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Promise Opens Doors: Our Story

Opening Doors for the Children of Recent Immigrants

Twenty years ago, as a young Korean mother in Baltimore, Sue Wagner was dismayed at the economic hardship of immigrant families in her community. They faced many challenges, often related to the need for English language literacy skills. Most parents worked minimum-wage jobs or opened small businesses where they stayed twelve hours a day every day of the week. This meant that their children had to be responsible for themselves after school, completing their homework in a language that was not spoken fluently in their homes. As these children also struggled to develop literacy skills in English, this brought further hurdles to the families’ hopes of realizing the American dream for which so much had been laid on the line.

Seeing this situation, Sue could not sit still. Starting the summer of 2000, she invited the children of recent immigrants into her home for literacy studies, thus beginning what was dubbed the Bookworms Club. The children filled every room of her home, studying with volunteers - including members of local Boy Scout troops. The children read leveled books and spoke with the volunteers, and they were assisted with test preparation and homework. When it became too crowded in Sue’s home, several local churches and libraries opened their doors to the Bookworms Club. They had such an impact that in May of 2004 the Howard County Association of Volunteers honored them with the Audrey Robinson Humanitarian Award. Around this time as well, Sue applied for and received non-profit status for the organization. Years later, the name of the non-profit was changed to Reading Opens Doors.

In the meantime, Sue’s son Ernest had gone to college to study business, and he had the opportunity to travel to South Korea. While there, he was struck by the same disparity in economic opportunity between those with and without access to quality English language education in Korea. There, as in much of the world, English is the language of business and international relations; thus more opportunities are available to those who can communicate skillfully in English. In the cities, Ernest was often approached by parents hoping to hire him as a private tutor for their children, while in the rural areas parents and schools didn’t have the resources to hire native English speakers. Ernest felt called to provide these opportunities to students who wouldn’t otherwise have them.

Opening Doors for Rural Students in Asia

As Sue had once found a way to help children in her community, she and Ernest pioneered a way to bring English lessons to rural communities and low-income organizations throughout South Korea by arranging online English lessons with experienced teachers. They formed a for-profit arm of their organization and named it Promise Cyber School. As a promise represents the strongest bond that can be made between two people, they felt it to be a particularly descriptive name for the relationship between teachers and students, imparting the responsibility Promise teachers feel and have toward those in their care.

In 2005, Promise Cyber School began hiring and training teachers to provide online lessons to rural students in Asia. Many of the teachers hired for Promise Cyber School came with the experience of having taught in schools across North America, but online lessons called for an additional technical skill set. Over the years, Promise staff crafted and honed a training process for their online teachers, preparing them to develop meaningful relationships with online students, monitor learning through video conferences, plan and reflect on lessons in the online space, and use online tools to make lessons engaging and effective.

Over the following decade, Promise opened the door to authentic English language education for over 10,000 students in more than 60 rural elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in South Korea alone. However, it wasn’t only the students who had new doors opened to them. The teachers they hired and trained had come from many backgrounds, but all shared the experience of having retired or being uprooted or displaced. The opportunity to teach from a computer in a home or mobile office enabled them to continue teaching and making a difference in the lives of learners around the world.

Opening Doors for Aspiring Online Teachers

Since then, as the world has become more connected, and as more families are finding that both parents have to work or that they want to travel as digital nomads, more people are moving their careers online. Often people find this move a frustrating one, as the available training is not usually formalized or individualized; thus aspiring online teachers find the doors of companies and students closed to them. Therefore, as Promise opened doors for language learners in the US and Asia, they formalized their teacher training program and began preparing teachers to succeed in the online TESOL industry. This training is provided through the non-profit Reading Opens Doors, merged with the students and staff of Promise, and so they have taken the title of “Promise Opens Doors.”

From children in Baltimore to students and teachers around the world, it has been Promise's mission and their joy to bring opportunity to those who would not otherwise have it. They accept aspiring teachers who are fluent in English and passionate about helping others, and they train them for online teaching through rigorously designed and individualized coursework. Midway through the course, they begin connecting trainees with compatible online teaching companies. For the practicum, trainees apply their training to teach regular online English lessons to Promise students who receive these lessons free of charge. Throughout the practicum, Promise’s master teachers monitor and coach trainees to build on their strengths and improve skills as needed. This training ensures aspiring online English teachers’ success so they can live the life they want to live, escape the nine-to-five work life, and do what they love on their own time. This is the promise of Promise Opens Doors.

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