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Norwich - As an Adult Education English language teacher, Kathleen Pounch has learned she has to be ready for anything - even the question "What does 'Oh man!' mean?"
A student asked the question because her own child kept using the American expression "for everything," Pounch said.
"They put it in their translators, and it doesn't translate," Pounch said, referring to digital translators many English language students use to compare English words to comparable words in native languages.
Another student brought up the slang "kick the bucket," used when someone dies, and a classmate asked if that's the same as "kick butt."
Pounch loves the amusing moments of interaction with her students, but stressed that these recent immigrants work so hard to learn the language, get jobs, send money home to their native countries or raise families here during this tough economy.
"The students are just wonderful," Pounch said. "I know what we do makes a difference in their lives. They're so grateful, so appreciative."
Her students aren't alone in expressing their appreciation to Pounch. She was nominated by her colleagues at Norwich Adult Education as the district's teacher of the year. And on Friday, April 4, Pounch will be honored as the statewide English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher of the year.
She will be one of three Connecticut adult education teachers recognized at the annual Connecticut Association for Adult and Continuing Education conference at the Mystic Marriott in Groton.
Pounch grew up in Quaker Hill and recently returned to the town to live in her childhood home with her mother, Patricia Austin. Pounch earned a bachelor's degree in education at St. Joseph's University in West Hartford in 1976 and taught first at St. Mary's School in Jewett City and then for 12 years in the Stonington school system.
In 1981, she started teaching General Educational Development classes at Stonington adult education and still teaches in that program on Monday and Wednesday evenings. She has moved around in different adult education programs in Norwich for the past 14 years, teaching GED at Otis Library and working in the Family Resource Center in Taftville before moving to teach English classes at Norwich Adult Education about nine years ago.
After class last Wednesday, several students stayed to talk about how much they love "Miss Kathy." They called her patient, strict, understanding and said she makes them practice their English constantly.
"She's a wonderful teacher!" Guneor Jourdain of Norwich said. "She makes sure everybody brings in their homework."
Pounch laughed at that comment, saying she has to keep reminding Jourdain that homework is due Thursday. Homework, too, can be a foreign concept to some students who come from cultures where free education doesn't exist. She said students often say how grateful they are to come to school and not have to pay. In their homelands, school is expensive, and they couldn't afford it.
In the intermediate English class this semester, 24 Asian, Haitian, Spanish-speaking and Indian students are being asked to learn 300 English vocabulary words, using them in sentences both in writing and orally. They work in groups to practice speaking. Pounch insists that students of mixed ethnic backgrounds work together so they can learn different sounds.
"It matters in helping form the words," she said. "Some cultures don't have certain sounds."
Pounch doesn't press students for their "stories" on how they came to Norwich and their experiences, but tidbits often come through. She asked in a recent lesson what students would do if they won the lottery. Some said they would buy new cars. Some would build a school in a rural country so children could go to school for free.
Years ago, Pounch announced an assignment to write about a childhood experience. One woman in class started crying inconsolably for several minutes. Pounch quickly corrected the lesson to say that the experience should be something happy.
The woman recovered and wrote about her mother, who had died when the woman was young and she was left to raise her family while she was being abused.
"They're so determined," Pounch said of her students, "so appreciative of what they have."