AUBURN — Alice Crawford was working at a dental practice in Auburn some years ago when she noticed a shift in clientele.

Alice Crawford teaches English on Thursday to a classroom of new students at Edward Little High School in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

In just a couple years’ time, her office went from seeing traditional Lewiston-Auburn patients to people from all over the world.

At times, it was difficult for staff to communicate with their patients. Crawford, with her keen ears and talent for understanding difficult accents, often acted as something of a translator, she said.

“I was fascinated by the whole language piece,” she said.

Her experience with the new Mainer community inspired her to leave a 33-year career as a dental hygienist and pursue teaching English as a second language.

At a time when many teachers are feeling exhausted and some have left the profession, new, energetic educators like Crawford are still entering the field.


Earlier this year — on her 55th birthday, no less — Crawford received her teaching certification and a job offer at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris. It was the culmination of a half-dozen years of schooling and 20 years of experience home schooling her children.

“I always tease my kids that I would go back to college when they did, and then they went to college … so I went back,” she said.

This summer, Crawford is teaching eight students from kindergarten to second grade, most of whom are Angolan, at Edward Little High School in Auburn. Many of her students haven’t lived in the U.S. for long, and some have next to no classroom experience, she said.

One of the greatest challenges facing her students and their families is finding permanent housing, Crawford said. Many of her students have been living in a local hotel for months, unable to find a better place to live due to housing shortages.

She’s focusing on teaching the basics, like numbers, colors and shapes, in addition to simple English phrases. Many don’t know how to hold pencils or crayons, so she keeps cornmeal on hand for students to draw in instead.

Crawford has learned several basic Portuguese words, the official language of Angola, to help communicate with her young students. But the language barrier remains one of her greatest challenges.


“The hardest part is when one of them, they’re little so they cry easily,” she said. “They come up to me, and they tell me over and over again what they want me to know, and I don’t understand.”

In times like this, she sometimes asks one of the older students who knows a little more English to translate.

“Some of them have been through so much, and yet they trust and they focus and they try hard,” she said.

A little more than a year ago when she was an ed tech at Edward Little High School, Crawford noticed something odd about one of her students. The student, who could speak five languages, had never learned to read or write.

“She was fooling everyone,” she said. “She was speaking into her phone and getting translations and then copying and pasting the words, so no one knew that she didn’t know how to read and write.”

Crawford began working with the student during the school year and into the summer of 2021, helping her learn these critical skills.


“At December, we were in class, and she was reading, and she stopped, and she looked around the whole classroom, and she goes, ‘Wow, that was me reading. I’m so proud of me.'”

It’s moments like this that make Crawford feel like she can’t get enough of teaching.

“I just feel like what I do is worthwhile every day,” she said. “Even if it’s really challenging, it just, it stretches me, and it just feels so good to be doing something that’s helping people’s lives to be better.”

Some people are afraid to converse with nonnative English speakers, Crawford said, but it’s easier to communicate on a simple level than most think.

“Just make the effort,” she said. “It’s amazing what a smile can do.”

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