Virtual English as a Second Language (ESL): How Robin Garnham Prioritizes His Students

By Veda Banerjee

Robin Garnham started working at Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin (SF Goodwill) as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor three weeks before COVID-19 shuttered everything with lightning speed.

“It happened so fast! I had to switch the format for the training programs I was hired to lead from in-person classes to online training almost immediately,” said Robin. Robin quickly led SF Goodwill to adapt and develop new offerings to serve SF Goodwill employees who are non-native English Speakers as well as the vast number of English Language Learner jobseekers who were negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Most of the people SF Goodwill employs in its stores, donation sites, and logistics divisions are overcoming one or more barriers to employment—such as limited English proficiency, experience with the criminal justice system, housing instability and homelessness, and lengthy gaps in their work history. SF Goodwill’s “earn while you learn” employment program is designed to provide these employees with a job, personalized career services, and access to impactful training opportunities, such as ESL classes.

ESL button on keyboard

Robin had been planning to offer on-location trainings to these employee participants at their SF Goodwill worksites. Instead, he found innovative and creative technological approaches to assist them in developing their language skills. Robin created two different playlists of ESL instruction videos on YouTube, one focused on everyday English phrases and another on English for the workplace. In addition, Robin began offering live, video conference-based lessons. “Most of our ESL students have very limited literacy. They also often don’t have access to laptops, desktops, or even consistent internet access, so I decided to develop a variety of options to help them learn. Our priority is to make it as easy as possible for our English Learner participants to access these learning opportunities.”

Now that the region’s shelter-in-place order has been relaxed, Robin has recently resumed in-person instruction for SF Goodwill’s employee participants, while adhering to strict safety precautions. “Our students are so excited to be back in the classroom! On my first day back at our warehouse, an interested student who I’d never met before literally chased me down to ensure she was signed up for class. And after our first lesson, another student immediately finished a workbook that was intended to take three months and is already asking for more.”

Man working from home with children

In addition to these offerings for our employee participants, SF Goodwill made the decision to develop a new educational offering for unemployed English learners in the community who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis. This full-day workshop, entitled “Succeeding in the Job Market,” includes units on resume development, interviewing, and preparing for the first day on the job. Each student receives one-on-one support from the instructor, and those who are interested can sign up to practice their English skills with volunteers from Google.

In reflecting on the dozens of Goodwill employees and community members he’s taught during the pandemic, Robin shared: “While students are coming to my lessons because they want to improve their English, I’ve found that they also really benefit from the community and encouragement they find. COVID-19 has harmed people’s self-confidence as well as their livelihoods, and I think our offerings can help them rebound on both fronts.”

Robin has also been reminded that his trainings can help individuals bridge cultural differences as well as language divides. “One of my most memorable students is an Ethiopian immigrant with an advanced degree and many professional accomplishments. However, he wasn’t expecting to have to boast about himself or highlight his accomplishments during his job search. Our training helped him understand that to succeed in the U.S. job market; he had to grow comfortable with being his own biggest fan, and gave him space to practice that skill.”

These new and adapted offerings for individuals with limited English proficiency are part of SF Goodwill’s focus on preparing vulnerable communities for the Future of Work in the aftermath of COVID. Research has found that immigrant communities are among those most harmed by the health and economic effects of COVID, and SF Goodwill is committed to meeting the ongoing needs of these individuals in the months and years ahead. “We are trying to remove as many barriers to learning as possible and address the overall access divide,” said Robin.

SF Goodwill’s ESL at Work is made possible thanks to the support of the California Workforce Development Board’s Removing Barriers to Employment Program. Non-native English speaking jobseekers interested in participating in a resume workshop can register by filling out this form.

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