Absorbing student stress

This is my 15th year teaching English Language Learners in Maryland public schools. Why does it feel so much harder than last year? I have small classes and no new curriculum to pilot. I have access to excellent bilingual counselors and parent community coordinators. I have hard-working colleagues and a supportive administration. The workload is tough, but manageable. I should feel lucky, but I think the problems that students express to me are greater this year, and I seem to be absorbing more of their stress.

Challenges of immigrant families are making headlines this week, as deportations increase. But the news reports don’t tell you about other issues that bleed into the classroom. One student is in the hospital because he was in a serious car accident (was he driving?), another is out because a family member passed away, a third student was crying in class (different from the one I mentioned last week) and could not concentrate, a fourth student wrote an essay about witnessing a murder. Any one of these incidents would be a major life event for a typical teen. For immigrant children, their problems seem to be magnified by low income, family instability and lack of background knowledge. So often I act in loco parentis that I believe that I am the only advocate that they have. Two students welcomed new baby siblings this week and I made sure other teachers knew that’s why A’s behavior was a little off and K was absent so much. I bought a condolence card on the way home so that all the students can sign it before Y comes back to school.

In each class, I have at least one older student who is in this country with no family. D. crossed the desert on foot when he was 15. A “coyote” was leading his group from El Salvador. They walked at night when it was cool and dark. He slept in the sand during the day with tree branches covering his body so that the police wouldn’t find him. One day he woke up and all of his group was gone. He was hungry and thirsty. When the Border Patrol found him, they took him to jail and connected him with his aunt and uncle in Maryland, where he would await a court decision. He’s still waiting. In the meantime, he’s living with some friends (a girl who dropped out last year). One day he said to me, “I wish you were my mother.” I don’t know if deportation is on his mind, because he doesn’t linger after class any more to chat; he’s working full time.

In 2014, we welcomed a huge new group of newcomers to my school — students whose stories are beginning to come out as their language skills evolve and the trauma of leaving home starts to fade. When I ask these students to write about the family, they write “my beautiful mother,” and put “meeting my mother” on their autobiography project timelines. At least five students in each class moved to Maryland to live with a parent whom they haven’t seen in many years. One girl was ecstatic because her mother and sister were about to arrive. She hasn’t seen them in nine years. My typical student is living with a parent who is remarried and has little American children with a step-mother or step-father, all of whom speak better English than my newcomer student.  Sometimes the missing parent is put on a pedestal for so many years that the real version of Mom or Dad can only be a disappointment after so much fantasizing and anticipation.

As the semester is wrapping up and we enter testing season, I notice the disconnect between where students are and where we’re supposed to be. I’ll have to admit that I don’t like the new Pearson book that is a substitute for our curriculum. I used to teach Romeo and Juliet, The Giver and Of Mice and Men. We used language structures to discuss the bigger issues that these classics addressed. Some of it was relevant to students’ lives. Now we read excerpts from texts and we compare them to nonfiction pieces with the same theme. I teach language structures without the benefit of context because I know that grammar and vocabulary will appear heavily on the multiple choice exam. How am I going to ask students to make personal connections to Mendel’s Laws of Heredity? I put them in cooperative groups to answer a question and create a visual using academic language. How do visuals support the main idea? Discuss with your peers.  It’s partly what they need in the real world, but I really miss reading about their personal experiences.

By January, I usually know my students pretty well. This year, my grade book indicates that school is not a priority. I don’t think it’s pure laziness — although that’s certainly a factor. Students don’t see the big picture. I have to explain how semester grades are calculated and why it’s important. I assume that no family member can help them. I ask warmly for overdue assignments, create multiple opportunities for reassessment, and allow students to hand work in past the deadline.

Today I had a guest speaker, a vibrant young Latina student who is the first in her family to attend college. She talked to them about the importance of making a plan, discovering some internal motivation and using their time wisely.  They were polite and attentive. But as soon as she left, I had to reprimand A. for pushing another student.

Sigh. It’s all worthwhile, though, because one day soon I’ll watch them walk across the stage at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, DC and the principal and superintendent will shake their hand and it will be the proudest moment in their lives. An American diploma. And I’ll help them get there no matter what it takes.

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Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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