This article is updated from the original written before I retired from teaching ENL.
“Go home,” said Juan.
Those two words made me feel sick at heart, rejected, and devalued. After days of planning lessons and gathering materials, after four weeks of driving 80 miles to Middletown and back during my summer vacation, after four weeks of orchestrating writers’ workshop for this group of middle school students, those two words were my feedback.
“What can we do to improve the program?” I had asked the students on the last day of Young Writer’s Camp.
“Go home,” said Juan.
Two months later, I heard those two words again, this time from a teacher. They were spoken during a workshop on English as a New Language (ENL) that I was co-presenting to middle school teachers in my school district. My colleagues and I had composed several fictitious profiles to illustrate the varied backgrounds of our English Language Learners (ELLs). One of the teachers read this profile:
Profile II: Beginner
I am a refugee from Afghanistan. We left two years ago. My father is still there. I live with my mother and four brothers and one sister here in Highland Mills. None of us wanted to leave our country. I miss my father so much and I worry about his safety. I can speak English in short sentences using functional vocabulary. I am literate in my first language. I don’t want to be in the U.S., and I am not motivated to learn English. Because my mother leaves for work early in the morning, my brothers and I often sleep late and miss the bus. We hate everything here and we want to go home.
“So go home,” a male teacher called out.
Some people laughed. I felt heartsick again. Surely this teacher’s attitude was communicated to his ELLs, our students.
Now, I’d been a teacher for many years. I knew the extra pressure that fell on a teacher with one or more ELLs in his or her class. Often, teachers were already overwhelmed by the daily demands of our jobs. I knew what it was like to deal with students who would rather be anywhere but in school. That kind of resistance from a recent immigrant seems to smack of ingratitude, never mind the additional attention required from teachers to repeat directions or adjust assignments.
I didn’t know if the teacher who called out was a willing, interested member of the workshop, or if he was just enduring another in-service day. Whatever the teacher’s story when he yelled, “Go home!” I was on the verge of responding aloud. I remained silent, but what I wanted to say was, “Yes! That’s it exactly! Anton wants to go home. But the point is that he can’t. He’s just a kid, subject to the decisions of adults who believe they know what is best for him.
“So what areas of his life can Anton control? He can control his life at school. He can choose not to like school, not to learn English, not to like the United States. From Anton’s point of view, acquiescence would only distance him further from his father. Maybe, for Anton, there is no home to go back to, just a pile of rubble that used to be his neighborhood.”
Pondering the lives of today’s immigrant students, I wonder how their experiences compare to those of my aunt Helen. She passed through Ellis Island around 1900. Did someone ever tell her to go home to Poland, where the Jews were being corralled in ghettos or victimized by pogroms? Did the teachers at her public school in New York City make her feel welcome or unwanted?
The greatest teacher I know begins all her talks with these words, “With great respect and love, I welcome you all, with all my heart.”
When we welcome someone, we give that person value and recognition. Welcoming is an invitation to belong, to be included. Welcome offers warmth and generosity. It says, “Share with us.” Often coming from difficult situations, our ENL students want and need to feel welcomed. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some teachers perceive an ENL student as an added burden.
When I taught ENL, my first duty was to look in the mirror. Was I welcoming my new students? When a new child registered and joined one of my already crowded groups, did I make her feel safe and included, or did I project an attitude of exasperation that communicated, “Go home”?
It’s not always easy for teachers to find the time and energy to make a new ELL feel welcome. To welcome a new student with respect and warmth is surely no more than we would want for ourselves, or for our own children in a foreign land.