I’m partial to immigrant students because ALL my students are immigrants or first-generation Americans. I’m not exactly an unbiased observer here. But based on a decade of working with these amazing individuals, here are just a few reasons that teaching newcomers is the best.
1. Their parents take no crap.
I hear a lot from other teachers about how parents these days are increasingly litigious and likely to take their child’s word over the teacher’s. Not in the communities I work with.
Since basically every other country affords teachers more respect than the U.S., most of my students’ parents come from cultures that view teachers with admiration and trust. If I say there’s a problem with their child, they will believe me and they will do their best to fix it.
2. They feed you.
Teacher appreciation week is the best week of the year at my school. A different group of parents does lunch for us every day, so we get tamales and empanadas on Monday, Ethiopian injera and spicy chicken on Tuesday, and Bengali cuisine on Wednesday. I’ve got a few kids who bring me flan periodically, and I’ve never complained.
3. They teach you new and fascinating things.
Could you find The Gambia on a map? Because I can. I could describe—but not perform—traditional dance moves from a variety of cultures, and I know how to carry my baby with a long piece of fabric like an African mama. (I’m scared to, though, because I can’t wrap it right now matter how many African mamas show me how.)
I know which words from my high school Spanish textbook are not actually used in practical Spanish, and I know how to make tortillas from scratch. My kids have made my world a richer place.
4. They are (often) extremely mature and responsible.
Most cultures give kids a lot more responsibility than ours, and being an immigrant in the U.S. requires a great deal of hard work. So I’ve got middle schoolers who work full time in the summer, who take care of younger siblings for a substantial part of the afternoon, who knew how to cook a meal and do their laundry before their age hit double digits.
While they don’t necessarily do their homework every night, my kids are great at seeing what needs to be done and taking care of it, even if it’s something as simple as stacking the chairs in the classroom at the end of the day.
5. Their brains are brilliant.
All the research shows that learning a second language creates new neural pathways and basically rewires your brain to make it more awesome. So you take a twelve-year-old who speaks English, Amharic, and three tribal languages and you know you’ve got a pretty brilliant kid on your hands.
My kids are amazing at making textual observations and connections that I’ve never considered. While their reading and writing are often below grade level because they are ESOL students, they frequently amaze me with the depth and originality they bring to their interpretation of literature.
6. They are tough as nails.
My students are the most resilient group of people I know. They’ve dealt with poverty, with homelessness, with the deportation of family members, with the culture shock of immigration, and they still show up at school every day ready to learn.
They come in with huge academic deficits, and they work tirelessly to overcome them. They are street smart and able to navigate obstacles with humor and class in a way that would be difficult for many adults, including me.
My kids aren’t perfect. They infuriate me on a daily basis, and I spend a huge part of my day nagging and cajoling and threatening, just like any teacher. But immigrant students are something special, and those of us who spend our days with them are incredibly fortunate.