Updated: Dec 19, 2022
Is your ESL program struggling to recruit or retain students throughout the school year? Here are some practical tips to help.
If God has called you to this ministry, then there are students He has for you to minister to. Take your group of volunteers and do a prayer walk or drive around the area, then debrief afterwards. As you do, God may put some new ideas in your mind or you may spot new opportunities that you hadn’t thought of before.
Enlist people at your fellowship to pray for your ministry. Not only will this lend needed support, but allow members of your church to feel ownership for your program. Take time to pray before or after your classes.
Build a team
Remember that anything that is worthwhile is going to take a lot of work, and will take time. The things that it will take to build momentum will require hours outside of ESL time each week. But you don’t have to do it alone! Invest time in building a team and finding ways to share the load together.
Start with your local congregation
Ask your pastor for opportunities to promote your program at your church. That might look like making an announcement during a service or to Sunday school classes or setting up a table in the foyer or information center. Your program will be much more successful if the congregation sees this as part of their ministry, not just yours. Don’t get discouraged if congregation members don’t seem interested at first. Developing a sense of ownership takes time and prayer and is not a given. However, passion is contagious!
Word of mouth is the best promotion! If your students love your program, they will be likely to invite others to join them! Give each student a stack of flyers or business cards to give to family or friends. You can also ask them to leave a stack (with permission) at local businesses they frequent where other immigrants needing your program’s services may frequent, also.
Local businesses and organizations
Scout the area around where classes are held for signs of populations from other countries. Visit ethnic businesses such as restaurants and ask if you can leave a stack of flyers there. (Half sheets may be better for this reason). Keep a few full-page copies with you and a roll of tape and tacks to put up posters where the owner allows or in places such as laundromat bulletin boards. This is also a great way to meet people in your community! Scout out other faith-based or non-profit organizations that provide other services to students and network.
Ask the schools near your program if you can give them flyers to distribute to the students at the school. If they distribute flyers from other outside organizations, non-discrimination means that they can, and in some cases, must also utilize yours. In some cases, the school may even print out the flyers FOR you. You may have to get permission from the district, but if you do, even better! This means that you will have access to the whole district!
If there is an apartment complex or community with a high concentration of immigrants and refugees, consider recruiting volunteers to provide transportation. If your church has large vehicles at your disposal, even better! Of course, you will need to advertise your services first, but consistency goes a long way too. Make sure to show up every week, even if no one catches a ride. Just being visible will remind potential students that you’re there.
Be sensitive to student’s needs and obstacles
If the classes are not meeting students needs, then they aren’t likely to come back. Some things to consider:
Are students being placed in the right level? Are the classes too easy or to hard for the students?
Are the class times good for most students?
Are they observing a special holiday that may make them absent a lot, for example, Ramadan? Look ahead for these obstacles so that you can come up with a plan before students start dropping out.
Is childcare provided? Do kids like the kids program and do they want to come back? (It is more often than not that the kids are bringing their parents!)
Knowing what student’s needs are means that someone is in regular communication with the student, ideally the teacher. It also may look like having established means for providing feedback. Students will likely be embarrassed, for example, to express that the class is not meeting their needs. Many come from cultures where this is not appropriate. Communicate frequently and clearly about what students can do or who they can go to if there is a problem. This may also look like providing an anonymous survey for students to fill out in class or through an administrator.
One of the biggest draws to your program is the sense of home and belonging. This is also one of the most powerful aspects of starting an ESL ministry – the ability to build relationships between people in the church and those outside – relationship that are of mutual benefit. Foster relationships among students and between students and teachers. If you are a teacher, get to know your students, call them for no reason to see how they’re doing, or even better, visit them or invite them to your house! While in a non-profit organization there may be necessary standards for client relationships, a church setting is just the right place for building those kinds of relationships and part of the purpose of the church. This is one of the major advantages that churches have over other programs. Build relationships or even host special events even when classes are not in session.
Stay in touch
Getting students to come back each week will require many and varied points of contact. Here’s some ideas:
It’s a good idea to touch base with your students the day before class to check in and see if they are coming.
Let them know they are not forgotten! Give them a call when they are absent and ask how you can be praying for them.
Send out weekly group reminders to your whole class the day of class.
Utilize different forms of communication and social media tools, including email, text, calls, and social media posts. Different people and people groups prefer different types of general communication, so you want to utilize all your means for the greatest coverage. See the article on communication tools!
Be consistent. Beware of times around holidays and avoid canceling classes. Often students will get confused or get out of the habit and not come back after breaks! You can help mitigate this by providing a calendar, and sending out physical and digital reminders before and after the time off. Call and text students directly after any missed days. Just letting them know you remember them can also make a difference if they've gotten busy or out of the habit.
If you are a director, organize your team before the semester begins to mail out cards, make phone calls, send texts or even make house visits to remind students of the new semester, even students who have not be enrolled for awhile. Just letting them know you remember them can encourage them to come back for whatever reason that they stopped coming.
Too many ministries fizzle out because of excuses and a negative outlook, “There aren’t enough volunteers, so we can’t recruit more students.” “There aren’t enough students coming, so how can I ask for the volunteers to stay?” Do you see how this kind of thinking is self-sabotaging? Don’t fall victim to self-fulfilling prophecies. Resist the spirit of complaining. Make a determination that if God has called you to do this, that you will stay consistent, rain or shine, and put the due work in to make it happen. Believe that God’s going to provide. Negative attitudes are contagious, but so are positive ones! If you are a leader, your staff is relying on you to carry the vision and set the tone and direction. Trust and believe that God wants to do great things and stay faithful, even when there are reasons for discouragement.