Feature Friday: Minna Vallentine

Minna Vallentine joined Intercambio in 2013, and since then, has taught 6 terms of group classes ranging from level 4 to level 7. However, it’s not Minna’s first ESL rodeo. She spent 10 years teaching ESL in Santa Clara County, CA and a summer teaching English in China. When Minna moved to Boulder, she began looking for volunteer opportunities. “I joined Intercambio,” said Minna, “because I found I missed teaching. I really enjoyed it because I got a lot out of the interplay between students.”

What has been a memorable experience with Intercambio?
-When I was teaching a Level 7 class at Manhattan Middle School last year, I had a diverse group of students. And somehow, we got onto the subject of getting married and wives. And the student from Saudi Arabia started talking about the principle in Saudi Arabia that a man can have four wives. He had been pretty quiet in class before then, complaining that his conversational English wasn’t good enough. But when he got talking about something that he was passionate about, it was just a different experience. And we got into a whole political discussion about marriage and politics in these different countries. It really sticks in my mind.

What is something unexpected you’ve learned?
-I’m always amazed by how quickly most of the students pick up things, and by how hard they work and how much they want to succeed in English. And the things I can learn from them because I’m always learning from them. I learn a lot about their cultures. And their perspectives on what’s going on in their countries. I had a student from Iran, who talked about their perspective on the politics in their country versus what we think. It just gives you another view into what’s going on. I never get tired of that.

What was the most enjoyable lesson to teach?
– I enjoy all my classes, I always have a good time with them. And there’s always something unexpected. You plan something and you walk into the classroom and you’re never sure what’s going to happen, or how it’s going to happen, so it makes every lesson interesting and fun.

How has teaching impacted your day-to-day life, conversations, or how you connect with your community?
– It’s given me a whole different perspective on Boulder than I had. I was totally stunned by the multi-cultural environment. It’s really helped me broaden my perspective on a lot of things. To learn about the people and what problems they have and how they deal with things. I had a student for three terms. She and her husband worked at the same restaurant, and the restaurant closed suddenly. They were working paycheck to paycheck and very little savings. She had to drop out of school so they could both focus on finding new jobs so they could feed their four children. It gets you thinking about things that you don’t normally focus on.
You live in your own bubble. Everyone does it. And it really helps you broaden your bubble and see what’s going on with other people. I do a lot of traveling, and it’s really helps me to broaden my perspective on the way I look at people in other countries.

Can you share some teaching tips?
– The one thing that I learned a long time ago and I have to keep reminding myself of is that when you are bored with something in class, and you’ve repeated it 3 or 4 or 5 times, and you say, “I’m bored. I’m done. I’m moving on,” you have to do it another 10 or 15 times before they’re going to get it. It’s important to just keep reviewing and reviewing and reviewing. If you’re bored, it doesn’t mean your students bored. Because the odds are they’re still probably struggling to figure out what it is that you’re trying to tell them to do.

With pronunciation, a lot of the students come into the class and they are totally focused on getting rid of their accent. There is nothing wrong with an accent. It’s very charming in most cases. The thing they have to focus on is not getting rid of their accent, but pronouncing things so that others will understand. It’s a big difference. I think it’s important for instructors to explain that and make sure they understand that it’s okay to have an accent and to pronounce words differently than the person sitting next to them.