Seniors Teach English, Learn Life Lessons

In a windowless room behind the theater at Regis College’s performing arts center, Henry Muller ’19 is attempting to explain the difference between cold and a cold. It’s confusing, he concedes, because, as he tells his listeners, “When I have a cold, I might feel cold.”
The group nods, as comprehension dawns. Another word, another concept, has been mastered, and the Spanish-speaking students are one step closer to English fluency.

Muller and Johnny Kantaros ’19 are part of an independent study in Spanish that takes them to Regis each Tuesday. There, they meet with members of the college’s housekeeping and maintenance staff who want to improve their English skills.

Spanish teacher Mary Brown explains that Muller and Kantaros had exhausted the school’s Spanish offerings by the end of their junior year but wanted to continue with their language studies. Last summer, Brown worked with Jill McCulley, of the Spanish department, to come up with a plan. The result was an independent study that, through the fall and early part of the winter, had the two seniors traveling to a senior center in Jamaica Plain each week to meet with Spanish-speaking adults for conversation and cultural exposure. The sessions were productive and successful, says Brown, but with winter on the horizon, she wanted to come up with a different model that would pose fewer travel challenges, as well as provide a service component.

Brown is a Regis alumna who’s maintained close ties to the college; she also has had experience as a teacher of English as a second language. Through a connection at Regis, and with the help of Susan Tammaro, Upper School dean of academics and a fellow Regis alum, she met with the school’s HR department and its head of housekeeping, and a plan to involve Muller and Kantaros in teaching ESL to Spanish-speaking staff members was hatched.

Although Muller and Kantaros had no prior teaching experience, Brown says they “jumped in with both feet.” Brown borrowed ESL materials from a program she’d worked with in the past, and the two Rivers students took it upon themselves to master the lessons. “They’re doing the bulk of the work,” says Brown, who also joins in on the classes. “They’re as involved and dedicated as I am.”

In the Regis classroom, Muller and Kantaros seem relaxed and confident as they go over the day’s work sheets, which are all about vocabulary and concepts relating to illness, symptoms, and medicine. Cough drops, Muller explains, are a form of medicine; Kantaros coaches students as they complete such statements as “I don’t want to give my [blank] to anyone at work.”

As teachers, they seem like naturals, but both admit to having been a little apprehensive initially. “I was definitely nervous,” says Kantaros. “I had no idea what the level was going to be like. I was scared that their English would be way too good, and that teaching them would be a joke.” But he and Muller found that, though most of the students had at least a functional knowledge of English, all were eager to improve their skills and excited about the lessons, giving up their lunch hours to participate. Some struggle with pronunciation, they said; others speak well but find writing to be a challenge.

The two seniors also had concerns about teaching adults who, in some cases, were old enough to be their parents. But once in the classroom, said Muller, “The age disparity disappears.” As is so often the case, the teachers have also learned from the taught: Both in Jamaica Plain and at Regis, Muller and Kantaros have explored their students’ lives, kept journals, and used their Spanish skills. Teaching ESL requires more Spanish than they expected. “It’s the whole translating process,” said Kantaros. “You’re communicating with them in Spanish, to teach them English.”

For her part, Brown is thrilled with the way the experiment has played out, and she hopes that the momentum can carry it forward to involve other students in the future. “Our boys are giving so much to the people in this program, and gaining so much in return,” she says. Organizing the program, she says, was a lot of work, but “it was a group effort, and it’s just a joyous venture. It’s really a win-win.”

—Jane Dornbusch