Taking a personal interest

Jesús Yáñez is a paraprofessional who works with ESL students at South St. Paul High School in Minnesota. A native of Mexico, Mr. Yáñez can relate to the wonder of students from southern climates who have never before seen snow, as well as the bewilderment of students enrolled in classes that are conducted in another language. In an area with a tiny community of Spanish-speaking families, Mr. Yáñez pays extraordinary attention to his students. He was nominated for "From the Heart" by ESL teacher Chris Zanmiller.

Colorín Colorado recently spoke to Mr. Yáñez and Mrs. Zanmiller.

Meet Jesús Yáñez

What is it about Mr. Yáñez that made you nominate him for our "From the Heart" profile?

Mrs. Zanmiller: He was the paraprofessional in my classroom when I was doing my student teaching last year. I was so impressed with the way he interacted with the children; he was always so patient with them. He has a presence that is so warm, you just know he's a nice guy. The kids would stop by between classes and ask for him. I would ask if I could help them with anything — and I probably could have - but they really wanted Mr. Yáñez. They are comfortable with him.

Many teachers are warm and patient. What's so different about Mr. Yáñez?

Mrs. Zanmiller: He truly takes a personal interest in them - he will go into the classroom with beginning students and help them with often-difficult subjects such as math. If he doesn't know the answer, he will go home, where he keeps books that he has purchased, and figure out a way to explain the problem.

He takes it very personally if his students are doing well — or if they're not doing well. A lot of teachers say that all children can succeed, but he's someone who really believes that. He mentioned once that it's very important to him that his students succeed. He'll help them in any way he can think of to make that happen.

Another thing that's really different about Mr. Yáñez is that he suffers from arthritis and is often in pain. Even though he must use a cane at times, he never complains. He always has a smile for everyone. Even students who don't have contact with him will remark about what an awesome guy he is. My own son, who is a student there but not an ESL student, has said, "Mr. Yáñez rocks!"

Mr. Yáñez, your colleague says that the kids at school think you rock.

Mr. Yáñez: (laughing) Well, that's very nice, I guess.

Why do you think the students would say that?

Mr. Yáñez: I don't know! I just help them.

How would describe your work with students?

Mr. Yáñez: My first priority is students who don't speak English at all, then others who might understand a little. I go to their class, help them get started, explain the class, tell them what to do, translate handouts so they know what it is the teacher is asking for, how to say it and how to write it.

I do speak Spanish with the students; sometimes they want to know different words or they want to know how to ask something. I help with English pronunciation. I also look at their work before they turn it in.

What's the biggest difference between English-speaking students and ESL students?

Mr. Yáñez: There is a difference because the regular student only has to think about the work. Some of my ESL students know how to do the work in the class, but they don't know what it is they are being asked to do. It's my job to let them know what the class is about and tell them what they are supposed to do.

I have students from different countries who come very eager to learn. They already know a lot in school, but because they don't know the language, they can't progress here. I feel better when they learn a little bit of English, and they can depend on themselves.

How did you come into the education field?

Mr. Yáñez: My wife was working in the cafeteria at Lincoln Center Elementary, and they needed an interpreter, and I know how to do that. I came from Mexico when I was 14 and went to school in Texas for four years, but I wasn't speaking English that much. When I was 18, I started working for the railroad, and I really learned how to speak English on the job site.

When I started to learn English, I struggled a lot. But after I started to practice more, I could interpret and translate, and that's when I started to have a better time. Of course, I always wanted to help.

In your opinion, what is the best thing that parents of ELL students can do to help their children succeed in school?

Mr. Yáñez: Remind them every day after school to do their homework, and help them if they can. Always be talking to them, and get information from teachers about the work.

The language is a big issue, and sometimes they tell me that's why they are not involved in meetings or why they don't come to school and ask about grades. Since I've been here, I've been helping with everything they need, like how to read the grade sheets, things like that. The school building has a phone line in Spanish now, so that's good, too.

It must be hard to keep smiling when you are in chronic pain.

Mr. Yáñez: The way I think is that if I have pain, they are not responsible for that. I still have to have a good face for them every day, so they feel confidence in themselves, and they don't have fear in asking me things. Some of these students are pretty shy because they are in such a new place for them. If I am not smiling, they might just stay back, and I want them to feel comfortable in coming to me.



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