn’t guess I would say it’s the chance to be a part of this weird experiment called Israel Teaching Fellows. I get to learn and grow in a country that I call home while the people around me hopefully do the same. I’m thankful for the feeling that my days mean something, if only to a few 5th graders in Be’er Sheva, Israel. At least it’s something.