Twenty years ago Joanne K. Beard
’72, a teacher in the Utica City School
District, said “Yes” to a challenge: teaching
English as a Second Language to the district’s
burgeoning population of refugees.
Joanne K. Beard ’72
with two Japanese students at Itoigawa City Junior
High School during her Fulbright Memorial Fund
trip to Japan last summer.
This January Beard said “Yes” to a new endeavor:
She began her presidency of the New York State TESOL
organization, representing 1,000 teachers of English
as a Second Language statewide.
Beard teaches at Utica Proctor High School, where English
language learners make up about 250 of the school’s
2,600 students. She travels to Columbia Teachers College
in New York City once a month for the NYS TESOL meetings.
She will be helping her members as they deal with implementing
the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, and represent
the organization at the international TESOL conference
in Seattle next month.
Over the years, Beard has helped refugees from Asia,
Europe and Africa learn to speak English, often without
herself knowing a word of their native tongues.
“People think we speak all the languages, but
we don’t,” she said with a laugh. “I
speak Polish, a little bit of French, and of course,
English. Some of the languages are similar, so I can
understand a little in Bosnian and Russian.”
The ESL teacher’s tools are “a lot of body
language and, at the beginning, a lot of pictures,”
Utica is a hub for refugees, thanks to the Mohawk Valley
Resource Center for Refugees, sponsored by Lutheran
Immigration and Refugee Service.
When Beard first began teaching ESL, the immigrants
were mostly Asian, coming from Vietnam, Cambodia and
the former Soviet republics.
The late 1990s brought a wave of 5,000 Bosnian refugees,
fleeing that war-torn area.
And now the population has turned to the Burmese, specifically
the Karen people, a separate group of the Burmese who
were exiled into Thailand.
“Our kids are coming in and we don’t know
if they read Thai, Karen or Burmese,” said Beard.
“Karen is a select dialect. We can’t even
find Karen dictionaries.”
That doesn’t seem to faze Beard, who taught the
parents of refugee children at a special day school
and home-schooled non-native speakers who couldn’t
attend class. One young man had been paralyzed as a
four-year-old, when he went out to play in a Bosnian
street and was struck down by snipers as his mother
watched. While her main role is teaching young people,
Beard enjoyed her work with the adults in the district
as well. “That was a joy, because they are so
eager to learn,” she said.
Her classroom often included Burmese refugees speaking
Karen, illiterate Somali Bantu (Beard had to teach one
woman how to hold a pencil; she had never had reason
to write before), Bosnians and Russians.
“I love the bonding when they come in. It doesn’t
matter what country they are from, the only language
they can communicate in is English. They become friends,”
“I run the classroom so it’s not stressful,
because they’ve been through so much,” Beard
added. “We have a lot of fun. They laugh over
things, like when they mix up the word chicken with
“But the stories could make you cry.”
Her two decades in ESL have taught Beard a lot of those
stories. She’s been to Bosnia and Croatia, where
she saw the refugee camps first hand, and to Vietnam,
to accompany her godson and his family. She also taught
at a UNESCO English camp in Warsaw, Poland, for four
Last June, she expanded her horizons by traveling to
Japan under a grant from the Fulbright Memorial Fund.
As a guest of the Japanese government, she visited schools
and businesses to promote understanding between the
To February 2007 E-Newsletter