Emily Francis started her U.S. education as a newly arrived student from Guatemala at the age of 15 at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, New York.
Now an English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, teacher at Concord High School in North Carolina, she wrote a book, If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher, piecing together the story of her life, and offering insights on the immigrant student experience for colleagues and students alike.
The memoir recounts her journey to the United States and her experience as an English learner who becomes a high school dropout, and later returns to school to become an ESL educator.
The book intertwines her life story with similar stories of students she taught in the past. She connects the eight student experiences with her own to help explain how a teacher can connect with a student over personal experiences.
As more school districts grapple with what it takes to support immigrant students and the funding challenges confronting them, Francis spoke with Education Week on the role her story plays in the conversation.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to write this book?
Personally, as a teacher, I do believe that it’s not just a matter of graduating from college and going straight to teaching and learning stops. I do believe that we have to keep growing and expanding our knowledge on how to better serve our students. And so having an experience that not that many teachers have, which is what it is to be an English-language learner sitting in a classroom, experiencing the language barriers, experiencing academic barriers. And so if I have that experience, why not share it so other teachers can learn? And also for students to have the opportunity to have a text that reflects their own experiences. It is important for that story and stories to be out in the world.
How have things changed in education (or not) for immigrant students since you were a student?
The very first change that I’ve seen is the embracing of multilingual learning: allowing students to be able to use two or three languages in the classroom. That’s something that I never experienced and really would have helped me if I was allowed or encouraged to use my home language to access content.
That’s something that years later, today, my students are taking advantage of this opportunity. And the other part is the way the second language is acquired. The way I learned back in 1994, was sitting in a classroom, open the textbook to page 300, let’s fill in this sentence, “I like broccoli,” “I like chicken.” And that is not based on research, that is not the way a second language is acquired.
The way we are teaching now is using core content in order to teach the second language process. And so that’s definitely something that is growing out there, there’s still so much work to be done. But when you walk into ESL classrooms, or classrooms that are teaching English as a second language, you will see rich and robust ways that students are acquiring the language.
What do you hope teachers can take away from the book?
I think a teacher who opens up a book, and reads experiences that are unknown for that teacher, I mean how many teachers do we have right now teaching that have crossed borders? Not that many. The desire is they can see students who are sitting in that classroom. They may have a student who crossed a border, they may have a student who has experienced family separation, they may have a student who is experiencing some sort of substance abuse or home that needs support.
So the book is really for teachers, if they have never experienced those walks of life, for them to see it through the book. And that opens a path for them to have those communications, those relationships with students who are sitting in their classrooms. Hopefully, there will be some connections.
How can teachers and administrators better support immigrant students?
If you ask a mainstream classroom teacher—someone who went to school to learn about math and science—they did not learn how second language acquisition is acquired. Only a teacher who went to school for that will know it. And I think all teachers need to understand that a student who is learning English as a second language, there is a process for that student to acquire the language: immersing the student in that process is important, allowing the student who is not there yet to really access the content so they can get to that point where they need to be, not expecting a student who has been here three months to be already making an essay.
So I do think there’s a huge gap in teacher understanding on how language works, and if we close that gap in teacher understanding, then students will have more opportunity to be able to access more content because we’re giving them time, we’re giving them the scaffold, we’re giving them the help for them to get to the point where they can really understand without using translators or interpreters.
Administrators need to get into the classrooms. That’s really the only way for you to learn and see how the student is, where they’re struggling or not. Sitting in a classroom, an administrator can ask, why are you not engaging? Why is that student sitting on the side?
That really will be the only way that a student can have access to everything that all monolingual English speakers have. And administrators listening and trusting second-language-acquisition experts. My principal, when I go to him for an idea of something that I want to implement, he trusts what I’m coming up with and he allows me to do certain things, because he knows that I have my students’ best interest.
At a time of teacher shortages and risk of burnout growing among teachers, what keeps you going in the classroom?
As teachers, we have a crazy day. I get home, and we are tired, not only brain-tired but body exhausted. But really when we close our eyes and think, “Why am I coming back tomorrow?” you start thinking about those little things that happen, those little changes that your students experienced today.
Like today I had a student who didn’t understand how to form an equation. So I made him understand. And by the time I left the classroom, that student was working on his own. So today I want to say I did it, at least one student was able to grasp a concept. And that keeps me going.
And the other thing that keeps me going is connections. I have a group of teachers called #PLC4Newcomers, and we meet once a month [online], because we need to encourage each other, we need to hear from each other what’s working, what’s not working. If we do not collaborate across states, counties, then we are going to create silos, and [being in] that silo can really burn out a teacher.