It took Christina LaPrad a dozen years to find the career that “feeds her soul,” but she doesn’t begrudge the time she spent in the Air Force, working as a government contractor, and getting both an undergraduate and graduate degree. Those years “gave me perspective,” she says, helping her discover what she truly loves: teaching adults to learn a new language.
An AmeriCorps lead teacher at Roanoke’s Blue Ridge Literacy nonprofit since September 2016, Christina teaches beginning students, in classes that range from 10 to 30 learners. Not only do the students come from different countries, they also come with different skill sets. Some are preliterate, and some have earned degrees in their home country. “Sometimes for one class, I create three different lessons” to address these differences, Christina says. As helpful as advance planning can be, however, she also has to think on her feet. “You have to be really creative” to teach students who are completely new to English. “We slow our speech and use as few words as possible. That’s harder than you think it is. It always helps me to remind myself what it feels like to hear a different language,” she says, remembering her extended stays in Japan, Costa Rica, and the Czech Republic.
A Roanoke native, Christina joined the Air Force immediately after high sc
hool graduation. After her four years of service, some of it spent in Japan, she worked for eight years as a government contractor. “Throughout that time I never really felt like that was my calling,” she says. “It was a job that paid the bills, but I knew I wanted to do something else. I always wanted to teach, but I didn’t know what.” She decided to go to college, earning an undergraduate degree in sociology, immediately followed by a master’s degree in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), both from James Madison University. Inspired by her university experience, she and her husband and two young daughters took off for Prague in the Czech Republic, where she obtained a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, or TEFL.
When Christina and her family returned to the United States, she started looking for a teaching job, hoping to find one that entailed adult instruction. When a friend told her about the AmeriCorps position, she thought it was a perfect match for her skills and interests. “Everything lined up,” she says. “I love teaching adults. They bring so much life experience and background knowledge to the classroom. That’s where my love and passion is.”
Christina’s 1,700 hours as an AmeriCorps employee end this summer, but she’ll take warm memories with her to her next job: of Chandra (from Nepal) and Hawa (from Sudan), for example. Both are “such hard workers,” she says. “They always tell me thank you” for the one-on-one time she spends teaching them phonics. She takes pleasure in seeing their skills and confidence grow.
Her face brightens when she talks about Edisa (from Burundi), “my sunshine. She always makes me laugh. She’s this bright light, always motivated, always participating. I watched her kind of skyrocket. I had to send her to the next class (because I teach beginners), and I told her, ‘You are ready, yes you are!’”
Each of Christina’s learners has a different goal. Some want to get a driver’s license, some are working toward U.S. citizenship. In the case of Johari, a former midwife from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Christina serves as her mentor. During their weekly meeting, they set goals for Johari—to become a better speaker, a better reader—all to enable her to find a good job in the healthcare field.
“I love what I do!” Christina exclaims. “Being around [my students], spending my day with them—it’s so rewarding. We don’t all have great days, but as soon as I walk into the classroom, they cheer me up.” This dedicated traveler has found it challenging to settle down in one place, but in teaching adults from all over the world and in listening to their stories, she has found a way to visit other countries. “I get to experience the world every day,” she says. “I’m a lucky girl.”
Blue Ridge Literacy serves over 450 adult learners each year, guiding them in developing literacy skills necessary for cultural assimilation, civic engagement, and economic success. BRL offers a variety of learning experiences, from one-on-one tutoring to skills-level classes. Persons interested in volunteering with BRL should call 265-9339 or go online to www.brlit.org.