News & Views

Meet Our Staff: Charlie Heil

“One advantage of working at HIAS PA is that the world comes to you.”

-Charlie Heil, Adult Education Lead Instructor



We spoke with Charlie Heil, Adult Education Lead Instructor on the Education Team, about what his role at HIAS PA means to him. Read the extended interview below!

What is your name and role at HIAS PA?
My name is Charlie Heil, and I am the Adult Education Lead Instructor at HIAS PA. I am primarily involved in the English as a Second Language (ESL) education of HIAS PA clients of all different programs. We have a number of initiatives, including ESL group classes and tutoring for students who aren’t able to attend our group classes, and I’m also involved in citizenship training for clients.

What brought you to HIAS PA?
I started out as a volunteer. At the end of 2015, the refugee crisis was present in the news and on social media, and I saw a picture of the little child who had washed up on shore and that really struck a chord with me. I knew there had to be more that I could do besides share the photo and write an angry comment, so I started to look into what was happening in the Philadelphia refugee scene. My background is in ESL education, and I saw that there were some opportunities to volunteer with HIAS Pennsylvania’s Education team, so I reached out and started working as a volunteer in January 2016. I volunteered first in the Youth program, an after school program for K-8 students, and then it became known that I was an ESL instructor, so I switched over to the adult ESL program, where I volunteered for just over a year before being offered the opportunity to join the team as an employee.

Why do you do what you do?
When I was in my mid-20s, I was trying to figure out what to do, and was very interested in traveling. I had spent a number of years abroad already, and was thinking of going to Spain, but what would I do if I lived in Spain? I realized I could probably teach English—I love reading, I love writing, and I love language—the grammar and everything. I also love being in front of an audience and performing, and teaching ticks all of these boxes! I took a teaching course in Barcelona, and got a job teaching an 8AM English class to the cadets at an Air Force base in Leon, Spain. For this position, I was told to “go in and talk to them for an hour”,—and I was nervous, standing in front of 50-60 cadets, thinking “what am I going to do?”. I started talking with them, and I made a joke and they laughed, and I thought, “okay, I think I can do this teaching thing”. So that’s what started it all.

I came back to the US and taught in New York and Miami, and then moved back to the UK and taught in London for a number of years, and then moved back to the US, and that’s when I started with HIAS PA.

If applicable, what languages do you speak, and how does this help you when working with your clients?
I speak a little Spanish, and a little English, and I don’t speak much else, though I can probably say “hello” in a bunch of languages. English is the common language in our classes—our students are from all over the world, so there is no one common language—so we don’t really use other languages in class, it’s all English-to-English instruction. We tell people “this is a pen”, and then they call it a pen in class, and that’s how we do it.

It is helpful to know at least a little bit of another language, or to ask students about their language, because it’s a way of helping them feel comfortable and of establishing a rapport. Showing that you are interested in their language and culture strengthens the teacher-student bond, and helps them become more interested in learning English.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I teach a few times a week, so a lot of my time is structured around planning and teaching classes. This includes planning, strategizing, and coordinating classes with the other wonderful teachers and co-teachers in our Adult Education program. I also give feedback to the TESOL students from UPenn who come volunteer at HIAS PA for a semester and co-teach with me; I try to help them reach their potential as teachers. I have other volunteers who come in and want to teach English classes, so there are a lot of meetings. I’m also involved in a few other things, including the Citizenship program. I match tutors with students, and we plan mock interviews for students who are enrolled in our partner classes for citizenship preparation around the city.

We also have a high school and K-8 program, and while I’m not super involved in those, as part of the Education team, we plan a lot together.

What is one interaction that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
That’s a huge question! I have a lot of examples. There have been some that have been very powerful. Our whole philosophy is based on making students feel welcome in the classroom and building community and rapport. When you get students comfortable and relaxed in a welcoming environment, they do really open up, so I’ve—in the middle of class—had some really powerful conversations with students about where they’re from and what led them to be here in Philadelphia.

One funny story was also one of the most amazing teaching experiences I’ve ever had in a funny way. I had a student in class wearing an unusual sweater, which was blue and green with swirls. I remarked on it, and he said “Ah! I made this!” and he took it off and was showing me his comfortable sweater. He had bought a blanket and cut it up and made it into this warm sweater that he could wear in Philly in the winter. And then he said, “wait, wait”, and started to unbuckle his pants. I protested, but he said, “wait, wait” again, and unbuckled his pants, and dropped his drawers—he had made matching underwear! It turns out it was from a Finding Nemo blanket. It’s the only time I’ve had a student drop their trousers in class. That will stay with me forever.

What is the most meaningful part of your position at HIAS PA?
The relationships I make with the students—I have the luxury of being with them twice per week like clockwork in this very welcoming, safe, and fun environment, so regardless of whatever stressors they have going on in their lives, our classes provide an opportunity for them to leave it all at the door for a couple of hours while they have a good time and make friends with other students and have a wonderful learning experience. It’s also a great learning experience for me—I’ve learned so much about other people and other cultures since I started working at HIAS Pennsylvania.

The relationships extend into the rest of the staff—I work with an amazing team on the Education staff, and that extends beyond the Education staff to the Resettlement and Placement team and to the HIAS PA staff in general. This is just such a wonderful working environment, and I’m very happy to be here. Everyone has such high-stress jobs, but everyone is so supportive and friendly, and I feel like I’m part of a team here.

What is some advice that you’d give to someone who wants to work in your position?
One advantage of working at HIAS PA is that the world comes to you, which makes it easier to learn a lot about the rest of the world. Each of my classes are like a little United Nations: I have people from 10 different countries in a single class and get a chance to learn about each of them. If you’re interested in ESL, take a course and then find a place like HIAS Pennsylvania where you’ll have the opportunity to volunteer and to get some practice. Before you know it your confidence as a teacher will be up, and you can either use it to teach English, or to go abroad and travel.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to clients/coworkers/HIAS PA supporters/etc.?
Just thank you to everyone for making me feel welcome and like I’m part of the team here, and for making every day that I work at HIAS PA so fun and rewarding.

What is your favorite thing to eat in Philly?
I don’t think I’ve ever met a cheesesteak that I didn’t like. I’d recommend Tony Luke’s. I’ve been there a handful of times and have really enjoyed it. I like Jim’s, too. DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market does amazing roast beef and roast pork sandwiches, and Hershels, the deli across from DiNic’s, also does really good stuff!