New Faces of Education

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
March 5, 2018

Meet “Sergio,” a suburban high school student from Guatemala. He lives with cousins and stays connected with his immediate family back in Central America. He speaks three languages — Spanish and two indigenous — but English is difficult.

One day, student teacher Catherine Parello ’19 heard words no teacher wants to hear: “No lo puedo” — I can’t do it. A worksheet in English proved to be his undoing. Months later, after Parello returned to Peoria, he dropped out.

“It was disheartening to hear a student say he couldn’t learn English,” said Parello, a high school English education major from Naperville, Ill. “Working with him was the first time I realized how much I cared about students’ success. I wanted to understand students like him so they could accomplish their dreams.”

Though not all students struggle as much as “Sergio,” he’s one of the new faces of K-12 education in the Midwest. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Illinois is home to the fifth-largest population of English language learner (ELL) students with 201,300 enrolled in the state’s K-12 schools. That is 10 percent of the student population. In total, 741,600 Illinois children are in immigrant families.

Students like Parello and early childhood education major Sydney Stillman ’18, of Chesterfield, Mo., prepare for diverse classrooms by earning an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement with their education degrees. The endorsement is built into Bradley’s early childhood, elementary, special education and junior high education degrees, and high school education majors can add the certification if they wish.

Classroom experiences show future teachers that problem-solving skills, empathy and advocacy are more valuable than a teacher’s ability to speak a student’s native language. When cultural customs, cultural attitudes toward education, basic education levels and socioeconomic class impact learning environments, teachers rely on creativity to encourage students.

Stillman’s innovation shined when she worked with a kindergartener who spoke Spanish. Because Stillman couldn’t speak the child’s native tongue, she tried to connect through music, gestures and drawings. To further bridge the language gap, the two worked on math — a universal subject.

By adapting, Stillman learned the value of flexibility in classrooms. Students may come from similar backgrounds, but they have different needs and assets. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to connect with students who bring different learning styles, personalities, family backgrounds and cultures.

“There are no cookie-cutter classrooms,” Stillman said. “ESL teaches you how to build on individual students’ backgrounds and move them to a place where they’re all excited about learning.”

ESL experiences also allowed Bradley students’ passions to blossom. As they interacted with youth, they grew more interested in educating the next generation — especially youth adapting to new ways of life.

“ESL is special because we learn many cultures,” Parello said. “You see students light up as they learn from each other’s cultures. It’s a community of friends who push each other to learn. “