English as a Second Language tutor Linda Merritt learns from her adult students

Eufemia Didonato

By Dorothy de Souza Guedes, for The Gazette

How would you define the word cute, as in “your child is cute”? Could you explain the idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Linda Merritt’s students often interrupt with random questions like these, but she doesn’t mind.

“Questions like that really make you think,” she said.

Merritt is one of dozens of volunteer English tutors with the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids. Some of her students speak several languages — it’s just that English isn’t one of them.

She hit a major milestone in January, having tutored students more than 1,000 hours. Over the years, the energetic and enthusiastic volunteer has worked her way up from one student to as many as 12 to 14, all taught in one-on-one sessions.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I love it there,” Merritt said.

TEACHER TO LAWYER

Merritt’s career began as a music teacher in the Philadelphia area. She became a stay-at-home mom when her son and daughter were young. She moved to Cedar Rapids in 1986 when her late husband, Rich Merritt, accepted a job in the city.

At the time, the Cedar Rapids area was flush with teachers, with only substitute positions available.

Merritt went to business school at the University of Iowa, where a business law class whetted her appetite for more. Her husband reminded her that she’d always said if she weren’t a teacher, she’d be a lawyer.

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So Merritt enrolled in the University of Iowa College of Law, earned her law degree and then worked as a lawyer for 25 years. She retired in 2013 when she turned 65.

Merritt was an active volunteer throughout her career, from donating her time as an aide at her kids’ school to Girl Scouts to being “the storybook lady at the library” when her kids were young and serving as a docent at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

She also has been very active in community theater throughout the Corridor and would still be if it weren’t for the pandemic. She’s appeared on the stages of more than a dozen regional theaters, playing a wide variety of roles, from nun to grandmother. She even performed with her son, Rob Merritt, and grandson in a local production of “On Golden Pond.”

“I was a singing, acting, dancing lawyer,” she said.

LAWYER TO TEACHER

Soon after she retired from her law practice, Merritt was at her dentist’s office for a routine checkup. The receptionist asked her what she was going to do with her time. The woman suggested Merritt contact Mount Mercy University about their ESL, or English as a Second Language, program. Merritt did, and the university put her in touch with the Catherine McAuley Center.

“I’m back to my first love, which was teaching,” Merritt said.

Her work as a volunteer tutor began with a two-hour orientation session. She was introduced to the workbooks used in the program and told what to expect from the students. She also observed an experienced tutor.

“And then they started assigning me students,” she said. “At first, I had only one.”

Over the past seven years, her students have ranged in age from 17 to 80, but most have been between 30 and 60, she said. The most common reason they give for wanting to learn English? To get a better job.

“A lot of them are professional people,” she said. “In their own countries, they were accountants, or they were teachers, they were engineers. But they can’t speak English, so when they come here, about the only thing they are qualified to do is to work on an assembly line.”

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Her students are respectful, most preferring to call her “Teacher” rather than Linda, at least until they get to know each other better.

“It’s a wonderful place to be a teacher,” she said of the Catherine McAuley Center. “I’ve never had students that were this motivated to learn.”

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Each one-hour tutoring lesson typically begins with five to 10 minutes of casual conversation. Merritt will often ask the student, “How was your week? What did you do?” Then they open their books and begin the day’s lesson. As they wrap up, she and the student will chat a little more.

She works out of four different workbooks, depending on the student’s needs. Some students have never been to school, so a tutor must teach them how to draw letters and numbers. Many have attended school but have never studied English. Still, others know how to read and write English but don’t have the confidence to speak it — or have a hard time keeping up with rapid-fire American English speakers.

“We talk very fast, as a general rule,” Merritt said.

For those students, she may have them read poetry or short stories, then discuss what they read to improve their language skills and understanding. She’ll have students watch a newscast or a movie; then, they talk about it.

One student with a subscription to Netflix asked her why so many movies are “stupid.” Merritt did some research and gave him a list of better movies to watch.

She has taken students grocery shopping to explain what the signs mean and how to make change. When she takes them to a big store like Walmart, they are astonished. “They have so many questions about culture,” Merritt said.

The language barrier can affect not only one’s job search, but also make it difficult to meet new people. A number of refugees and immigrants in Eastern Iowa don’t know their neighbors and may feel they get rejected when they reach out.

“They’ve been given a hard time and now are gun-shy and keep to themselves,” Merritt said.

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One of her biggest successes has been with a Spanish-speaking woman and her neighbors. The woman had escaped an abusive spouse and fled to the United States with her children. The McAuley Center found the family a home in a mobile home park, but the neighbors didn’t talk to her. The woman stopped trying.

Then she began to improve her English by working with Merritt. After three years and a confidence boost, the woman started speaking to and sharing vegetables with her American neighbors.

“They are acting like neighbors,” Merritt said. “I love it when that kind of thing happens.”

DEDICATION REQUIRED

There are as many kinds of ESL teachers as students, Merritt said. Some are high school or college teachers. Others have never taught a class. The one universal trait is dedication, along with a love of helping people acclimate to a new society.

An English language learner benefits from constancy, Merritt said. It can be very hard on the learning process if a student must get used to a new teacher. She recommends tutors need the dedication and determination to see the process through for at least a year. Many do.

“We just love doing this,” Merritt said. “We live for those light bulb moments when you’re with a student.”

TO VOLUNTEER

To become an English as a Second Language volunteer tutor at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids:

Qualifications: You must be at least 18, have a high school diploma or equivalent, speak English and be willing to help someone learn. No previous teaching experience is necessary. You do not need to be able to speak a second language yourself.

Time: You must be willing to commit to one hour of tutoring per week for at least 10 weeks.

Preparation: You will attend a two-hour tutor orientation and be introduced to the workbooks used in the tutoring sessions.

How it works: You will be matched with an adult learner who is available at the same time you are. You will be able to observe an experienced tutor or staff member teach a session before you begin meeting independently with your student. Sessions are always one-on-one and are being held online during the pandemic.

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Upcoming tutor orientation sessions: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 1; and 10 a.m. to noon Friday, April 2

More information: (319) 731-0444; or cmc-cr.org

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