Prairie Wife of the Week English as a Second Laguage Teacher
Posted March 6, 2015 by BonitaBlueEyes -
I first met BonitaKindHeart when we both took a group of girls to the Wyoming Latina Youth Conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We had a huge list of things in common: same name, Spanish-speaking, world traveling, foreign husbands, children, working for the same school district, and more. I instantly knew we needed to be friends, and we exchanged phone numbers. I often introduce her as my soul sister. (And I always get a kick out of introducing her because we have the same name.) BonitaKindHeart truly has the kindest heart of anyone I know. She would go out of her way to help anyone, and her generosity truly knows no borders. I’m so excited for you all to hear her story!
BointaBlueEyes (BBE): Tell us a little about you and your family.
BonitaKindHeart (BKH): My family consists of my 8 year old daughter and myself. My daughter is a smart second grader who loves to play outside and do crafts. Her dad, my ex-husband, is also very active in our lives. Plus, we have a cat that completes our little family. I have an amazing job as a third grade teacher at the highest poverty school in town. I absolutely love what I do!
BBE: You spent four years living in Mexico, what lead you there?
BKH: I first fell in love with the Spanish language in 7th grade Spanish class. I had the same teacher, Señora C., for all three years of junior high. She was amazing!! When I was in college, I was planning on becoming a junior high Spanish teacher, just like the lady who first showed me the magic of the Spanish language. I got my bachelors degree in Spanish and Bilingual Education but I wasn’t a native Spanish speaker, and it was obvious when I spoke. I wanted to live abroad because I saw it as an opportunity to perfect my accent. My college had an internship program where I was offered the chance to live in Mexico, work as an English teacher in a bilingual private school, and earn college credit. I knew I had to take advantage of this amazing opportunity! I chose to go to Guadalajara, Mexico. My plan was to go for one school year then return to the U.S. to complete a one-year master’s of education program in secondary education. Then I would be ready to be a junior high Spanish teacher. But, my plan changed, as they are known to do. After a semester of the internship, I opted to officially graduate and stay on as a hired teacher (in preschool and kindergarten no less) for the school I was interning in. I ended up staying in Mexico for close to four years!!
BBE: When did you first realize that you have a special place in your heart for the Mexican culture, and more specifically it’s people?
BKH: I think I first knew this back when I was in Señora C.’s Spanish class. I was probably 13 or 14. I started to love all things multicultural (even boys!). I remember finding the newly immigrated students, who spoke little to no English, and trying to make them feel welcome. There was one girl, Maria, who spoke no English at all. If I saw her alone in the halls or at lunch, I would invite her to come with me. Even though my language was limited to colors, numbers, days of the week, and the simple phrases you learn in 7th grade Spanish, I wanted to help her adjust to her new school. By 9th grade, I would practice my Spanish by writing notes to the Spanish-speaking boys and had fun trying to decipher what they wrote back to me. I loved asking them about the similarities and differences between their homelands and mine.
BBE: Tell us about your work as bilingual specialist.
BKH: This is the job that led me back to the United States. It will probably always be one of my favorite jobs. The role of a Bilingual Specialist is to help families that speak other languages navigate the school system. It was part welcome wagon, part translator, part paperwork, and part just helping people in need. I spent a lot of my time helping newly arrived families get their kids in school. This included everything from filling out the enrollment paperwork, touring schools to help the parents find the right fit, getting bus schedules set up and helpings kids know how to maneuver 2 bus transfers when they spoke no English, explaining what college ruled loose leaf paper is (and where to get free school supplies if they were running low on cash from their move to the U.S.), testing the kids’ English Language proficiency levels, and even going with them on their first day of school.
I also helped the parents by printing maps of the local second hand stores, guiding them to the right places for food boxes for their families, and telling them about the Adult ESL classes available in the community. I gave all my new families my cell phone number and was always available to help them. Most families started by calling me several times a week with questions about school or the community. I routinely got phone calls about reduced cost doctor’s offices and Spanish speaking churches. Once I even had a lady call asking if I would order a pizza for her because there wasn’t anyone who spoke Spanish at the pizza delivery place! The contact died down as the families started to learn English, became more independent, and felt comfortable in their new surroundings.
Helping teachers with their new students was also part of the job. I attended parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings, I made phone calls home, and I translated classroom newsletters. I was also there as a type of cultural liaison. I could explain to teachers and principals the way newly immigrated families functioned and advocate for their unique needs.
BBE: What was most surprising to you in this work?
BKH: I was very surprised at the sheer numbers of new immigrant families. Before this job, I wasn’t aware of how many new families were moving to Wyoming from foreign countries. I was also surprised at the diversity of countries and languages. Spanish was the most prevalent language, but I also had to do all of this for families that spoke other languages, or at least find a bilingual go-between to help me out. Some of the languages I remember running in to include Vietnamese, Portuguese, Hebrew, Russian, and Mandarin.
BBE: What did you find was the most rewarding part of your work?
BKH: The most rewarding part was being able to be the link between parents and their children’s schools. Schools are always advocating for more parental involvement. It can be a struggle even with their English-speaking parents. Add in a language barrier and cultural differences and getting parents active in schools is much harder. I routinely received thank you calls, notes, and even homemade tamale deliveries for going out of my way helping families feel comfortable in their transition.
BBE: Now you teach in a classroom in which more than half of your students speak English as a second language.
How did your work as bilingual specialist prepare you for this?
BKH: I think my whole life was preparing me for this! Everything from struggling to learn a second language in junior high and even college, to living in a foreign country where things don’t work the way you expect them to, to seeing first hand the daily struggles immigrants face in this community has made an impact on me as a teacher. I understand where my students and their families are coming from. I know what their lives are like. I use that to make my teaching more meaningful and relatable to my students. I can’t imagine working in any other school with any other student population! This is where I am meant to be.
BBE: What challenges do you find yourself facing as a teacher in a bilingual classroom?
BKH: I face the same challenges any teacher does. Kids need a lot of patience and teaching needs a lot of prep-work.
Having so many students that are still learning English does make it harder to reach state and district level proficiency goals. But it’s certainly not impossible! It is hard for kids to be reading at grade level in English on a standardized test when they just started learning English a couple months ago… but I love the challenge! I don’t use my high number of ESL students as an excuse for low test scores and neither does the rest of my school. We push our students to gain proficiency in both their English language acquisition and the grade level content areas. They always make great strides and surprise us with how quickly they can learn!
BBE: Do you find that working in the classroom is as rewarding as your previous job?
BKH: The rewards are so many. I think my favorite part of working with such a diverse class of students is seeing them come together as one class. They develop a sense of community and multicultural acceptance that I only dream of for my town. There isn’t an us/them feeling or any biases. The kids are genuinely interested in other cultures and lifestyles even if they are very different than what the kids have at home. It doesn’t matter to them if their parents came here last week or 200 years ago, they are all at school to learn from each other.
BBE: If you could help our readers understand one thing about our immigrant community what would it be?
BKH: I want people to understand how broken our immigration system is. I’m not advocating any political views or even recommending any particular solutions, but I have seen time and time again that what we have now isn’t working. Families are separated for months (9 months to be exact in the case of my family and remember I am an American citizen), they spend thousands of dollars paying fees and travels costs (more than $5,000 even without attorneys in my specific case), and are burdened with complicated rules and regulations while they are trying to get visas approved. Many people go through the visa application process only to be denied and have to start the waiting and paying game again, hoping that this time there is a better result.
BBE: Any last Prairie Wife words of wisdom?
BKH: I guess my last words of wisdom about working with people from other cultures is to be understanding. It is a huge decision for people to leave their homelands. Whether they leave to escape violence, to give their kids a better future, to find better job opportunities, or to join relatives – it is still a hard transition. We need to be more helpful and less judgmental.
Categories: Prairie Wife of the Week