September 29, 2023

Emma Guenthner ’20: Teaching English around the world

As a junior in her spring term on Earlham’s off-campus program in Granada, Spain, Emma Guenthner ’20 volunteered with a nonprofit organization working with the city’s immigrant community. Her first assignment was teaching English — for which she had no experience.

“I didn’t really know what to do. I was trying to teach adults that had no background in the English language,” said Guenthner, who is bilingual in Spanish and English. “I didn’t like it because I wasn’t given any guidance, and I didn’t feel like I could help them.”

An Earlham-sponsored internship through the Freeman Foundation in Shanghai, China, that summer gave Guenthner a second chance at teaching and a new perspective on the profession.

Emma Guenthner standing in front of a fountain

Today, Guenthner has taught English in five countries, and was selected as a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina for the current academic year. She also has taught English to preschoolers and kindergartners at The Little Mountain School in Guatemala. During the pandemic, she was on assignment with the Americorps Vista program working as a teacher assistant and tutor at a community college in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.

“Every experience has been so unique and different,” Guenthner said. “When I was in Spain and the United States, I was working with adults, and in China and Guatemala, I worked with children. I’ve now worked with kids and adults and enjoy working with people of all ages. I really value getting to experience lots of different environments and lifestyles through this type of work.”

Being an English-language assistant requires finding common ground with her students.

Emma Guenthner teaching in a classroom

“It helps that I already speak Spanish, but I remind my students that I’m always still learning — just like they are learning English,” she said. “It’s important for me to acknowledge that sometimes people ask me things that I don’t even know about in the English language.

“I tell them, ‘Let’s Google it.’ Hopefully, that helps people feel more comfortable and less nervous.”

Guenthner expects to continue teaching before pursuing graduate school, adding to the degrees in Spanish and Hispanic Studies and Human Development and Social Relations she earned at Earlham.

“My career has really forced me to think about what it means to teach the English language outside of the United States and how much privilege and power there is in that,” Guenthner said. “Many of my students struggle with the idea that English is a universal necessity. Some students don’t really enjoy learning and speaking English, but they are choosing to because they feel it is needed.

“I recognize that their situation and experience learning another language is not my own, and I definitely struggle with that. Learning English unlocks a lot of opportunities around the world. I just happened to learn English as my native language. There is something very humbling about it.”

Story written by Brian Zimmerman

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