Closeup detail of a US visa document.

When Executive Orders Get Personal

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Current Affairs, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues

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Yesterday as I drove home from work. NPR reported on the new executive orders expanding the groups prioritized for immigration enforcement– in effect, increasing the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants. But I didn’t hear much of the story. After all, there has been a big new story just about every day for the past several weeks. I didn’t really think about how this story was different. But it is different, because it will likely affect my students directly.

I teach junior high English Language Development. My students are still learning English. Although many of my students were born in the U.S., and even in Mesa, where I teach, many were not. Most are either from Mexico, or have families from Mexico. Most of my students enjoy joking that they voted for the current president, and just saying his name in funny ways, the same as other students in my school.

I don’t know the immigration status of my students, their parents, their grandparents, their cousins, their neighbors or their friends. I don’t need to know, and although I have a slight curiosity at times, I don’t think about it much. I am their teacher, and they are my students, and I try to show them as often as possible that I care about each and every one of them (yes, even you, Jose, although it would be nice if you would quit tapping on the desk).

Closeup detail of a US visa document.

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This morning on my drive to school, the story about expanded deportation efforts came on again. This time, I was listening. I wondered, should we discuss this in class? We have been watching the news and blogging about it over the past few weeks. It will probably come up on CNN 10 before the end of the week. But talking about deportation could open up floodgates of opinions, anecdotes, and mostly gossip and jokes… and we are in the middle of AZELLA testing*.

Also, tumbling in my mind were the questions that began to place boundaries around the potential conversation: Would I accidentally imply that the students are here illegally? Would they think they needed to tell me their immigration status? Would they think I might turn them in to ICE? Would they shrink from discussing the issue in case I was digging for information? Remember, I am dealing with a language barrier. Maybe they didn’t know about the new orders, and maybe my discussion would create new fears and anxieties that didn’t already exist. Perhaps parents would be upset that I had made the students worried about things that either may not apply to them, or are outside of their control. Would colleagues who heard about our conversations believe that I was making a political statement against the new policy by discussing the issue in class? (Mesa, Arizona, was ranked recently as the most conservative city in the nation, even to the right of Wichita, Kansas, so it is not a completely paranoid idea.)

Mostly, I didn’t want students disappearing without knowing that I cared about them. And if students were distracted by what might be happening in their families, I wanted them to feel supported.

I spoke to a colleague about my thoughts. She encouraged me to keep it simple, and so I did.

I told my students that I wanted to tell them something important. I summarized the new policies as simply as I could. I let them know that I was following the news, and that I hoped they followed the news. I told them that I knew it would not affect everyone, but that I was guessing that most of them might know someone who is affected, or know people who are worried about the changes. I told them that I care about all of them, that I care about their families, and that I care what happens to them and their families. Each period, a few students cracked quick jokes and others looked concerned. In one class, a student shared that Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the mother whose deportation made national news two weeks ago, used to sit in front of his family in church until she was deported. I hope we can talk later and I can hear more of my students’ thoughts.

For today, we had to continue preparing for the test.

*The test that determines how many extra hours of English Language Acquisition services they will need in their course schedules next year.

 

 

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years. My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM. In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me. I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

  • Mike Lee

    What a heartfelt post. This is where a teacher’s skills to communicate sensitive topics with students is vital. Handle this wrong and you’ll have your hands full. You clearly are avoiding being reactionary and have focused on getting it right. Good for you.

  • Christine Porter Marsh

    It’s interesting that you and I (and all teachers, I suppose) deal with these subjects so differently–simply based on our students. I usually do not get to plan ahead and make a heartfelt statement like you did (I wish I could, though), because my students (11th and 12th grade) often bring these topics up before I am prepared to talk about them. On the first school day after the ban, before 7AM, one of my students brought it up, crying as she did so. I had to react, on the spot. Thankfully, I have 25 years of experience, and I can generally react in a manner that I do not later regret. However, your post makes me think of two things: 1) the teachers who are new and may be reluctant to react; 2) teachers like you who need to think it out ahead of time, so they can best follow their own conscience in a manner that’s respectful of their students. It sounds like you did a nice job on it, and I absolutely love that you said something to the kids, even though no one directly asked you. Nice job!!

    • http://storiesfromschoolaz.org Amethyst Hinton Sainz

      When I taught high school English, yeah, the whole picture would have been different! And I cannot claim I have always responded appropriately when students raise an issue. This one was particularly hard for me to think about in this particular context– that language barrier can cause so much misunderstanding.