Three days a week Sister Jeanne Lippincott, CSJ, 73, a Sister of St. Joseph for 53 years, can be found teaching adults enrolled in the Utica Adult Learning Center, an independent program coordinated through the Utica City School District and in collaboration with the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. The classes are free and are held all year round to non-native adults with a basic grasp of English. The
program, which has undergone several transitions over the past 30 years, helps adults read and write English as well as understanding the basic concepts of living and working in the United States.
Sister Jeanne teaches in a classroom that was once a part of St. Frances DeSales Catholic School, which seems fitting, given her extensive teaching background.
“I’ve taught most of my life and pretty much taught all over the place in both Catholic schools and public schools. I started in Utica and went to Albany then to Syracuse and back to Utica and then back to Albany and I’m back again in Utica,” said Sister Jeanne with a laugh.
It was the teachers she had herself as a student at Catholic Central High School in Troy, N.Y., that inspired her to join the Sisters of St. Joseph and become a teacher herself. “The teachers I had were so happy and really cared about their students,” stated Sister Jeanne. “They were interested in what we were doing and their witness to living a life following Christ and the Gospels made a tremendous impact on me.”
After a long career in teaching, Sister Jeanne retired but became restless, feeling she could still do good works elsewhere. “I had no job, no ministry and nothing appealed to me until I found out the Mohawk Valley Refugee Center in Utica needed a substitute teacher so I signed up,” stated Sister Jeanne. “The first class I taught was English as a second language. I taught 13 students in a decrepit old furniture store on Bleeker Street in Utica.”
Teaching English to refugees proved to be an interesting challenge for Sister Jeanne. “I don’t speak any other languages, in fact I’m lucky I speak English,” laughed Sister Jeanne. Although for a period of time she taught English to refugee children, she found her true gift was working with their parents.
“Teaching adults is fun. I act things out, I do funny things, and do whatever I can to get them to relax,” explained Sister Jeanne. “Recently we acted out a play where one of the students was being accused of sleeping in class and we had one person playing the bailiff, another person playing the attorney and someone else was the judge. They learned how things work in a courtroom, what the jury does, what the prosecution does and everyone had fun,” stated Sister Jeanne.
Sister Jeanne teaches three days a week for approximately six hours a day and her students come from countries all over the world. “We have Russian students, Burmese, Sudanese, Latinos…so many different places…it’s like a piece of the whole world is here in the classroom,” stated Sister Jeanne.
There are ten classes for adults in the learning program ranging from learning basic English skills through words and pictures, to learning how to perform life skills. “The class I teach understands a lot of English but they worry because they forget things. I tell them I forget a lot too. That’s why I try to get them to relax and laugh in order to lower their anxiety level and I work hard to always have a positive attitude. I think it’s easier for them to learn when I do,” stated Sister Jeanne.
As students progress they move up to another level of classes. “It’s wonderful to see them move up. They are wonderful people who want to learn,” said Sister Jeanne.
The most challenging aspect of teaching adult refugees explains Sister Jeanne is not the language barrier, but the past. “I have to remember that these are people recovering from past traumas in their country. Many of them are in crisis and are struggling to adjust to a new language, a new culture as well as care for their families. I can’t teach in ‘old school way’; I have to be flexible. They can’t come in if their children are sick or they have an appointment for a job. They are also in the process of becoming citizens and they are studying for that as well. I have to remember all these things and it’s helped me become a more tolerant person in my teaching approach. I work to provide an atmosphere to earn their trust and cooperation,” she said.
Sister Jeanne plans to keep teaching, “until my batteries wear out,” because she loves what she does. “The high point of this job has been the people themselves,” explained Sister Jeanne. “They are eager to learn and are grateful as well as respectful. Working with them is a gift and an honor and I have learned as much from them as they have from me. They have enriched and expanded my view of the world.”
The Utica Adult Learning Center is an independent program coordinated through the Utica City School District in close collaboration with the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. Free English classes and literacy programs are offered to all non-native English-speaking adults in Utica. For more information, contact the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, 309 Genesee St., Utica, N.Y. 13501 or call (315) 738-1083.