By Grace Johnson, Team Read Reading Coach

Something unexpected always happens when I work with children…

I had a whole summer under my belt as a Camp Counselor, so I was no stranger to the challenges and joys that come when working with kids. Yet, my time as a reading tutor for the Team Read program would be much different than anything I had done before. 

On the first day, I logged onto the Zoom meeting feeling confident. I had been trained and was ready to work. I was in the middle of a “get to know you” activity with a student when all of a sudden, I was called back to the main meeting. A worried-looking coach, and someone I supposed was her student, were already there. The supervisor wore a frenzied expression as she typed away at her computer. 

She looked up to address me. “I remember from your application that you speak Spanish. Could you take over for this coach? Her student is a Spanish-speaker and does not speak any English.”

An enormous wave of panic overtook my body. My hands clammed up with cold sweat and my heart rattled against my chest. My stomach churned, as if I was on the world’s scariest roller coaster. 

What I said on my application was true, I did speak Spanish (almost) fluently. I had been learning the language in school since kindergarten. But teaching an entire curriculum AND translating it to a completely different language? This situation was mortifying. Despite every self-doubting thought that permeated throughout my brain, I knew I had to take the chance. I brought myself back down to Earth and wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. I had a job to do and a student to teach. If I had to make a quick decision in order for a student to be successful, I would make it. 

“Yes,” I said. “I can help him.”

The student and I were moved into a breakout room where I greeted him with a nervous “Hola, buenos tardes.” 

“Hola…” he replied hesitantly as he shifted in his seat. My heart plummeted upon seeing his wide-eyed, petrified expression. The poor kid looked like he wanted to melt in his seat and disappear! The panicked, self-doubting thoughts returned once again.

Quick! I needed to do something that would engage him. I briskly scrolled through the “get to know you” activities and settled on the “favorites” questions. When I asked him if he played any instruments, I noticed a complete shift in his energy. 

His eyes lit up as he spoke of his grandmother’s guitar and how much he enjoyed playing it. His enthusiastic energy seemed to radiate off of my screen, for I was eager to tell him about my own guitar and how much I enjoyed playing as well. We talked about everything, from food to video games. He talked about Minecraft and the endless creative possibilities it offered. He gushed about cats and dogs and how cuddly they were. As he talked, I kept an eye on his body language. His nervous energy had completely melted away! I smiled to myself, knowing that this was the beginning of something amazing. 

As the months went by, we continued to get to know each other as we worked on his reading. At first, he barely spoke up or responded to people in the main meetings. But at the very end, he enthusiastically greeted people in perfect English and his reading improved so much! I couldn’t have been more proud to watch his confidence and comfort grow. 

Being thrown into unexpected and uncomfortable situations can have enormous payoffs. I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to connect with an ESL student because it was fulfilling and special to be a part of his growth and learning. It was also truly amazing to be able to speak his language and connect with him on his own turf. Next year at Team Read, I hope to have another meaningful connection with an ESL student and help them grow and flourish. 

Grace Johnson is a junior at Lincoln High School in Seattle and tutors at Rising Star Elementary school.