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Alumna Helps Immigrants Acquire Language Skills

By Emily Yaghmour
She was in line at McDonald's to get an ice-cream cone when she noticed that the voice of a customer in front of her was getting louder and louder. "How many times have I got to tell you my order?" the man demanded of the stricken-faced employee across the counter. "What are you doing in a job like this if you can't understand simple English?"

Margaret Boyd's heart went out to the young immigrant. As the wife of a military officer, she had spent six years in Germany. When she first arrived, she couldn't speak a bit of German, and she remembered how difficult it had been for her to learn even just enough German to get by.

She stepped to the counter and asked the irate customer what he wanted, saying she would try to help the employee understand the order. "I want two hamburgers and a strawberry shake," he told her, exasperated. Boyd turned to the employee, smiled, and slowly enunciated the words. He immediately understood her. "The customer had just made him nervous," Boyd says.

Though she understands the difficulties in cross-cultural and cross-lingual communication, Boyd is a firm believer in the value of it. When she lived in Germany, she noticed that most of the Americans she knew spent all their time with other Americans, essentially isolating themselves from the society in which they lived and missing a wonderful opportunity to learn about another culture. She was determined not to do this. Although she taught in an American school, she learned as much German as she could, moved to a German neighborhood, and made friends with Germans.

When she moved back to the United States, she obtained a master's degree in education and received extensive diversity training. In addition to teaching English full time in the Fairfax County school system, Boyd taught in the county's adult education program, where she encountered many people who were not native speakers of English and whose limited language skills hindered them in the work place. So when the Fairfax County school system teamed up with George Mason to provide a two-year English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement program, Boyd enrolled. As a certified teacher of ESL, she not only could teach ESL in the school system, she also could fulfill a lifelong dream: to establish her own business.

In 1996, she founded English as a Second Language for Professional Development (ESLPD), a consulting firm to serve area businesses by providing classes to employees who need to improve their English language skills to better perform their jobs. Having her own business meant that Boyd could develop her own curriculum to meet the needs of the people she was teaching. In many cases, she says, the administrators who set curricula in public schools have never taught. "It's frustrating being told how to teach by people who've never taught," she says.

The company signed its first contract with the Reston Hyatt Regency Hotel, providing a 10-week session of classes twice a week for approximately 15 employees. Not only has the Reston Hyatt renewed the contract with ESLPD several times, but Boyd has also signed contracts with three other Hyatt Regencies in the area. She believes part of her company's success has been its emphasis on professional development. Rather than trying to improve general English skills as many ESL programs do, the ESLPD program concentrates on helping students develop the language skills they need to do their jobs better. The nature of each student's job and the level of his or her English proficiency determine what is taught in the classroom. To ensure that the needs of a diverse group can be met, Boyd assigns two or three instructors to every class so that the ratio of instructor to students is approximately one to five or six.

In addition to pursuing additional contracts for her business, Boyd continues to teach full time at Herndon Middle School. "Education is the greatest career in the world," she says, "because you not only disseminate knowledge, you acquire it!"

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