Building a Culture of Learning with ELL Students and Families

Learning a new language is no small feat. It took me a decade to feel proficient in my second language of Spanish, and my journey was often fraught with self-doubt, fear of criticism or rejection, and plain old struggles to memorize and assimilate new words and ways of putting them together.\

Mixed in with those challenges were subtle but significant aspects of culture, racial dynamics, and a number of misunderstandings. I once unwittingly wished someone “a happy short man” when what I meant to say was that I hoped they enjoyed their bath. Ugh! A fair amount of laughter was certainly a part of the process. But in the end, I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without the consistent support, encouragement, and intentional opportunity-creation of my teachers and family.

That learning process, at times fraught with feelings of vulnerability and discouragement, had an unexpectedly added benefit beyond eventual bilingualism. It deepened my well of empathy and my perspective on language in general, and that has served me well as an educator as I explore ways to build a culture of learning with students and families who are English Language Learners.

Along the way, I have found it helpful to keep the following perspectives at the forefront of fostering a healthy learning community.


It’s Possible, But It’s Hard

Not everyone has had the experience of trying to learn or eventually learning a new language, but we’ve all had the opportunity to attempt something new and challenging. Remembering our own feelings of self-consciousness and second-guessing can keep harmful biases in check when communicating with students and their families.

Trying to speak and understand a new language tends to make people feel like a lesser version of themselves as they struggle to give voice to the wide range of their thoughts, and that can be uncomfortable at best and, at times, humiliating. I remember those feelings of impotence in Spanish so well, all these years later!

Showing that we recognize the inherent worth of students and caregivers regardless of how much English they speak—and regardless of how long they have lived here—goes a long way toward establishing mutual trust and confidence, and a positive culture of learning.

Give time for folks to speak without jumping in too quickly. Conversely, with families, it is helpful to refrain from assuming that a translator is always necessary. Wait, gauge, then ask.

And, even better, work to begin learning the languages that students bring to the classroom. Learning can happen best when the teachers are a part of that process, sharing expertise while learning a new language themselves.


English is an Extra Rather than an Obligation

Learning the English language can open doors, in addition to developing a myriad of beneficial brain connections. Yet English is just one of many forms of communication, all of them valid in their ability to help people communicate with one another.

Recognizing and honoring the history, beauty, and cultural wealth found in students’ and their caregivers’ home languages is as important for our national culture as it is for the microcultures of English Language Learning. Working to validate those home languages can begin to curtail the hubris of presuming that English has greater worth.

Providing messaging from the school community at all levels in multiple languages is a great place to start. Creating a prominent place to show common phrases in the languages spoken by students, with the English version no bigger or brighter than the rest, can also provide a strong visual message of validation.

It’s important to keep in mind that learning English is a tool for learners to use as another way to express themselves, as opposed to something they should learn for others to implicitly legitimize their existence. It is, essentially, a useful addition.


Voice Begets Ownership

Fostering and maintaining pride in home languages is key to building a healthy culture of learning in English. This pride in a fundamental part of culture can have a direct connection with personal self-confidence, and all communities–from classroom to country–benefit from members who feel comfortable sharing their perspectives.

Doing so in the shared language of English doubtlessly facilitates conversations. Providing opportunities for students and caregivers to have a platform for their voices in English can have a powerful impact on learning, as well as feelings of community connection. From film reviews to public comment to biographical vignettes, these mainstays of contemporary culture are among the sturdy building blocks of a culture of learning and linguistic ownership in the classroom and beyond.

Humans thrive when we feel a sense of belonging, and at the heart of our ELL communities is that assurance that everyone does, indeed, belong, pertenecer, ᎤᎵᎪᎭ, iska leh, yêwêbûn, Thuộc về, تنتمي, መሆን, pag-aari, termasuk, apatni


Alisa Cooper de Uribe is the 2021 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. She has ten years of experience as a Spanish immersion 1st grade teacher at New Mexico International School, a public charter school in Albuquerque, NM. She plays a key role in the development of an International Baccalaureate Programme of Inquiry, and collaborates with Bilingual and TESOL-endorsed educators at her school to foster international-mindedness through the transformative process of multiple language learning.


Building a Culture of Belonging with ELL Students and Families

A few years ago, I had a new student who moved from Honduras and arrived to his first day at this new school in tears. The 7th grader could not speak English, and I was told that his mother was also sobbing as she left the building after dropping him off.  I met Josue in a Reading class where I served as an ELL support.

Welcoming Strategies:

  • I introduced him to other newcomers in his grade level. Although there were no other students from Honduras, there were a few others who spoke Spanish and were fluent in English.
  • I gave Josue a tour of the building and enlisted assistance from one of his peers. The other student helped by explaining routines, although my true intention was to foster a connection between these students by allowing them to get to know one another beyond a mere introduction.
  • The peer and I took turns asking questions about the new student’s preferences and hobbies to get to know him and suggest clubs he might enjoy.
  • I introduced the new student to each of his teachers and showed him how to get to his classes according to his daily schedule.

Ways of Building Connections:

We connect when we feel we belong and that our presence and input have value. Each year, I offer various ways to achieve the goal of helping my students feel connected and included, and have found the following strategies to positively impact my student’s sense of belonging.

  • Photo Display: Laminating a large white sheet of cardstock and providing a dry erase marker, I ask each student to write one positive trait—in any language—that they believe describes them. I also ask them to share one change they wish to make in their school or the world. I take a picture of each student holding the sign with their positive word displayed, print all photos in black and white, laminate the photos along with their sentence for change, and create a large photo display in the hallway. I invite other students from the school who are not in one of my classes to join in. The display shows how many aspirations we hold in common, and the positive labels created for ourselves can replace negative ones created in the past by others.
  • Outreach & Invite: I regularly invite youth to share proposals for addressing issues that impact them. This year, I discovered that several youth wished to learn how to prepare simple meals for themselves and younger siblings during remote learning, and I worked to honor this wish. Initially proposed by one of the students in my Spanish class, I created a cooking show with the help of the community. I reached out students in the middle and high school to offer them the opportunity to participate. The program has been well-received with many students eager to learn these life skills.
  • Include Youth and Their Families as an Asset: The diverse and unique backgrounds of my students and their families add to the wealth of resources available to any classroom. I recently enlisted the help of a parent to make Tamales for students in my Spanish classes. I procured the needed ingredients to ensure that all students could sample them.
  • Teacher-Created Recognition Program: Schools often focus awards on accomplishments made through sports and academics, but there is great value in celebrating students for demonstrating kindness and empathy as well. During the pandemic, I was amazed by the kindness of many of my students and their eagerness to help where they saw a need. To plan a surprise recognition award for students, I reached out to their families to choose a location and time that would work. These recognition visits have been done as porch visits, at parks, a guardian’s place of employment, or by finding a location near the school.

Strategies for Improving Academic Skills:

Several ELL students confided in me that their dislike of group work is so great that they avoid attending school when they know there will be a cooperative activity. This sentiment is caused by several reasons, including that this teaching style isn’t used in many classrooms where these students previously attended school. They are accustomed on taking notes and rote memorization, and group activities require social skills that many new to these activities do not possess. To address gaining these skills:

  • Create lessons that focus on establishing group activities through skits showing how to approach a peer to ask for partnership. The truth is that even many non-ELL students are too often not eager to begin group projects due to finding it awkward or from a fear being left out.
  • Depending on your role, connect with the content or ELL teacher to collaborate on unit planning. When the Language Arts department taught about the Holocaust, many ELL students felt lost. I reached out to the community and brought a traveling exhibit to the school to give more information on the topic. This opportunity was beneficial for all students.
  • Reach out to families offering to serve as a resource and partner. When I contact guardians about about missing/incomplete schoolwork from their child, I ask that the youth not be punished. They find the request strange, but I explain that we can achieve positive outcomes by supporting the student in turning in the work. Punishment rarely leads to consistent study habits, while a partnership can create success through the use of continuous communication and dialogue.
  • When I made home visits to welcome youth and families to the school, I learned that many students lacked access to books to complete their weekly silent sustained reading. Students who lost books from frequent moves or other reasons and could not afford the fines were not permitted to check out books again. I reached out to the community and enlisted help in turning the windowsills outside of my classroom into a free library. This library was created as a resource to benefit all students in the school.

Leila Kubesch helps students develop their own leadership skills, become global and civic-minded, and break away from limiting beliefs by guiding them in rising above challenges and advocating for community change.

Leila teaches foreign languages and English as a Second Language. Having committed to teaching in high-need schools, she became resourceful in securing unique opportunities for her students. With the goal of empowering all youth in the same manner as those in affluent communities, she fosters community partnerships, writes grants for innovative learning and instills a mindset of dreaming big through large-scale service-learning projects that stem from youth initiatives.

The work of her students has landed in museums around the country and won national recognition. Her passion for equity and social justice extends beyond the classroom. She served as an advocate for emancipated foster youth in Ohio by raising awareness of the plight of these youth. She presented to large audiences including TEDx Cincinnati, where she won the Audience Choice Award for her talk. She spoke with politicians and dedicated her effort until House Bill 50 passed, enabling foster youth in Ohio to have homes until age 21.

She places a high value on learning and has studied in eight countries. She earned a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from Purdue University and a Master of Arts in Secondary Education from Ball State University. She is a Certified Yoga Instructor from Kripalu School of Yoga where she studied Yoga for Sensitive Trauma and Yoga Therapy.

She believes the success she experienced with her students stem from her intentional family and community partnership.

She was also a Christa McAuliffe recipient and Fulbright Hays scholar. This year she was named the 2020 National Toyota Family Teacher of the Year and the 2021 NEA Horace Mann Award Recipient.

Creating a Foundation for Success in Urban Schools

Establishing a culture of learning in urban schools involves creating an environment that is focused on the comfort and safety of the student, and the educator, in the atmosphere they share. Based on my thirty-eight years as a public-school teacher as well as my own learning experiences: choice of words, the freedom to be who we genuinely are and acknowledging difficult truths are crucial steps in creating the necessary foundation for a learning climate of success.

Choice of words.  My first public school experience as a student was as the last child to turn five in a kindergarten class where the teacher perceived a four-year-old to be the enemy. In noting my presence, she used words like “forced” and “compelled” to accept me into her classroom. I was called “baby” and a host of other things while other students were referred to by name. Her words pierced through the love that surrounded me at home and church. She made it clear that I was not welcome and that not only would I be a failure, but I would cause her to be one too. Her choice of words taught me that if I did my work and remained as quiet as possible, I would be left alone.  So, invisible I would be until fifth grade. This experience made me acutely aware of the language I use as an educator. My choice of words decides the climate of my classroom and the comfort level of my students. Knowing and using every child’s name is not an option; it is critical if I expect to create a successful learning climate.

Freedom to be genuine:  In fifth grade Mrs. Donna Magrath took the time to read the poems I would write or look at the pictures I would doodle, instead of playing with the other children at recess. She laughed out loud when something was funny. She cried real tears when our hamster died and she even had a family! Until I met her, I thought that teachers were like robots or something. Mrs. Magrath said she was sorry when she made a mistake and was okay if you made a mistake too. She had a genuine smile that lit up the classroom. Once, when all of our praying mantis cocoons hatched over spring break… she ran around the room with us trying to protect hundreds, maybe even thousands, of babies from the custodian, (after all we had just done a whole unit on why they should be protected.) Mrs. Magrath saw me, accepted me, wouldn’t give up on me and genuinely cared for me.  Her attitude created an environment for success for each and every student and is reflective of what a positive culture of learning must embody today.

Acknowledging difficult truths:  My senior year I was so excited to have an African American female teacher for English12, until I thought she didn’t like me! I felt she was treating me differently, unfairly and worked up the nerve to tell her so. Mrs. Wilhelminia Christon, who in later years won a Milken Educator Award, looked me in the eyes and spoke uncomfortable truths. She said life was not always going to be fair and fair did not always mean equal. Mrs. Christon said that there would be times when I, as an African American woman, would have to work twice as hard to possibly be seen as equal. Then she proceeded to challenge me in ways that I did not know were possible.  While in college, I had to return and thank her. There are many days when my high school students are struggling to deal with the issues of today’s society.  Politics, protests, racial profiling etc. I find myself facing their sincere questions and have to make a choice. Answering honestly often involves speaking uncomfortable truths “yes I have been racially profiled,” “yes I have had family members who were murdered” and “yes I know what it’s like to be cold and/or hungry.”

When every day the choice of language is intentional, every kid is encouraged to put down their invisible shield, every kid is greeted with acceptance and free to feel, and every kid is challenged to go beyond what they are able to see; a positive culture of learning has been established that will impact the attitudes of students and their entire learning experience.


Sheena Graham is a product of Ansonia, Connecticut Public Schools, WCSU, St. Joseph’s and SCSU. She began teaching in March of 1983 while writing original musicals and creating teaching tools for colleagues. Workshop topics of Sheena’s include music literacy, connecting parents and teachers, and music in ministry.

Sheena’s recording and writing experience is extensive. Her original works have been performed locally, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “We Can If We Believe” 2018, and the White House “My Destiny” 2014, “It’s Not How You Start” 2016. Topics include dealing with teen years, coping with tragedy, breast cancer, violence prevention, and not allowing our circumstances to define our destiny. Her future projects include publishing original poetry, journals, songs, cards, and children’s stories.

Sheena has been featured in the book “Notable Valley African Americans,” received the Beard Excellence in Teaching Award, Teacher of the Year Awards from the NANBP, NAACP, and the school district of Bridgeport. She is the 2019 CT Teacher of the Year. Her advice to others is, “Do not let your image be designed by your inactivity.”





What My Urban Students Taught Me About Teaching

So, here’s the thing about urban education. Before we talk about how to do it best, we need to be really clear about what we mean by urban education in the first place.

Too often, “urban” is a code-word for “not white,” and so “urban ed” is used as a catch-all phrase for teaching students of color.

Additionally troubling, is how often we talk about “urban ed” as a series of insurmountable deficits. And yes, students in many urban areas have often experienced trauma, racism, and poverty in a way their suburban counterparts have not; but these deficits do not define them.

I grew up in a suburban Wisconsin town. Our district was one of the wealthiest in the state with one of the highest rates of college acceptance. In lots of ways, and especially on paper, it was a great district and a great place to go to school. For me, for a lot of the kids like me, and the kids I hung out with, for any kids, really, who didn’t fit the upper-middle-class able-bodied, white, cisgender, straight culture of the school, the place was unsafe, unwelcoming, and so, so, so uninteresting.

There are needs to be addressed in a lot of urban environments, but we also shouldn’t get so wrapped up in deficit storytelling that we ignore a lot of the great things we are able to do by teaching and learning in urban environments.

When I taught high school in downtown Minneapolis, I had students who attended college classes, who used the weight room and track at the YMCA, who interned at graphic design, corporate, and financial companies, and who were able to access all these things in short walks from the school building.

In urban environments, we have access to an abundance of artistic communities, to guest speakers and performers, to gallery and museum spaces in which to visit or display work. We have big showy theater and brilliant, subversive, independent performances.

The most powerful thing for me, the most important and most valuable asset of urban education communities is our cultural diversity. To teach in a school, to send my white child to schools, where we are able to grow our own understanding and empathy for other cultures, to know many people with different racial, religious, and cultural identities than ours, to access spaces not built for white comfort, has made our lives richer beyond measure.

I can think of no single skill more important for every one of our students to gain as they grow than cultural literacy. I may have grown up in a wealthy school district, but we were missing so many things for which property taxes can’t pay.

And, of course, there are the students. There is no teacher who will not argue that their students are the very best in the world, so I won’t go there, except to say that, all the students I’ve taught have been the very best in the world, and also, if I’m honest, that I bought into enough of those deficit stories before I met them that I wasn’t expecting them to be.

I had soaked in stories of what poor kids are like, what city schools are like, what Black and Brown kids are like, about the many more ways in which they can do less than other kids. I had bought into it, the less-than version of urban youth. I had bought into the stories of the white teacher who breaks all (actually, almost none) of the rules and gets these city kids to learn.

I was disabused of these notions rather quickly, thank god.

My first year of teaching, I thought I’d really blow some minds and teach Shakespeare using hip hop. This is a difficult thing for me to admit. I did a lesson comparing the rhyme scheme of Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like It’s Hot” to a sonnet, and in a way that really built no understanding of either rap lyrics or sonnets. Once that bombed and we opened up the play instead, some learning started to happen, but more often because students were finding and pointing out things about the play that I had never seen:

Kid: “Wait, that’s a sonnet!”

Me, who is oh-so-smart: “No, a sonnet is a poem, and this is dialogue.”

Student, speaking slowly so I understand: “No, but look, when Romeo and Juliet first meet, the first 14 lines is a sonnet”

Me again: “I’m sure that if that were a sonn…  oh, dang, woah, look at that. Look everyone, it’s a sonnet!”

That moment is a pretty decent microcosm for how my first few years went. My teaching story, my real teaching story, is not one of a white dude who showed up and changed lives while wearing a leather jacket and sitting backwards on chairs. My teaching story is that of a teacher whose students didn’t give up on him, who questioned and pushed and challenged him, and demanded he get better until he deserved to have them.

Many, many years later, I was giving a talk on building anti-racist classrooms with a former student, Arieanna, a student about whom I’ve written about before, one who I owe for years of pulling me along, kicking and screaming. We talked about student leadership and movement building and the day the students told me they just wouldn’t be doing their end of the year final because they had better things to do in order to change the world.

After the speech, we sat and answered questions for a while. One audience member asked Arieanna what she thinks would have happened if she hadn’t had me as a teacher.  She thought about it for half a second before answering, “Oh, I just would have made someone else a good teacher.”

There’s not one piece of me that doubts her, and not one piece of me that holds on to any of those stories about all things that urban students can’t do.


Tom Rademacher is an eighth grade English teacher in the Minneapolis area. His book, It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching (Minnesota, 2017) was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. His writing has also appeared in Education Post, City Pages, MinnPost, and Huffington Post. In 2014 Rademacher was honored as Minnesota’s State Teacher of the Year.

Character Education in Action: A Dialogue with Three Practitioners

On Thursday, May 6, 2021, three people joined me for a conversation about Character Education in Action: Peter Becker, Head of the Frederick Gunn School; Sarah Clement, Interim Vice President for Programs at the John Templeton Foundation; and Andy Smarick, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Each panelist was invited to participate because he or she has experience working in the field character education or formation.

Our dialogue centered around an article Andy Smarick published in Education Next on March 18, 2021 titled “An Encouraging Consensus on Character Education.” His goal for writing this article was to create a foundation for a new character-education agenda. To gain insights into this, Smarick posed a set of questions to 18 experts from various arenas of education research, policy, politics, and practice. His findings raised interesting points worth consideration.

Here are some of the questions that I asked of each panelist:

Andy – You have worked on education issues at the state and federal level, as a social entrepreneur, and thinker. The latest example of this work is the article you published in Education Next. Tell us why you decided to write about character education? Did anything in your stakeholder interviews surprise you? At a high level, what are we getting right and wrong about character education from a policy or advocacy perspective?

Sarah – You work for a foundation that believes character education matters to those who deliver it, and to those who receive it. What attracted you to the field of character education in general, and to philanthropy in particular? How can your view of character education and formation from inside philanthropy help those of us in research, policy or advocacy think creatively about our work?

Peter  You work in a school where educators, staff, and families play an important role in the formation of the character of young people. What role does leadership play in character education? How can your view of character education and formation as a school leader help those of us in research, policy or advocacy think deeply about our work?

The panelists identified areas of agreement, disagreement, as well as shared ideas about how to bridge the gaps between character theory and practice.

To watch or listen to this informative conversation, click here:

A Culture of Community Inclusion in Rural South Jersey

When people think of New Jersey, they often have visions of crowded highways, packed beaches, the New York City skyline, or MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. For our northern part of the state, this is true. But for a good portion of the southern part that borders the Delaware River and Bay, it is a very different scene. Covered in lush vegetable farms, farm and dairy animals peeking over wire fences, country roads, and deep dense forests full of vibrant flora and fauna; life in Southern New Jersey is quite different from the Jersey that most have come to know through television and movies.

This is also true for our educational experiences. We have had our own sets of challenges, and, perhaps because our nearest neighbor is a mile down the road, our way of life is more dependent on each other than it would appear. It sounds very “Little House on the Prairie” but this is how we live. We have pockets of urbanity where farms used to stand, that’s true, but at the heart of it all, building a culture of learning, not only with our students but with our families, is a necessary part of the community’s success.

Today, I teach in Gloucester Township, in a town called Blackwood. It has a bustling downtown and a growing population of diverse learners. Urban areas have long been recognized as places that represented many cultures, but there are growing Latino and Middle-East Asian communities in rural areas, especially where I teach. Many of these families seek blue-collar jobs and agricultural positions as did their families before them. Though diversity is welcome by many in the community in which I teach, it does require traditional school systems to change some of the routines and procedures that have long been the norm.

Communication can sometimes be viewed as an obstacle. As we know, the connection between the school and the family is vital for students’ success. When important documents are sent home, rural districts have to accommodate the growing diverse populations that they serve. Finding translation services can sometimes prove to be an obstacle on a school-wide or district-wide level to meet the needs of our non-English speaking families. I have to commend our teachers who understand the need to communicate with all of their families. Many of our teachers have researched the best translation applications and have taken it upon themselves to translate documents to communicate with their families.

Our teachers, especially within Loring Flemming, have made a concerted effort to foster diversity and inclusion. We have facilitated events like Hispanic Heritage Day Celebration and Eat for Peace, both family events that celebrate the diversity of our students and families by relying on our families to educate the community about their cultures using music, dance, and food. The changing demographic of our rural communities should be welcomed and celebrated and should begin within our schools.

The strength of rural communities lies within its residents. The connection between small business owners, first responders, laborers, and our schools is strong. Their children are our students; many families join the Parent Teacher Associations as partners with our teachers. Our schools are often used as conduits for social programs within the community. School buildings are where the residents vote, put on charity events, or clothing drives for those in need. The Gloucester Township community is a shining example to nearby communities looking to support their residents and build capacity.

In my classroom, we focus a lot of our time analyzing how empathy is a necessary trait for a successful society. Many events are sponsored by either the township, the PTA, or small businesses within our school community. One such example is the beautiful Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK) Day of Service put on annually by Gloucester Township. The opening remarks are held at one of our schools. A student from each school is recognized by the township for their work within the school and the community. Food vendors from within the community cater the morning event. A team of parents, police officers, and other first responders coordinate the event. Teachers, students, and families from all over the district come out by the hundreds to participate in dozens of community service. Every year I bring my leadership group, Young People of Character, to help out in the activity. We all wear our YPOC shirts, printed by a small business within Gloucester Township. MLK Day of Service is our capstone project for the year.

Our rural centers don’t need to begin with something big if they are just starting out building a community-to-school partnership. This is just one example of how a partnership can build over time, into a community that is engaging, encouraging, and accepting of all its families and their students. We look for special ways to include every member of the community. It’s not easy; it takes time, effort, planning and complete buy-in by the residents, businesses, and organizations. Community outreach is a great example of how a rural community like mine, uses empathy, teamwork, and leadership to teach our students life lessons without using textbooks or assessments, but rather our hands and our hearts.


Angel Santiago is an elementary school teacher at Loring Flemming Elementary school in Blackwood, New Jersey. Santiago is the 2020-2021 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. His passion for education is rooted in fostering strong relationships with his students, their families, his colleagues, and the communities in which he serves. Angel believes that a diverse workforce and engaging students in community service, are instrumental in closing the equity gap in many communities.

Angel graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University, a member of both Phi Theta Kappa and Kappa Delta Pi Honor Societies. He holds a Master’s degree in Education and a Bachelor’s degree in Humanities. He has taught his entire professional career in Camden county. He began teaching in the Lindenwold Public Schools, and in 2013 moved to Gloucester Township Public Schools. 




A Sense of Community and Respect: Teaching in Rural Schools

Even after 29 years as a teacher, it’s the little things that can cause you to stop dead in your tracks and reflect deeply about why you’ve chosen this profession. I experienced this recently in my classroom in rural Wisconsin. A few days ago, the only thing on our agenda was an old-school, six-page written test. It was the big-ticket item that was set to dominate our hour together. There was nothing remarkable about this assessment. It contained zero bells and whistles. To be honest, what was on the docket that day was not only a grind for them but for me as well (I am not good at keeping quiet for an hour). However, as I placed a test on the first table, the student quietly said, “Thank you.”

I moved to the second table. “Thank you,” uttered the next student. By the time I passed out the last test, 75% of my students had spontaneously thanked me for gifting them a six-page test. Amazing! But why? Why on earth did they thank me? As I paused to reflect on this strange occurrence, I realized it wasn’t strange at all. Thank yous abound every time I pass out papers. In fact, this happens with such regularity that I believe if I were to peer sternly at a student while handing them a one-way pass to the principal’s office, chances are I would hear, “Thank you.” Now that’s Midwest nice!

There are many things to love about teaching in a rural district. Hearing students say “thank you” regularly and often is one of them. Other favorites include: passing Future Farmers of America members bouncing merrily down the road on their John Deere on Drive-Your-Tractor-to-School Day, seeing community members line up outside our greenhouse for the spring flower sale, spotting local home-on-winter-break college students playing with the pep band at basketball games, and watching area hunters drop off their deer harvest for the Meat Tech class to process. Most heartwarming is welcoming our alumni back home to fill teaching and coaching vacancies.  It is this sense of community that I am thankful for.

My own children rode the school bus and had plenty of stories to share over the years. Some were good-some, not so much.

One of their stories that sticks with me is about a quiet boy among their community of bus riders named Mark. Mark avoided the crazy bus antics, like the incident of the hand sanitizer being lit on fire in a back seat, by keeping his nose in a book. He was one of the first kids to be picked up on the route and the last to be dropped off. He spent that entire ride reading. He read challenging books of significant thickness. I was excited to meet him in person when he arrived at the high school. Then I learned the “why” behind his voracious appetite for reading.

Mark was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that eventually would take his sight. In his own words, “I’m reading now, because some day I won’t be able to.” As he progressed through high school, Mark needed additional supports. Towards the end of his senior year, I would hear him tapping his white cane along the hallway during his training sessions with the special education teacher. He was always in high spirits and thankful for what he had been given, rather than dwelling on what he would lose. Mark was an inspiration to many.

There was an amazing thing that happened in our school community when Mark was here. It is a little thing, but it caused me to reflect then and again now. At some point Mark stopped using the inside of his locker. I don’t know the reason why, but I noticed that he would set all his school gear on top of his locker rather than in it. That is a risky undertaking in a high school. The general rule of thumb is if there is something unattended to be messed with–it gets messed with. Not in this case. For months Mark’s books, folders, calculator, pencils, and gym clothes sat atop his locker unmolested. There was a sense of community and respect that kept Mark’s things safe. It said a lot about the character of our student body.

Sometimes when I meet new people, they ask me why I chose to become a teacher. I usually stumble through some pat response that doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter, but they seem satisfied. Then I am hit with the follow up question. “Why do you teach in a rural district?” Here again I don’t have a very good answer. The real answer swirls somewhere amid those spontaneous “thank yous,” examples of community, and the care for others that are inherent in rural education. I am so thankful to be exactly where I am.


Leah Lechleiter-Luke, the 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, is a high school Spanish language and culture teacher in rural Wisconsin. She has had the pleasure of working with 1,000’s of young people, grades K-12, over a nearly three decade teaching career. During the 2011-2012 school year she served as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education. She is also a dedicated member of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance Board of Directors and National Network State Teachers of the Year’s Government Affairs Committee. Ms. Lechleiter-Luke served on the Educators Rising national standards writing committee and has worked diligently with stakeholder groups to establish a state chapter of Educators Rising in Wisconsin.


Building a Culture of Learning in Rural Schools

Rural America is a source of great mystery to most Americans, aside from some roadside tourist attractions and what they see in movies. Indian reservations are even more enigmatic to most. So, what happens when you have a rural school set on a reservation? In my town, the population is 602 (the community is about 2000) and the whole high school has only 115 kids. It’s hard to imagine unless you spend some time here.

Kids come to school in small towns with all kinds of experiences under their belts. Farm and ranch kids often grow up working hard in the communal family effort. “Changing pipe” (manually relocating the enormous irrigation pipe systems in fields) is a common summer activity, for example, or branding cattle in the spring and haying in the fall. Other small towns are characterized by tourist attractions and the kids grow up working in shops or in the infrastructure supporting the tourism industry. Reservation kids are used to large, lengthy family events such as ceremonies and funerals. Rural areas are also known for extended family trees with long roots, a community that knows each other by sight if not by name, and schools that serve as the hub of activity throughout the year.

If this sounds stereotypical and overly romanticized to you, you’re right. The town where I’ve lived for two decades is exactly like this, but it has other features as well. For example, we have little access to law enforcement or medical services. There is widespread substance abuse and child neglect. Poverty levels mean that 10% of our rural students are homeless; families are doubled up with other family members or people they know. The food center is packed with cars on distribution day.

Teaching in a school that serves this community is a complex affair. While a lot of kids show up with an unshakeable work ethic and respect for adults, others have less faith in the system, may have missed a meal recently, or experienced abuse just last night or all through last spring during the COVID shutdown. In this way our school is probably no different than many, but the generational cycles are difficult to escape, and suicide rates are high across the reservation community.

Teachers work hard to meet students where they are academically, socially, and emotionally. A day in the life of a teacher in our school certainly includes lesson planning, instructing, disciplining, and grading, just like anywhere else. We aim to teach our assigned curriculum but in a way that makes sense for kids who don’t use doorbells and may have never ridden an elevator, but who know a lot about wildland fire, heifers, and driving in the snow.

We also listen to students’ stories, find them a coat, and ask the secretary where the student is living so we can determine if they have hot water at home. I have personally offered a student information about a battered women’s shelter, loaded a grandma’s car with snow pants and snow boots, facilitated internet access for a family with a Chromebook from school but no way to use it, shopped in town for food for an entire family that didn’t have a working stove.

Community in small town schools also means that if you stay in the district or area, you eventually end up teaching the children of former students. Frequently, you teach your colleagues’ children. Hopefully this means teachers get backup from those at home if a student is falling short of expectations, but sometimes these overlaps can create awkward situations.

Attracting teachers to rural schools and retaining them has always been difficult to do, and for good reason: young people often do not want to live in isolated areas where it’s harder to socialize or have recreational opportunities. However, having lived and taught in a rural community, I know first-hand the benefits of doing so. I wholeheartedly believe that if more teachers had the experience of belonging to a small community, with a strong sense of history and generational families, especially a special and unique one, such as a reservation community, they might find more reasons to stay.


Anna East, Ed.D., taught high school English and history for 20 years on the Flathead Indian Reservation before transitioning to her school district’s grants manager position. In 2021 she founded Spring House Resource, a nonprofit supporting students and educators on the reservation. Anna is the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year.


Appreciating Teachers by Listening to Them

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. A time for us to say “thank you” to educators who work with our children today, and to those who taught us when we were in school years ago. This year’s celebration, however, is unlike any other. The majority of our 50-million plus school-age children and teens spent this academic year away from their public school building and their friends. Instead, they received an education through diverse learning models: be they virtual, hybrid, pod-based, or micro-school. Some students did return to their public school, in-person, during this academic year, even if for a few days a week.

Whatever learning model a family or school district selected for their children and teens, I’m pretty sure that public school teachers were part of the learning process for students.

As we focus our time on teachers this week, in particular those working in public schools, here is a national snapshot of the profession according to a November 2020 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • We have approximately 3.3 million teachers working in public elementary and secondary schools—be they traditional, magnet, charter or other public-sector learning model;
  • 80 percent of teachers are white, 9 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are black, and 2 percent are Asian;
  • Most teachers are women (77 percent);
  • Most teachers have about 14 years of classroom experience;
  • The average base salary was $54,700 in 2015-16; and,
  • Contrary to what most of us believe about where teachers work, more teachers work in rural and town schools (1 million) than in city schools (982,600).

Many of us have come to appreciate teachers in new and more profound ways than ever before during this year of unprecedented change in public schooling. This is particularly so because we know that teachers are a major purveyor of establishing and maintaining a culture of learning and of community for students. How, when and why this occurs are all important questions to ask.

Rather than have me answer each question, the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation launched an “In Character” web page on the CultureFeed website to establish an online idea-exchange forum for Pre-K-12 teachers to share thinking about the impact of education and educators on culture. With the support of Katherine Bassett, the 2000 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, we have produced 14 whole-group discussion videos with 89 teachers as of April 30, 2021, 59 1:1 interviews, and 16 blog posts.

So, as we kickoff teacher appreciation week, as have President Joseph R. Biden, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and Governor Ralph S. Northam of Virginia, one way to appreciate public school teachers is to listen to what they have to say about working with students, families, lawmakers, and each other during the 2021-2022 academic year. You are one click way from finding answers on “In Character.”