Their brown eyes stare up at me with indescribable expectancy, hopeful anticipation, and a dire sense of urgency. Their fingers tremble on the desks in front of them, and I can almost see their hearts pounding through their chests. They look at me; the intention and eagerness in their souls is palpable. I stand in front of them in awe, because I know the expectations they have for me are almost, almost, impossible for me to meet.
Some of them arrived only days ago, fleeing unimaginable violence and undertaking a journey that could have easily taken their lives. But they survived. They survived war, violence, refugee camps, earthquakes, mudslides, rape, poverty and horrors much too awful to conjure up. They have overcome obstacles that no one should have to endure. And here they are with the belief, despite what they know exists in the world, that life can be better.
They made it to an American high school and they know, and I know, with an eerie clarity, that they are exactly where they need to be. They are looking to me, their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, with the hope of an education. They know, as do I, that their futures depend upon much more than learning English. But we also know that learning English will be one of the most important tools they have in forging ahead in the United States. They have come to the U.S. for a better future, safety, freedom, life. They have found, whether I intended this or not, a refuge within the four walls of my classroom; a haven in a new, unfamiliar world. They know that their new lives begin here, in their ESOL class.
And so, they expect me to teach them English; the single most important thing they may learn in high school. Their dreams for their futures are now inextricably intertwined with my livelihood. I look back at them from the front of the classroom and the enormity of my responsibility as a teacher takes my breath away.
This happens every year, with every student who crosses the threshold into my classroom. I welcome them at the door every class period and I see in their faces, everyday, that they expect the best from me. When I don’t give them my best, they know it. And I know they deserve better. I used to think, as the years passed, that this sense of responsibility would not overwhelm me as much. It has been the exact opposite. Every year, with every student I meet, my sense of responsibility to them grows. As the times change and as children enter my classroom for ever more varied reasons and in an ever more hostile political climate, the gravity of what I do as an educator, and what ESOL teachers (and all teachers of ESOL students) throughout the country do, weighs heavier and heavier on my heart.
They are looking to me, and to all of their teachers, to guide them in their new lives. As they enter our classes, they have no choice but to hope that our intentions for them are good. They have no choice, because the alternative is too scary to consider. They have been through so much in their short years on earth, but they hold out the certainty that the people in front of the classrooms want the best for them.
These students are looking to us to teach them. They don’t want us to feel sorry for them because they may not understand everything in their classes. They want us to support them in understanding. This may mean more work for us, but after what they have been through, we owe it to them to strengthen our efforts. They don’t need our sympathy. Sympathy gives them, and us, an excuse not to do our best and they don’t need our excuses. They deserve better than that. They need high expectations. They need us to hold them accountable, while understanding that they do not have the same experiences as other students in the school.
They need teachers who believe in them. Every child needs that. They need teachers who understand that because their lives didn’t begin in a country that ensures education for every child, they may have gaps in their education, but they don’t have gaps in their life experiences. They need teachers who can look beyond what they’re missing and see the richness in what they bring. They’re not asking for us to give them a break, or a free class period. That doesn’t help them. They know it and we know it.
They need teachers who can look beyond the politics of immigration and see the children in front of them.
So every day, when I look at my students’ faces and I see the hope, fear, and anticipation in their eyes, I remember that they have overcome horrors I could never imagine and I owe it to them to be the best teacher that I can be. I owe it to them to encourage my colleagues to be the best educators they can be. I have to do this and I have to do this with every fiber of my being because their struggle is now my struggle; we are now wonderfully and brilliantly entangled.
I have to stand with them and for them because the humanity that stares back at me through their beautiful and hopeful eyes requires it.
Tema Encarnacion works supporting the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program as the ESOL Specialist in Baltimore, Maryland. Previously, she worked as an ESOL teacher and in various other capacities in another local ESOL program. Tema has dedicated her career to working with immigrant students and their families. She has been honored as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic Education for her commitment to geographic literacy through environmental advocacy, by PBS Learning Media as a digital innovator for integrating technology in the classroom and by Maryland Public Television as an American Graduate Champion. She currently lives with her husband and two children, Nina and Jonas, outside of Annapolis, MD. You can follow Tema on Twitter @temabell.