Feature Friday: LaNelle McKay

Teaching with Intercambio is not LaNelle McKay’s first teaching experience. For the first 20 years of her career, LaNelle was a biology teacher. She then spent seven years as a Foreign Service officer, during which LaNelle lived in three different countries and had to learn three different languages (Bosnian, Moldovan, and Portuguese). She realized, in the process, “how isolating and disabling and difficult it is” to learn another language, especially as an older adult. “I have a lot of respect for these women who I work with who are trying to do that,” she said. “Having been a teacher, having tried to learn several other languages”–these experiences brought LaNelle to Intercambio after she retired.

LaNelle has been teaching with Intercambio for the past three years. For the first two years, she visited her student, Esther, in her house once a week in the evenings. They started at level five and worked through level 7, and over the course of their partnership, became great friends. LaNelle currently teaches a group class at Heart of Longmont. “I really like the social setting [of the group class]: interaction with multiple students and the interactions between them. It’s energizing.”

What has been a memorable experience you’ve had with Intercambio?
– Being able to celebrate Esther’s successes in life was very significant. She finished the program and made wonderful changes in her life as a result of her increased confidence with her English. She changed jobs, got a good promotion, and last year she was awarded Employee of the Year at her job.

And it wasn’t just because of her language skills, but I think I was kind of like a life coach to her, and even to her whole family. I tried to light a fire under all of them to get them to go back to school or get better jobs.

What has been surprising about working with your students or something unexpected you’ve learned?
– I was surprised that these immigrants who had been here for ten years or more were still struggling with basic English. All of the women I’ve worked with have been very serious about wanting to learn English, hardworking, and intelligent, but something had gotten in their way for ten years, to keep them from doing that.

What’s the most enjoyable lesson to teach?
– Food! My women love food! The food lessons are the most fun. Sometimes I bring food in to class, multiple objects of food. They have to choose one and talk about it, then they can eat it. And they love to cook. So I bring the grocery ads in frequently, and they choose a store and look at the grocery ads, and they talk about what they would buy and what they would cook with those things that they buy, and whether it’s a good buy or not. They really get into the food stuff.
The women in my class are all between about 30 and 50. They’re all involved with their families and they do a lot of cooking, and they love to talk about food.

And LaNelle’s first response, when asked what she wants future volunteers to know about volunteering with Intercambio:
– That it’s fun!