Stories of Justice: The Language of Welcome

By Mary Flick, CSJ, justice coordinator

It could be said that good teachers never retire; they simply find new students. So it is for Sisters Jane Schaper and Janet Kuciejczyk, life-long teachers who have finished their time in traditional classrooms and now teach immigrant and refugee women in the security of their own homes. 

Both are tutors with the Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Project (IRWP) in St. Louis. A program begun in in 1995 by a School Sister of Notre Dame, IRWP exists to help immigrant and refugee women increase their independence and reduce their isolation by teaching them basic English and practical living skills. Along the way, these women are befriended by their teachers like Sisters Jane and Janet, who provide them personal reassurance and confidence, lessons not found in their textbooks. 

The Thrill of Language 

Word of mouth sold Sister Janet on IRWP. A language teacher for 41 years, the last 17 years at Ursuline Academy, she began thinking about retirement. She also wondered how best to use her talents and gifts. A friend of hers was volunteering at IRWP and spoke how well organized the program was. So Sister Janet did what her high school students know to do: she went looking for more information on the internet. 

In December 2015, she began working with Zainab, a 39-year-old wife and mother of five from Sierra Leone who lives in the Dutchtown neighborhood. In St. Louis since 2003, Zainab is a U.S. citizen who works in housekeeping at one of St. Louis’ pediatric hospitals. She had studied with two other IRWP tutors before Sister Janet arrived in her life. Sister Janet meets with her twice a week, for an hour at a time.

Sister Janet’s student sees English as an important step to fulfilling one of her goals: owning a business and selling handmade items from Africa.

“She’s lovely,” Sister Janet says. “She does speak and understand well. We’re working on reading and writing. I can see she’s making progress. Progress is sometimes slow.”

One of her student’s challenges is her five children, ages 3 to 12. “It’s always very interesting when the kids are there,” Sister Janet laughs. Their mother tries to get them to do activities in another room, though they often prefer to hover in the background. But, Sister Janet says, her student stays intent on her lesson and tries not to let the children interfere. “It’s her time.”

Sister Janet remains the ever-patient teacher because she also is a life-long student. Since retiring and beginning her tutoring with IRWP, Sister Janet has been trying to learn Polish, the language of her immigrant grandparents and one which was heard on occasion in her childhood home. Using Duo-Lingo on-line, Sister Janet says her own foray into learning a language “helps me get into the role of a student learning a language. How many times I need to see some word before I recognize it, much less can write it. It takes repetition, repetition, repetition! Learning Polish has enabled me to empathize with how difficult it is to learn a language one is unfamiliar with."

“I am a reader and I’ve loved reading since I was a child,” Sister Janet confesses. But that is not a love that was nurtured in her student. “Not to have that sense of wanting to read is a challenge for me to understand,” Sister Janet says. “I’m not sure if she’s ever read in her own language.” Zainab’s intake records show she completed six grades back home in Sierra Leone.

“She is a marvelous woman,” Sister Janet says. “She has a lot on her plate. But she doesn’t put off her lessons. It is a real sacrifice for her, with the housework and preparing meals and her job and her children. I admire her for that.”

“I love teaching. It’s a real thrill when you see someone begin to grasp and understand the use of the language. Last week, I saw Zainab read a paragraph with very little prompting. It was thrilling.”

Language, Sister Janet believes, is so important for student who wants to feel integrated and part of her new nation.

“I’m glad to be able to share the heritage I’ve inherited, to be a welcoming presence, to let my student know we’re glad she is here, that she adds something to our country,” Sister Janet says. “We are not a melting pot, we’re a patchwork quilt with backgrounds and cultures, and it’s wonderful to share that."

English Makes a Difference

For Sister Jane Schaper, working with IRWP seemed like a natural way to serve after retiring from full-time teaching at Little Flower Grade School in St. Louis. Her friend, Sister Mary Charity Dalton, often spoke about her experience as a teacher with IRWP. “It was something I wanted to do because there is such a need for immigrants to learn English,” Sister Jane says. After completing her Certified Nurse Aide training for her work with sister care at Nazareth Living Center, Sister Jane became involved with IRWP.

She currently tutors a 27-year-old wife and mother of two, ages 3 and 3 months, meeting with her student twice a week for an hour at a time. Her student lives in Mehlville with her husband and in-laws. Her mother-in-law cares for her children while she studies. Turkish by descent, her student spent much of her life in southern Russia. Now in the United States for four years, she is studying for her citizenship test. Sister Jane has been meeting faithfully with her since 2014, with only a two-month break following the birth of the woman’s youngest child last October. 

“My student had three years of high school English in Russia,” Sister Jane relates. “She could greet me, but not much more. Her mother-in-law helped translate for her when we first met.” Sister Jane began with phonics, then gradually advanced to grammar. “As we started working on grammar and word recognition, her high school English came back,” she says. They are now practicing conversation.

“She doesn’t think she knows a lot, but she knows a lot as far as I’m concerned,” Sister Jane says.

 Currently Sister Jane’s student is studying for her citizenship test. “My student started studying for it on her own,” Sister Jane proudly shares. She sent in the form and was finger-printed. Now she waits for the testing date. 

English will make a difference for her, Sister Jane says. “When she has an opportunity to get a job, when she interacts with neighbors or shops, she has to know some English.” Both student and teacher know that’s what it will take to succeed in society.

And English is also needed to care for her family’s needs. Until that time, Sister Jane has helped her student to enroll her 3-year-old in the Head Start program. “English will be important when her son goes to school, so she can talk to his teachers,” Sister Jane says

Her student was a beautician in Russia and would like to be one in the United States. But she will have to repeat her program here – and this time, in English.

 Learning a language requires practice, Sister Jane says. But her student and her husband speak Turkish at home. “She has no one to talk to [in English] except me,” Sister Jane says. That slows the process.

Sister Jane knows what learning takes. She taught the gamut of subjects to fifth- through eighth-graders during her 45 years as a Catholic elementary educator. In her last teaching position before IRWP, she taught English at Little Flower Grade School. “I’ve taught all subjects,” she says. “It’s a help now.”

Sister Jane sees this as a natural response to her life as a Sister of St. Joseph. “You serve the way you can. All my life, I have taught.”

Why would a teacher do anything else? 

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