Tell us about the school where you teach.
I teach in the Newcomer Center, which is housed at Ferris High School, a comprehensive high school, in Spokane, WA. The Newcomer Center is a specialized English language development program for brand new immigrant and refugee students to our nation. My students have usually been in the country for three months or fewer when they first enter the Newcomer Center, and all of them have little knowledge of English.
Students spend one semester to a year in the Center depending on need. We teach foundational English and ease our students’ transitions into living within the new culture and being a student in the United States. Our main goal is to build confidence and to show our students they are welcome, loved, that they matter, and that we are so very happy they are part of our community.
What is your student population like?
We have students from all over the world: Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Karen state in Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam, Chuuk, Marshall Islands, Malaysia, and other nations. They are all of high school age, between 14 and 20 years old. All of the students have only been in our nation a short time, and they have little English language ability. All have experienced trauma in their short lives. Yet, they are focused and dedicated, resilient, and hopeful. They have dreams and work hard to achieve those dreams. They are utterly amazing.
Can you tell us about the experience on 9/11 that had such an important impact on your career?
I had only been officially teaching (meaning I was the lead teacher for the first time) for less than two months when 9/11 happened. That day was so surreal. The first reports of the events happened during my preparation time and I wandered through the hallways in this daze. As I wandered, I peeked into classrooms. All of them had their TVs on, watching the reports with their classes. There were only murmurs. No one was coherent. Everyone was in shock.
In the days following the events, students were scared and worried. It was in those first days, when I could see the rise of fear and divisions forming – the “us versus them” thinking – that I realized how important my role as educator really was for these scared and nervous young people. During the first day and weeks of class, my students were so full of hope and potential. The events on September 11th diminished their hope and made them question their futures, and also made them feel isolated and suspicious of those different from themselves. I knew I had to help my students feel safe and confident and to continue to see difference not as a threat but as an asset. Teaching is such an important job. The impacts are clear. The responsibility is enormous and one I take seriously.
I care deeply about my students and want them to be successful and happy, which means providing them with opportunities to experience that which is outside of their understanding, to challenge their perceptions, and to reach across difference to find understanding. I must guide them and support them in planning for their future and achieving their dreams.
How did you start working with refugees?
When I came to Spokane in 2008, I was teaching video productions and a class called “Collection of Evidence.” At a training for teaching the latter, I met Victorya Rouse. She was teaching in the Newcomer Center. We started to talk and discovered we both served in the Peace Corps. She encouraged me to apply to teach in the English language development (ELD) program. I started teaching a couple of English language classes and when Tory moved up to become the Coordinator of the ELD program, I applied to teach in the Newcomer Center. I have been there ever since. Teaching refugee and immigrant students is truly remarkable. I learn far more from them than they do me, walking beside one another, as they adjust to their new lives in the United States.
Tell us about the visitors you invite to the classroom and why you started these visits.
I think it is vitally important for educators to invite community members into their classrooms, particularly those who make decisions which impact their classrooms. I started with inviting school board members and district leadership into my class. I have had two school board members, the Superintendent for our district, and our curriculum director into the classroom. I have since also had five state legislators visit. During these visits, I have the students introduce themselves to these community leaders, and then ask the community leaders to sit alongside my students as they learn. I ask them to get involved in the learning. I have also had several community volunteers come in to work one-to-one with students. It’s amazing to see how the various visitors respond and open up to these wonderful students. They are always delighted and amazed, and most want to visit again.
How have you approached your work over the past few years? Is anything different?
Because of the political environment, many of my students feel unwelcome and scared. I remember in the days after the 2016 election, many former students came to me ashen-faced, and asked when they would have to leave. This brought a stark reality to my classroom and to my perception of what my students were experiencing in our nation.
As a result, I make it even clearer to my students how much I care about them and their families, how glad I am to be walking beside them as their first teacher, and how welcome they are in my classroom, in our school, and in our community. Not only do I communicate this to my students, but I also encourage other teachers and their students to do the same, by connecting our classrooms and helping our students make connections with one another.
What have been your reflections about winning this award at this moment in history?
I see this award as an opportunity to be the vehicle through which my students may tell their stories. This is a chance to show the world that our immigrant and refugee students are dedicated and focused future citizens, who will be productive and successful members of our communities. My students, and all immigrant and refugee students, are what make our nation the best that it can be. All of us together, with our many differences, make our world a beautiful place. I hope to encourage people to seek experiences outside of their understanding, to challenge their own perceptions, and find clarity, to be kind, to be fearless, and to get to know their neighbors in order to build strong, safe, and connected communities.
Tell us about the letters your students wrote to share at the White House.
My students, both current and former, wrote letters to the President to tell him about their journeys to the United States, their hopes and dreams, how much it means to them to be in the United States and what that represents to them. They thanked him for letting them come to the United States and expressed how they will give back to our nation. Their letters were positive and hopeful. Some were pointed, asking that he be a peacemaker, that he take care with the language he uses when talking about them, because he is a role-model and others will follow his lead. My students were gracious, polite, and so very thankful.
How have your students reacted to this experience?
My students feel thankful for the opportunity to have the President read their messages. They are hopeful that he will. They are also proud to have had their stories shared, not only with the President, but with the nation. They proud. They are hopeful.
Tell us about your famous pins!
I wore my pins to communicate to my students that I am in this position for them. Many students feel isolated and fearful because of the current political climate and messages of division we often hear. As I stood in the White House, I wanted to assure my students I was there for them, to tell their stories, and to stand up for them.
What are you most looking forward to in having this platform?
I am most looking forward to continuing to tell my students’ stories in as many places and with as many people as possible. I am also excited to see classrooms and educators in action across the United States and abroad, and to be able to talk with a variety of education advocates and decision makers. I want to share and learn.
What kinds of advocacy can educators achieve through sharing their students’ stories?
Stories are powerful. They communicate with people on a different level. They pull at our emotions and help us to relate with one another. Stories help us to see one another as humans. They help us to understand our differences, but to also see what we have in common. They challenge our perceptions and help us to see the world and individuals in a new way. Stories are persuasive and real. They are the only way to change hearts and minds.
Is there a student story you’d like to share?
Safa is from Sudan. She came to the United States in 2012. She was 15 years old. Prior to coming to the US, she moved several times from country to country, and as a result only had the equivalent of a 4th grade education. Here she was in a new country, a newcomer, with limited prior education, a high school freshman, expected to graduate in four years. Safa took her school seriously. She focused and did graduate in four years. She’s now a sophomore at Eastern Washington University, studying to be an elementary school teacher.
David comes from a nation whose temporary protected status was recently revoked. He only arrived two years ago. He comes to school every day and dreams of becoming an Information Technologies Specialist. Recently, however, he is nervous, as he believes there is no pathway for him to attend University. Still, he perseveres. He has hope.
What do you want the public to know about your students?
I want them to know that my students, immigrants and refugees, are focused and dedicated. They view coming to the United States as a blessing, as a place where they have hope for their futures. They are committed to giving back. They have dreams for their futures and work tremendously hard toward those dreams. Every single one of them will be productive members of our communities. They will succeed, because they are innately hopeful and believe in the American Dream.
Your students’ words embody a message of hope. Why is this message so important to share?
My students’ messages of hope are important to share because our world is far more beautiful than many of us believe. Difference is not bad. Difference is necessary. We need diversity of thinking, doing, and being, in order to be the best nation we can be. When we build bridges and reach across difference, our communities are stronger, safer, and more connected. My students have gone through terrible trauma and come through safely to the other side. They are hope and resilience personified. My students are fearless. They are a model for us all.
What advice do you have for teachers who are new to working with immigrants and refugees?
My advice is simple: Be welcoming. Make sure your students know you care about them and that you are happy they are in your classroom. Learn about them. Show that you want to know them, not only as learners, but as individuals. Help them to draw connections between what they are learning and what they have experienced. Help them share their cultures with their classmates. Help them make connections, with you, with one another, and with their community.
What has been an important mentor for you?
My first year teaching in Spearman, TX. I had a mentor teacher named Lisa Short. I had not studied education, and I did not yet have my teaching experience. Lisa’s openness and expertise were invaluable to me. She was my support and my friend. I observed her classes and she observed mine. She helped me to understand the importance of building relationships with my students and gave me unconditional support. She showed me what it means to be a colleague and a teacher leader.