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

By Veda Banerjee

Robin Garnham had started working at Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin (SF Goodwill) as the new 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 program I was hired to do from in-person classes to online almost immediately,” said Garnham. Garnham was forced to find innovative and creative ways to assist SF Goodwill’s employees who are non-native English speakers in developing their language skills. In addition, SF Goodwill made the decision to offer a new ESL for jobseekers training in response to the growing number of job losses caused by the current crisis.

An ESL training specialist with over 10 years of experience in education, curriculum development, teaching, training, and project management, Garnham could not have started his job with Goodwill at a time when his capacity to thrive in challenging and unfamiliar environments was more in need. “I have mainly been teaching adult ESL learners in the US and the UK through virtual classes most of my career. So, when the pandemic hit, I was able to pivot the training to an online platform pretty quickly,” said Garnham.

Most of the people SF Goodwill serves, have multiple barriers to employment—such as limited English proficiency, experience with the criminal justice system, housing instability and homelessness, low education levels, veterans, and those with gaps in their work history. SF Goodwill’s “earn while you learn” program is designed to provide these individuals with a job, personalized career services, and access to impactful training opportunities, such as ESL classes.

And now this virus has exposed just how precarious the vulnerable populations we serve really are—struggling with economic insecurity, health crises often exacerbated by pre-existing conditions, and digital inequity.

Garnham shifted gears and started identifying creative ways to use technology to deliver impactful training. He has created short basic ESL content videos—eight to 10 minutes on specific formats and shorter two-minute videos with some key English phrases—that can be uploaded to YouTube, and is also preparing to use Zoom to offer virtual class sessions. “Most of our ESL students have very limited literacy. They also often don’t have access to laptops, desktops, or even consistent wi-fi, so we decided to develop videos in a format that could be easily uploaded to a platform like YouTube or Zoom that can be accessed using a cell phone. Our priority is to make it as easy for our English Learner participants to access these learning opportunities as possible.”

Based on his time spent with SFGoodwill’s language learner employees before the shelter-in-place order was enacted, Garnham observed that most of the people taking these classes were just focused on learning how to communicate effectively. “In the modern language learning environment or in terms of linguistic theory and language learning, there has been a shift in learning communication skills,” said Garnham. “For 90 percent of students, they just want to learn how to speak and communicate as clearly as possible. And when teaching in a classroom format, we always place emphasis on strong verbal communication as it helps them socially and professionally. They need to operate and succeed in the world so it is a valuable skill set.”

The team at SF Goodwill has been hard at work to replicate those in-person opportunities felt in a classroom setting by having verbal prompts translated online as much as possible for the vulnerable populations we serve. The online ESL videos were piloted with six users and in a few short weeks have reached more than 127 people already, and Garnham is preparing to launch web-based classes in the coming weeks.

“We are trying to remove as many barriers to learning as possible and address the overall access divide,” said Garnham.

In today’s climate, Garnham and Goodwill are more committed than ever to ensuring clients can get the help that they need through accessible and impactful trainings.

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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