For Good: A special star shines at a St. Pete school

Michael Glenn is an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center. The school, built in 1924, overlooks beautiful Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg. His adult students attend classes full time 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with the sole purpose of learning to read, write and speak English. The majority of his students are new to the U.S. and know little or no English. Tomlinson has other programs for adults such as computer classes and GED.
The many excellent teachers work under the direction of Tomlinson’s administrator Godfrey Watson. My experience for the last three years, however, is with Mr. Glenn. I’ve been volunteering a few days a week, assisting with two of his classes, working with beginning English learners. So this story is about him and my experience in his classroom.
There are many challenges with these adult students. They are from all different backgrounds -- affluent families, refugees, others seeking political asylum, and a few simply seeking proficiency in English to return to their own country and field of study. Some speak languages that use the Roman alphabet while others speak languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, Arabic alphabet or any number of other global language systems. Vietnam, Cambodia, Serbia, Russia, China, Cuba, Panama, Bangladesh, Somalia, Eritrea, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Greece, Poland and every corner of the globe are represented at Tomlinson. It’s truly a global community.
There are many things to consider when working with a room full of these students, all of whom are eager to learn and very attentive. Ability to learn, educational background in their home country (some have very basic literacy) and what brought them here all impact the classroom experience.

A special teacher

Michael Glenn began at Tomlinson as a part-time Spanish teacher in 2012 and in 2015 began teaching ESL full time at the school. A native of Buffalo, NY, he spent his early career teaching high school Spanish before switching to ESL, earning an applied linguistics degree. For a decade he taught in various ESOL programs, including an internship through his university at an elementary school as well as after-school program, before moving to St. Petersburg. He and his wife, Indira, have a 5-year-old son, Miguel.

Mike’s knowledge of phonetics helps him teach pronunciation from a technical and scientific approach. These methods work and are preferable to simply having students repeat words over and over. It’s been fascinating for me to observe these methods in action and how the students improve.
I’ve watched Mr. Glenn work through the basics such as teaching students to write and pronounce their phone numbers and addresses, how to fill out a form and how to introduce themselves. Some students struggle with simply making eye contact; some wrestle with pronunciation and others pick things up instantly. He adjusts to every circumstance with ease and enthusiasm.

He has great empathy for these newcomers to St. Petersburg. Although it’s not exactly in his job description, he helps students with cultural issues. I’ve observed him helping them program their phone, give them directions on a map to various local services and often “lend an ear” to a student who just needs to vent or needs advice about another class. He suggests apps on their phone that might help them outside of the classroom and directs them to the free clinic in St. Petersburg when they’re sick. 

Cultural exchanges

As the students learn, Mr. Glenn also encourages them to share things about their cultures. At the end of some sessions, everyone is encouraged to bring in a dish from their country. It’s optional but most participate. We have a fabulous lunchtime “world” buffet of home-cooked delicacies and share in a way that everyone can communicate in a comfortable and casual setting in the classroom. It’s a pretty amazing experience and the students are thrilled to share something of their homeland with us. I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to have lunch with adults from a dozen different countries? Last session one Moroccan woman spent three hours baking a few dozen of the most amazing variety of Moroccan cookies. This was her way of giving back and saying thanks for this most welcoming learning experience.  
Every day Mr. Glenn comes in upbeat, positive and welcoming to each and every student. It’s clear they care deeply for him because they often stop him in the hall, visit his class after they’ve moved on to higher levels at Tomlinson or seek his guidance on a variety of matters. Some come by just to say hello or visit to spend time with him.
Many students have jobs that they must work around to attend classes or leave early. He encourages them to attend as much as they can fit into their schedules. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Many of the students have young children, are responsible for parents, have health issues and a variety of challenges related to adjusting to a new country that expects expedient assimilation.
Volunteering at Tomlinson has been most rewarding. Equally as important and a great inspiration has been to spend time with an authentic individual like Michael Glenn who exemplifies the best of our community every day.

I feel very fortunate to live in St. Pete, a community that supports a school like Tomlinson, and to spend time with an educator who shows such genuine compassion and caring to help these motivated adults become part of our community.

Follow this link to learn more about Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and opportunities to volunteer.
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