How I learned to be a better teacher from my immigrant students

I was born in Colombia, so I thought was uniquely positioned to understand what my 8th grade students were going through, given that many of them were not born in the United States.

I could not have been more wrong.

With immigration as a hot button issue in the upcoming election, we need to address the challenges immigrant students face and the support they need to succeed. They may not be able to see a future beyond 10th grade and a steady paycheck, but we can remove some of the obstacles to help them see more promising options.

Teaching for three years in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) before coming to Beverly Hills Unified taught me a great deal about working with immigrant students, and about myself. In turn, I have been able to share those lessons with my privileged suburban students, who have a tough time relating to the struggle of students just a few miles away.

Their life experiences are ones I could never understand, growing up in a upper middle class family–however they are experiences I have learned to embrace and support. Most of my students were from Latin American countries, and 98 percent of them qualified for free and reduced lunch. The first time a student told me, “I couldn’t do my homework last night because I had to watch my little sister,” my initial reaction was no excuses.

It didn’t take long to discover that many of my students went straight from dismissal to pick up their younger siblings from elementary school and were responsible for them until bedtime, since their parents worked long hours. Truly, these students wanted to do their homework, but their circumstances simply did not allow it.

I decided I had to be the one to change to ensure their success.

How could I help?

became more understanding and flexible with due dates. I opened my room during break times to allow students to complete assignments and receive any needed assistance.

The next major shocker was a motivated student who continually missed class. He wanted to do well, yet his absences were increasing. When I asked him if he was feeling alright, he revealed that he had been missing school to help out with his father’s gardening business. I was stunned. Here, in America, a 13-year-old was choosing between his own education and his family’s survival.

How could I help?

I sat down with him and created an independent study program with a curriculum that he could access when away from school. Afterwards, I would spend my lunch period with him to review missed material. I didn’t do anything to change his circumstances. I simply saw an opportunity to make it easier.

For many students new to this country, school is the only stable environment. The predictability of a daily schedule, relationships with teachers and warm meals are luxuries often not afforded at home. It’s heartbreaking to see a student arrive at school defeated, knowing you may be the only one who smiles at them or shows any interest in them all day.

One such student never smiled–not ever. It became my challenge to get him to smile. I tried for months–jokes, dancing. Nothing. One day, two minutes before the bell rang, I showed the class a funny cat video that reminded me of a character from the story we were reading. He laughed. Finally.

How could I help?

For this student, it was finding a common interest and building on it. From then on, it was always cat videos when he walked in the classroom.

Perhaps the greatest struggle I came across was the pervasive feeling among students that, “I’m just going to have to drop out at 16 to get a job anyway, so what is the point?” I was stunned the first time I heard that sentiment in the classroom. Yet, when looking around my classroom, the majority of the students solemnly nodded their heads in agreement. It made me angry. How could so many children, with their entire lives ahead of them, see only one singular path in life?

How could I help?

Exploring options that would allow for both an income and the continuation of their education. This showed them amazing new possibilities.

It took some time, but we researched companies that offer higher education funding for their employees. We discussed work study programs at the high school level. Recently I ran into one of these students, who is now 19 years old. He was working at the food court in the local mall during the day and studying accounting at the local community college at night. As teachers with students facing such challenges, it’s our responsibility to teach them not only the curriculum, but also about the opportunities that are out there for everyone, including them.

Issues of poverty, neglect, legal status and ethnic identity are just a few that I encountered during my tenure with LAUSD. However, these students have an unparalleled determination to succeed.

As educators, we are uniquely positioned to improve the lives of not just our immigrant students, but all of our students.  Meeting them at their reality is crucial, and can change their lives.

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Lauren Pfeffer Stuart

Lauren Pfeffer Stuart

Lauren is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher at El Rodeo School in the Beverly Hills Unified School District and has been teaching nine years. She is a 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, a Teach Plus Organizer-in-Residence and a 2016 Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellow. She began teaching in 2007 with the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2011 she collaborated with teachers from Shanghai with support from the California International Education Foundation. For the past four years, she’s been implementing the co-teaching model in her classroom. She currently teaches 8th grade and serves on the Instructional Leadership Team and the district GATE committee. Lauren has a BA in Communication Studies from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Education from Pepperdine University.
Lauren Pfeffer Stuart

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