Humans of BRL is a monthly column, loosely based on the concept of a popular New York photo project, featuring interviews of individuals involved with Blue Ridge Literacy. With over 500 staff, board members, volunteers, and learners from around the globe, BRL is host to a unique and diverse population all working towards achieving life goals through literacy opportunities.
Everyone has a story...here are some of ours.
There is no better place to launch this column than from within our offices, where we have been serving the Roanoke Valley for more than 30 years. Our first story comes from Jamie Sievers, a full-time AmeriCorps State volunteer and lead teacher of our English classes at BRL. She also serves as a one-on-one tutor and as an ESL parent educator at a local elementary school. Positive and affirming, Jamie is the first to share a smile and cultivates a warm and supportive classroom environment. She teaches practical classes with an upbeat twist and is always ready with a quippy anecdote to capture the attention and hearts of our learners.
Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Jamie relocated to Virginia in 2010 to attend Roanoke College and from there, discovered BRL.
How did you originally get involved with BRL?
“My first encounter [with BRL] was in the fall of 2012, I began as an education intern. During that time, I was working with Cuban learners one-on-one and assisted with citizenship class.” After graduating from Roanoke College in 2014, Jamie jetted off to Spain, where she strengthened her language skills and found her place in the classroom.
After working with English in another country, she set her sights on somewhere she knew well. “I got inspired to teach in my home country, at a place I was familiar with. I came back [to BRL] in August of 2015 as a volunteer and then as an AmeriCorps State volunteer in September.”
Describe an inspiring moment you have had while teaching.
Jamie talks about a small evening class at a public school that a few BRL learners also attend in addition to daily classes. These classes have not only helped her to better understand their language needs, but also cultivate personal relationships with them as well.
She describes one such moment as having special significance. It was the last class before Christmas break, and she and the learners watched a holiday musical that all of the children at this school performed in. When she got there, “all of the learners were sitting by themselves,” waiting for the show to begin. “When I went to say hi to them, they came and stood with me. Throughout the show, they asked questions and interacted with me.”
The class on this night was simply to watch the show, and for Jamie, this is the moment when her relationship with these learners changed from teacher and student to a friendship. Their interactions “transcended their level of English and any cultural differences” that may have stood in the way in a classroom setting. The fact that they came and wanted to stand with me made me really happy.”
How have you worked with challenging experiences in the classroom?
“There are some [lessons] that work better than others. Sometimes it can feel challenging to work with learners who seemed like they didn't appreciate what I did. It was difficult for me to not take it personally.” She describes the holiday season as being particularly tough in the classroom--both as a teacher and a peer--when she had a realization. “I can still be an effective teacher whether or not my personality is getting across.”
“I try to start off each class by asking how everyone is doing. Sometimes students won't answer.” She notes that for teachers, it’s important to ask the right questions and show that we are genuinely interested. Also key is “being mindful to what is happening in their lives. Coming [into class] ready to go and keeping an open mind about learning.”
Jamie says she finds stronger connections with our learners when she recognizes that they are adults, “with lives outside of this class.” By using English as a bridge, she can show concern for their lives and make them feel validated. “Honestly, getting to know that person is probably the most important component of the experience--building trust and openness, and talking to each person on a human level.”
What has surprised you about working here?
“A pleasant surprise is the generosity of people. The people we work with come with nothing,” yet still offer generosity and kindness. Jamie describes a new learner from Afghanistan who first arrived at BRL shy, with limited English skills. Despite difficulties expressing herself due to language barriers, they have found ways to connect with a warm meal, as she regularly offers others portions of her homemade lunch. “I know she doesn’t have [a lot] of food at home. She’s so willing to share.”
Moments like these, she says, “have helped me count my blessings. This population at BRL is probably the most hardworking, patient, generous, compassionate, resilient group of people you could ever meet. We hear difficult portions of their lives, the long process of coming to America, but seeing how they find the energy to keep going to fight for more.” Referring to the refugee crises around the world and worry in the US, she notes that “we should be welcoming to these people who have so many rich experiences to share with us. It’s just not safe in their countries. Trying to provide a good life by any means necessary is something to applaud and not something to be scared of.”
Reflecting on the past four months teaching, Jamie reaches a conclusion. “My experience at BRL is much more than being a teacher. I attempt to validate our learners as human beings, help restore their faith in humanity and make the classroom a safe place, a place of kindness and compassion.”