Deborah Wilkes grew up on the outskirts of Nottingham, England, in the shadow of Sherwood Forest. While she doesn't claim inspiration from the Robin Hood legend, she does spend a great deal of time helping others. Named North Carolina's "Migrant Teacher of the Year" in 2003, Ms. Wilkes teaches English as a Second Language at Lee County High School in Sanford, North Carolina, and is also the lead teacher for the county's two middle schools and high schools. She regularly goes beyond her job requirements to find opportunities for her students to engage in the community, celebrate their culture and become better students (see picture at end of story).
Nominated for the award by her teaching colleague, Noemy Elizondo, Colorín Colorado caught up with Ms. Wilkes just a few days before she was leaving for a three-month study trip to Mexico.
Meet Deborah Wilkes
How did a British teacher end up teaching English language learners in North Carolina?
I was part of the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) program, which is an exchange program for teachers that's designed to share cultural understanding around the world, and I came here from Valencia, Spain, where I was teaching English as a foreign language. The school system really wanted me to stay, and I loved it here, so I did! I've been teaching in the United States for seven years now.
How did you happen to be teaching in Spain?
I took a degree in Spanish and French, and I studied in Valencia. I got my teaching certificate and decided to teach English abroad.
Do you have family here?
No, my family is all still in England. I am the only one who had the traveling bug. I was always fascinated with languages and other cultures. I had pen pals when I was really young, and I toured France with a brass band when I was a teenager. I've always liked traveling and seeing other places.
Does your Spanish have a British accent?
(Laughing) I'm told no! But it's definitely got the Spain accent. It's changing, though; I'm learning a Mexican accent now. When I first came, kids thought it was hilarious to hear someone speaking European Spanish.
Are most of your students from Mexico then?
I'd say about 75 percent are from Mexico, although I do have students from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Colombia - mostly countries in the Americas, not Europe. That's part of the reason I'm going to Mexico, to perfect my Spanish and learn some dialects.
What exactly are you going to do in Mexico?
I'm going as part of the Rotary Club's Cultural Ambassador Scholar program. This is the first time anyone from our region has applied and won, and I'm just ecstatic about it. I'm going to be based at a language academy in Oaxaca, which is in southern Mexico. They have 16 languages there, and I don't know how many dialects. A lot! More than a hundred. I won't be teaching, just learning.
Can you tell me about some of the other projects at school that you've been involved with?
I've been involved with TOP, which stands for Teen Outreach Program, which is a national program created primarily to address teen pregnancy and to promote academics as a way of lowering the drop-out rate.
We have one of only two programs in the state that are focused on Hispanic students. We adapted the materials with cultural considerations in mind, and we conduct it in Spanish and emphasize issues that are more relevant to this group - like family relationships. In the Latino culture, family is a much bigger part of their life than it is for Anglos.
The other program is AIM, which stands for Action, Inspiration and Motivation, and it's a very North Carolina thing. I brought a chapter to the middle and high schools, primarily focused toward our migrant population. It's mostly about dropout prevention - Latinos have such a high dropout rate, particularly the migrant students because they move so much, they get lost in the system. AIM tries to engage the kids in school and school activities, and we also try to get them involved in the community with service projects and connections to civic organizations. That actually serves both sides: the kids have a chance to work on leadership skills and have exposure to things like speaking before a group, and the community members benefit because they see the kids in a different light.
What would you most like to change about how communities view ESL students?
Deborah: That limited English proficiency is not limited ability or intelligence. Just because they don't speak the language, doesn't mean they don't have the intelligence to learn. We're losing many potentially productive students in the U.S. because we are pushing non-English speakers into lower skilled areas, like vocational classes. We're not developing their minds, which will eventually affect all of us. They're going to pay our pensions, but if they're all working low-paying jobs, there's going to be a problem, isn't there?