Advocating For The Neglected In The United States School System By Always A Gringa

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Advocating For The Neglected In The United States School System By Always A Gringa

My Journey To Become A Teacher

I didn’t always want to be a teacher and it was honestly never a career that I had considered pursuing. I instead sought out a career in journalism where I believed I could write and have the opportunity to travel. The Godiverse had other plans.

A year into my journalism major I traveled to Bali, Indonesia for three months where I volunteered at a surf hostel that worked closely with a children’s home. This children’s home was not an orphanage as kids were not up for adoption. Many of these kids had families that wanted to keep them, but couldn’t afford to take care of them. It was then that I realized how circumstance of birth deeply impacted the rest of their lives. These kids, though their love and joy overcame so much, would be unlikely to propel them out of the cycle of poverty. Education seemed like the only viable opportunity for these kids to defy their circumstances. 


English languag learner-Bali
Bali, Indonesia


After returning from Indonesia, I felt compelled to change my major to education so that I could help kids overcome circumstances of poverty through education. As a part of the requirement for my major, I had to be in a classroom for 40 hours every semester. In my very first teaching placement, I was in a 3rd-grade classroom in an urban school in Lansing, Michigan. The first day the teacher put me in charge of a small group of ESL (English as a Second Language) / ELL (English Language Learner) students and she told me to “try my best with them as they are hard to teach.” Having no understanding of ELL students and their needs, I went out to help them with their assignment. As soon as I sat down, the students eagerly asked me questions, switching between their first and second languages with their peers in an effort to understand. I remember to this day how overjoyed I was, how amazing these little beings were. 

Later the teacher expressed her frustration that half of her students were English language learners (ELL). She told me it is like she is only really teaching 6 students because the rest of them don’t understand what she is saying. After this experience, I became curious about how I could work with English Language Learners. What were the qualifications? How could I get into this field? These students clearly had so much to offer and contribute to their classrooms, but are often treated as a deficit. 


Xilitla, Mexico


After doing more research and working with different groups of ELL students, I decided that I wanted to be an ELL teacher. I was able to add a TESOL minor to my degree, which provided me with classes, placements, and mentors that would help me understand how to best meet the needs of these diverse individuals and how to best teach them. At the time, a TESOL minor and TESOL certification were all that is required to teach ELL students. After graduating with a degree in Elementary Education with a specialization in language arts and a TESOL minor, I completed a year in a 3rd-grade classroom in a Spanish immersion school.

I quickly began to see how this view of ELL students was persistent throughout much of public education whether it is due to attitudes of administration, staff, or influences of policy on achievement standards. It doesn’t help either that content classroom teachers are severely under qualified and unprepared to teach these students, which is a huge disservice to these students and the community.

While many are aware of the problems with teaching abroad, the US education system has its own issues when it comes to teaching and providing adequate support for English Language Learners. ELL students are not a priority for schools because they don’t bring in high test scores. So you can quickly see where a school places their value, as it is evident in their allocation of funding.


English Language Learner-California
California, USA


For example, many schools still don’t have full-time positions for ELL teachers or they are only hiring part-time aides to do the work that requires an ELL/ESL qualified teacher. This means that often these students don’t have a teacher that is qualified to teach them and definitely not one that is in the building at all times. When I was hired as an ELL teacher, I was only given an 86% time position because I only had 55 students, which required me to commute between two schools daily. My caseload quickly propelled to over 69 students, which soon upped me to 100% position.

Another example: Aides for high-level math students get their own full classroom, while ELL teachers are often given a room the size of a closet, or teach in the back of the library.

Segregation is also systematic and prevalent in the school system if you know where to look. For example, I began my “official” ELL teaching career during the  2015-2016 school year in Michigan where I taught Kindergarten through 5th grade in a pull-out setting. A pull-out setting is when you take students out of the classroom for a portion of time and teach them separately from the rest of the classroom students. This is the most common form of ESL/ELL teaching.



English Language Learner-Mt Fuji

Mt. Fuji, Japan

As an ELL teacher in the USA, your role is multifaceted and requires much more from you than teaching in the classroom. You need to be an advocate. An advocate has been the most important role for me as a teacher. Students often don’t have anyone to fight for them at school. It isn’t that their parents don’t want to fight for them, they just don’t know how or they are unable to communicate their needs since these students have a different language that is spoken at home. This means you have to be a bridge between home and school. You’re there for families to learn how the school system works and how to navigate it. In addition, these kids come into the US school system as refugees or immigrants. This often means they come in with experiences that even we, as adults, have never had to face.


The school I worked for was near a major university in the capital of Michigan. This means that the students were made up of refugees or students with parents completing their PhDsNot only are their worlds turned upside down as they try to adapt to a different culture, food, school, language, and entire life, but they come to the US fleeing war-torn countries, and may have been separated from or lost loved ones along the way. 

  • Once a Burmese student just up and climbed out of the window. When they asked him about it later, he said that he didn’t want to be at school anymore so he just left like he would have in Burma.
  • I had a kindergartener who didn’t speak for the entire school year and became a selective mute. She was so traumatized from being ripped away from everything familiar that she had chosen she wouldn’t speak. (A “silent period” is normal for most ELL students who come to the US, as they are using this time to adjust and take in the language, but this student didn’t speak for a year.)
  • Another one of my students came from Benghazi. She was shy, timid, and would draw pictures of her country before and after the bombings.
  • Sitting with a student from the Congo, she told me–between math problems–that her sister was killed, and that her mom birthed her in a tree as she fled from soldiers.
  • A Guatemalan student came to the USA unaccompanied at the age of 14 in an effort to escape joining a gang, an almost certain future for most of the young adults in his neighborhood. His mother took a mortgage out on her house to pay someone to help him cross into the USA, where he was seized at the border and put into an adult prison. He spent months there before being placed in Michigan with a foster family. The entire time he was in high school, he worked almost full-time to pay back his mom the money for crossing the border.


Holland, Michigan


Being an ELL teacher is so much more inclusive than teaching academics. You’re teaching them hygiene, proper clothing attire (think a kid from the Congo coming to Michigan), how to act in school, what is looked as appropriate and not appropriate behavior. You are being a bridge between home and school for families, a support for content teachers, a creator of relevant and inclusive teaching material and an advocate for their rights and place in society.

How Travel has Informed My Teaching 

Almost all of my travel experiences have been in some way related to teaching and have in some way influenced the way I teach. I have taught in China, South Africa, and in Mexico, which has allowed me to gain perspectives from different cultures around the world.

For example, I traveled to South Africa to continue with my graduate studies in education. While in South Africa, I was placed in a 3rd-grade classroom in a suburb of Capetown. I didn’t teach English as the students already fluently spoke English, often in addition to 2 or more other languages. South Africa actually has 11 official languages, which was an effort to recognize, elevate, and advance the historically diminished use of indigenous languages.


English Language Learner-South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa


While there are 11 official languages, not all languages are viewed as equal. English and Afrikaans are the languages of power, and Afrikaan is the dark shadow left behind from apartheid; a constant reminder of the pain, segregation, and racism that non-white South Africans experienced. While in the classroom I quickly became interested in the dynamic between language, identity, and power.

I watched how students interacted with each other when a student used their first language of Xhosa or Zulu, languages thought of as “slum” languages. Students would yell at each other “You’re not allowed to use that here!” followed by a slap or a punch.

It was during this time that I learned how language and culture are synonymous and how closely this is tied to students’ identity. This experience pushed me to look into different types of language teaching to use in the classroom. Often teachers in the US have an English-only policy, but I saw how degrading and detrimental this can be towards a students growth and their language development. Though experiences in South Africa and in my graduate classes, I have adopted a translanguaging approach in my classroom. This is the idea that students learn best when they are free and encouraged to use all of their language repertoires to build on their understanding, instead of being forced to start over in a new language. This means that all of my students are encouraged to use any and all of their language in the classroom.

English language learner-Marriage

Now, I’m in Mexico. A year ago, my husband and I moved to San Luis Potosí, Mexico as expats and thought this would be a great opportunity to do what we love: to travel and teach. I began teaching English at an alternative high school where I was teaching students from the ages of 8-33 all in the same classroom. I was required to create all of my own curriculum, as well as pay for copies and resources. As much as I loved my students, I didn’t love working for 12 hours a day and 80 pesos ($4.50) an hour. So I taught there for a few months before getting a job at a language center where I currently work. I mainly teach English to adults in the automotive industry, which is extremely prevalent in SLP. I have also started teaching business courses, which feels really strange, but I believe all things happen for a reason. So I’m embracing the experience.

I think my biggest takeaway from Mexico is going to be the experience of having to do life in a completely different country and understanding what my ELL students and their families go through. Having to learn another language, the trials of government processing paperwork, being a foreigner, and having my everyday tasks become a learning experience.


English language learner-Michigan
Lake Michigan, USA


This experience has made me reflect on how amazing my ELL students are. They adapt quickly, adjust to life in a new place, make friends, all the while growing into little humans. They are pretty freaking amazing!  Honestly, teaching ESL/ELL students is the best career I could have ever found for me. My students are truly amazing and I’m on a journey to get as much teaching experiences as I can so I can be the teacher that they deserve, and one that can fit their diverse needs.

Follow Eemah and her teaching journey across the world on her:


English Language Learner-Real de Catorce
Real de Catorce, Mexico


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