Teaching people to soar


It doesn’t take much digging to uncover Ruth Hamilton’s dedication to her job.

Her class is the noisy one tucked away in the back where laughter, often at her own expense, is the key to unlocking the shackles of fear so common to immigrants embracing new cultures.

She will tell you that her job is easy: “I just sit there and talk. I like talking to all sorts of people.” But dig a little deeper and the foundations to this bubbly enthusiasm are exposed.

She sees breaking down barriers to make people feel comfortable in their new surrounds as one of the most important factors in learning English. And one of the best ways to remove barriers is to learn a little of the culture that comes with each person.

“I think language is a relational thing. If you can get a handle on where the learners come from and understand a little of their different world view, it can make a huge difference in establishing the trust you need as a teacher.”

Ruth spends many hours researching the customs and etiquette of her learners’ countries. “I’m aware they are in a new country and will need to adjust, but I don’t think there can be any harm in adjusting my behaviour too, just a little, to make people feel more comfortable.”

Ruth describes a breakthrough moment in a recent class: “I started moving around the table talking to each learner about their country until I had ignited an animated discussion among them all. All except one. “Every time I tried to engage her, she would just shake her head and say “My English no good. I stupid, stupid woman” and laugh with embarrassment.

“She was Chinese. My Mandarin is horrible, scarcely intelligible, and absolutely perfect for calming a learner convinced of her own stupidity.

English Language Partners teacher Ruth

“I sat down beside her, took her hand in mine, and began to speak my horrible Mandarin. She gave a shriek of pure joy and began to answer me in English.

“Maybe she had thought ‘good heavens, I can’t be worse than that’. Or maybe she just wanted to meet me half way. I don’t know. What I do know is that she never called herself stupid again.

“Someone once told me, ‘If you want to succeed with people, go low, go low.’ It’s true. If you are willing to go low, you will teach people to soar.”

Ruth’s own education is somewhat unorthodox.

Born and raised in Whangarei, she was home schooled, which allowed plenty of time for other interests, so as a teenager she worked part time in a florist shop.

When she was 17, her family moved to Connecticut for her father to study, and her knowledge of flowers and floristry translated into helping a friend teach some classes at a local agricultural college.

There she noticed a recent Ukrainian immigrant, a girl with excellent understanding of written English but with no confidence to apply it. Ruth wanted to help but didn’t know how. She wasn’t able to overcome the barriers between herself and Juliana.

Long after Ruth moved on from Connecticut, she kept thinking about Juliana. Even though there had never been a friendship, Juliana had changed Ruth’s path forever.

Back in New Zealand, Ruth saw an advertisement for volunteer training with English Language Partners. The memory of Juliana emerged and she saw a chance to help.

She signed on as a ‘tutor in training’ in 2011 and discovered the world is full of people like Juliana. “As a teacher, learners will often subconsciously put you on a dais up in front of them, but I find it so much better to be alongside them.

“I have discovered that the art of teaching English is to listen with your eyes and understand with your heart.”

Malcolm Pullman


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