In 1991, he arrived in my Oklahoma hometown unable to speak English. He spoke Tagalog, a language none of us had even heard of before. We didn’t have a newcomer class, ESL classes, or even ESL support, so he was mainstreamed (thrown) into regular high school classes with teachers who had no experience teaching someone who couldn’t speak English. For the most part, because he was quiet and well-mannered, he was allowed to do what he wanted because none of the teachers knew what to do with him. We missed out then, and we’re still on the losing side.
You can’t get diverse perspectives from people who are just like you.
While studying for my bachelor’s at university, I attended classes with many international students. I remember how their faces would sometimes be as red as an Oklahoma sunset when professors would call on anyone but them. To save time, the professors avoided trying to understand their strong accents or imperfect English. When we worked in groups, I saw many students avoiding them, and none of the professors ever stepped in.
The international students were marginalized, avoided as if they were slightly contagious, and snickered at for the unique expressions they came up with in trying to reconcile what they wanted to say with the vocabulary that they knew. Although having international students in their groups gave my American classmates the chance to learn about how another culture works together, they were disinterested. Instead, they wanted to finish the project as fast as possible. So they purposely formed groups excluding them. Somehow, it was too much work for professors to help them with their writing skills. Trying to deal with their needs in group work was too much work. Treating them like people interested in learning was too much work.
Everyone missed out on so much because the international students were “too much work.” Professors missed out on the chance to globalize their thinking and their teaching. Instead, they settled for American white bread thoughts and ideas. American students missed out on unbelievable opportunities to create international connections and explore cultural norms. We all missed out on so many global perspectives–not just at my university. This was happening and IS happening at colleges and universities all over the country.
Avoiding the diversity that international students bring leads to inbred thinking.
We’ll never know what all we have missed out on by squelching those voices. How might we have improved our international image by better understanding people who live on other parts of the planet we all share? How might we have challenged ourselves to be better than we are?
It’s not too late. We can start now. If you teach, re-examine how you are using your international resources. Challenge your fellow citizen students in ways you can’t read about but can learn from others. If you study, look again to see if you surround yourself with people who speak like you do and say the same things you do. Education is for growth. You’re not taking classes to be the same person you are now.
What are we learning from our international students? I learned to love grammar. Various holidays that require me to modify my lessons, such as no music on many Muslim holidays, taught me to set up my phone’s calendar to send me alerts. I learned to look at our culture from an outsider’s view…actually, multiple perspectives! From my students’ many cultures, I’ve learned the stories that our media never shares with us. I’ve learned to not just tolerate a difference but to accept it as equally valid. I am still learning all the time. What have your ESL students taught you?
Be sure to read 3 Ideas for Inspiring Shared Gratitude in the Classroom.