April 2014
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Kristen Hinson, Roger Williams Middle School, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

It’s my first day of my new career. After 10 years in the science industry, I have taken a teaching position at the middle school with the worst reputation in the state. I am really questioning my judgment as I walk into my classroom with crumbling walls and missing floor tiles. But I survive the first few periods of my day and it appears I will be able to handle these children. I might even enjoy it. My roster for the next class has only four students who I have been told are my ELL push-in students and who, unfortunately, will be without a push-in teacher due to funding issues. I am sure it has to be simple . . . I can handle four students.

I walk into the room at the bell and my heart sinks. One child is by the window staring out into the world, another is hunched over an open textbook whispering to himself, another has clearly been crying, and one more is wide-eyed and terrified. My heart is racing but I attempt a smile and a hello. One student responds, “Yes, miss.” The rest just stare. It becomes evident immediately that these are newcomers. They do not know five words in English between them. I start to panic. Although, I can speak some Spanish, one of these boys is Nepalese. I’m pretty sure there is no Google translate for Nepalese. What do I do? I did not sign up for this. I am quite sure I am doomed to fail. Worse yet, I fear it is them I will fail.

I end the day with a heavy heart and anxious mind. As the weeks pass by, things do not get much better for me. This has shaken my confidence completely. I am not a language teacher. I know absolutely nothing about teaching English as a second language. During the class I long for my chaotic classes that are bursting at the seams with 29 students. At least I am not exposed in those classes. In all the chaos no passerby would ever know I am drowning, that I am a fraud.

The only thing I am sure of is that I have learned to love them with all my heart. So I do the only thing I can: I show up and love them every day. We set about to learn basic English skills. I focus on helping them survive daily life. We do the obvious: I label objects in the classroom and they show me they understand; I say words and have them repeat them; I encourage them to practice casual conversation in pairs and groups. On some days we explore the building’s halls and classrooms on the hunt for learning opportunities, or we unpack bags of items I have brought to help them understand their new world. One day I realize that our bond has enabled us to communicate across languages. In spite of this progress, I still spend most evenings plagued with fear and doubt, desperately scouring the Internet for strategies and activities that may help me teach them.

One day when I arrive, my class is absolutely giddy, which is not the norm for this crew. They are huddled at the window talking excitedly in Spanish, which even my Nepalese student has learned by now. I realize that they are excited because it has begun to snow. My three Hispanic students are all recent arrivals from South America and have never experienced snow before. I make a snap decision and gesture to the group that we are headed out to play in the snow. We sneak through the halls to their lockers and collect coats and gloves and head out. For 30 glorious minutes my students smile and laugh and participate in all the snow day activities I remember from my childhood. For the first time in all these days we have spent together, I see pure joy on all four of their faces and I feel relieved. Just then my Nepalese student decides to share his first English words with me: “I want to see pretty flowers, Miss.” The symbolism is not lost on me. In that moment, with that simple statement, I have been renewed. I realize that we will emerge from the cold and gray of winter together and embrace the coming spring. I have learned to hope.

Kristen Hinson is in her third year of teaching at Roger Williams Middle School. She was inspired by her experience with the students in the story to pursue a M.Ed. in Teaching English as a Second Language which she will complete in the fall of 2014.

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