The Transformational Power of an Educator

BabyJo

Chants of “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” followed me into school every morning.

I didn’t even know what this meant, but I knew it made me feel small, ashamed, and invisible.

Although I was born in Chicago, I was raised by my non-English speaking grandmother. She did her best, walking me to my parochial school every morning no matter the weather. In hindsight, I see that my school was unprepared to accommodate an ESL student. I realize that I went Kindergarten to 2nd grade watching and listening, not learning. Much of my early elementary years were like a Charlie Chaplin movie–silent.

When I turned 8, my father’s company promoted him and we moved to a northern suburb of Chicago. Many children would be saddened to leave their friends, neighbors, and school. I, however, viewed this as an opportunity as a fresh start. Opportunities of friends, socialization, and inclusion made me giddy with excitement. My eagerness definitely eased the burden on my parents of transitioning me out of the city.

Once we settled in and enrolled in school, the administrators and teachers immediately recognized my need to have ESL support and quickly enrolled me in their ESL program. The bulk of my ESL education was dedicated to language acquisition, which made sense at the basic level.

The first few days were a blur to me with larger classes, kids running and laughing through the hallways and bumping into me. However, 25 miles North of Chicago, my morning pledge of “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” appeared to follow me. Immediately, I was transported back to my school in Chicago and felt myself shutting down. While my classmates had their hands over their heart reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, THIS chant was my daily pledge by many of my classmates. My hands may have been over my eyes, but my heart felt their intention. I quickly learned to avoid certain students, walk a longer route to my class or locker.

Public school was overwhelming with cafeterias for lunch, the hustle and bustle in the hallways and even our own lockers! My only experience with school lunch was eating quietly at my desk along with my classmates while the teacher read aloud to us. My new school was exhilarating, large, and offered a lot of perceived independence. But I quickly learned that the cafeteria was an imagined war zone with certain students being landmines. Feet snuck out to trip me, fingers were pointed, my special pledge was quietly chanted, and my tears would put out the burning fear in my heart. My lunch did not include chips or sandwiches; rather it contained rice and shrimp crackers. I knew the only way I could survive was to leave the perceived warzone. After a few days of battle, I resorted to eating my lunch in the last stall of the girls bathroom. It may sound depressing, but it was my safe place.I enjoyed my lunch while singing the theme song to Reading Rainbow. I can’t recall how long I used my private lunchroom, but I do remember when that changed.

The most popular teacher in the school was my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. F. She must have seen me go into the bathroom with my lunch. Before I could even finish my shrimp crackers, I heard the door open and her call out my name. I immediately panicked and lifted my feet to avoid detection, promptly dropping my lunch on the floor! This was too much stress for me and I started sobbing. Eventually, she coaxed me out, gave me a hug, and took me back to our classroom.

That was the day my life in school changed.  

Mrs. F allowed me to eat lunch with her in the classroom from that point forward. At first, she let me eat quietly while looking over some classroom books. Eventually, we were eating at her desk together while she told me about her husband who fought in the Korean War. She brought pictures of her family and shared with me that her favorite Korean dish was “dduk gook,” a traditional Korean soup. Lunches were spent reading books together, practicing vocabulary, and me teaching her how to say Korean words and giggling at her pronunciation.

One day, some students got back to the classroom early and saw me with Mrs. F. I froze and got ready for my chant. Before they could even get started, they ran to Mrs. F and gave her a hug. They questioned my presence there, and Mrs. F told her that I was her special helper and student of the month. Instead of teasing me, they were green with envy as everyone loved Mrs. F. Word got around to my special job and kids were asking me what we did during lunch and how I got to eat lunch with the beloved Mrs. F. She shared with the class that she was learning Korean from me, and we were busy together making the classroom a special place for everyone. From that point on, kids were so determined to become Mrs. F.’s classroom helper that the negative attention was off of me. Rather, they were beginning to engage with me trying to learn Korean words as well. This change encouraged me to work even harder in my academics, my ESL classes, and branch out of my (dis)comfort zone. Although I’ve heard from kids that lunch was their favorite class, in my case, it truly was.

Mrs. F took the time to get to know me, learn more about my culture, and encouraged students to view my culture and language as an asset and vehicle to grow. She was so instrumental during my formative years, that I knew at the age of 8, I wanted to be just like her, a teacher.

I did exactly that. I became a middle school U.S. History and ELA teacher at my former middle school and took a special interest in seeing the invisible and hearing the “invisible.” I coached softball, volleyball, and basketball to have that opportunity to relate students outside the curriculum. My classroom also became a place for all students to eat lunch without question. I became the school’s Korean parent-teacher translator, and translated the school’s handbook into Korean with myGrownishJo father for the quickly growing Korean population. Those years of teaching were my way of honoring my rebirth as a student with Mrs. F.

So what am I doing now? I am proud to be part of an organization that is helping impact the lives of my younger self and generations of the  ELL students who might feel invisible. The 8 year old girl, eating her lunch in the bathroom who will end up being a school leader and step from invisible to impossible to ignore. Additionally, I am honored to partner with the Powerful Educators™ who are the Mrs. F.’s who build students’ academic confidence, broaden their social connections, and treat each student as a powerful asset.

What will be your journey? What can you do to inspire staff and collaborate with your fellow educators, transform student learning, and build a culture of success in your classroom and school? Walk students out of their lunchroom/bathroom and make them visible.

A former middle school U.S. History and E.L.A. teacher in Cook County IL, Joann has used her experiences and passion to help other educators and administrators across the country. When she's not busy partnering with districts as an Educational Consultant for Mawi Learning, she is playing volleyball, watching MMA, going to as many concerts as she can, and eating all of the bread within reach.

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  • Mawi Asgedom

    Thank you, Joann, for sharing. You brought me tears with the bathroom story, and how Mrs. F changed your entire experience of school. You are without doubt a Super ELL and we are proud of you!

  • Maureen Herman Morrison

    Thank you for sharing this story Joann. Today’s news has me so sad, and I had a feeling I could find something positive somewhere. I thank you as a human, and as a teacher of ELL’s.