WESTMONT – Imagine living in a country where you can’t speak the native language.
Now, imagine having to do that as a child. This was the day-to-day reality for the students of recently retired local teacher Jean Hodek.
A Westmont resident, Hodek started the English as a Second Language program in 1989 at C.E. Miller Elementary School to help non-native English-speaking students.
“I was fulfilling a need that had developed in the community,” Hodek said. “It felt like I was paying a service to the students and families but also to the community.”
When Hodek began teaching in 1989, she said she wanted to start in elementary classes.
“When I first was in school, ESL was nonexistent,” Hodek said. “But I enjoy working with kids and have always enjoyed languages, and I became interested in English as a Second Language.”
Because she grew up in a household where the first spoken language was Czech, Hodek said she understands the importance of knowing a second language.
“When students come from another county, [ESL] is the crucial part of their education in the beginning,” Hodek said. “It’s a place where they can feel comfortable and not worry about making mistakes.”
ESL classrooms are where students can discuss their family’s lifestyle, Hodek said.
“It’s important for them to be proud of who they are,” she said, “and not to forget their own culture or language.”
Hodek said interacting with students’ families was a defining component of her decadeslong career.
“You really get to know the families,” Hodek said. “They give up so much to be sure their kids have a better life in the United States. That’s the most valuable part – to be a community resource for these families.”
Seeing how quickly and how well the students progressed also was rewarding, Hodek said.
“So many of the kids I started in kindergarten and then in high school, they’re at the top of their class; that really makes you very proud,” Hodek said. “Then you find out they’re going on to universities and studying to be doctors and writers. They’ve made the American dream.”
A familiar face in Westmont schools for years, Hodek retired in May. She said spending time with her new grandchild is one of her plans for retirement.
“I hope to do some volunteer work,” Hodek said. “Maybe teaching English to adults.”