Many years ago, I had the opportunity to teach overseas. I was hired as an assistant for public school English teachers, half a world away; my role was to team-teach grade 6-8 English classes with them. Each day was an adventure in which I learned more and more about this new country I was living in: how their school system operated, traditions and cultural norms, and what it was like to live in a place where I could not easily understand and communicate with others — sometimes at all. 

While each day came and went with many blessings (mostly in the form of kindnesses from kind people) life in another language could be flat-out hard —and sometimes lonely. And there was one part of every day that was lonelier than all the others …

It wasn’t back at my tiny apartment in the evening, when it was only me and nightly chores before sleep.

It wasn’t on solo train rides to work, crammed in with countless strangers, all of us silently looking down at books or phones or hands folded in laps.

It was the 15-minute morning staff meeting.

It always took place in the staff room, which was very different from the ones I was used to in Ontario. Here, staff rooms were filled with large, identical teacher desks, arranged into three groups down the length of the room. There were exactly six desks to each group, one for each of the teachers of that grade.  Seating within the group went strictly by order of seniority. This particular year I was assigned to the grade 6 group, and my desk was right at the end. 

And so each morning I would walk down the school’s corridor, slide open the staff room door, and get ready for the daily meeting. A chorus of “good mornings” would ring out, as was customary whenever anyone entered. Although summer months were scorching, the winter was chilly. On colder mornings a tall kerosene heater stood in the middle of the room, a large kettle perched precariously on top for the teachers’ tea. As the only source of heat in the room, it inevitably drew people near it, to chat and commiserate about the temperature. These social greetings and light conversations were usually within my language grasp, and were a nice start to the day. And the English teachers I worked with were there too, so I could always chat with them in English. 

But as the meeting time approached, everyone made their way back to their desks. The vice principal and principal sat at the front of the room, and in this way would call the morning meeting to order. We all stood up together, and once we had formally called out our greeting in unison, the vice principal would begin to speak.

And here is why those 15 minutes were the loneliest of my day …

I was surrounded by colleagues who understood every word the vice principal uttered. As the meeting progressed, I could see teachers nod, raise their eyebrows, exclaim, suddenly check handouts, all in response to his flowing speech. But to me it was just a continuous droning, a string of unintelligible sounds. Handouts filled with indecipherable characters.

Occasionally I would catch a phrase or two, though. Basketball at 5 o’clock. Exams next week. After-school clubs. And each time I did, a glimmer of hope would spark inside me, and I would strain to make sense of what he was saying. But the advanced vocabulary, intricate grammar patterns, and speed of delivery made it almost impossible to glean much else from his message. 

The pace of the meetings was snappy, designed to quickly impart information and get on with the day. Before I knew it, papers were shuffled and stacked, chairs pushed in, and teachers on the move to the first classes. On a couple of occasions, everyone left so abruptly I was worried I may have missed an evacuation notice. 

It was a jolting experience for me. Words had always been a vital source of connection to others, a source of expression and belonging. Now they only thing they brought was isolation. Everyone in that room understood what was being said. But not me. Everyone in that room could contribute. But I could not. Everyone in that room belonged. I did not feel as though I did. Not during the meeting, anyway. I may as well have been invisible.

And of course, none of this was was anyone’s intention. I was welcomed warmly and treated well by many colleagues, and had some of the best teaching experiences of my life. It was just that the days were moving along as they always had, with no one really aware of how isolating and uncertain that little part of it was for me, not realizing the erasure that can come with not understanding what is being said. 

And I always think of those 15 long minutes when I consider instruction for multilingual language learners.  Except instead of 15 minutes, they have an entire school day stretched out in front of them. Which is why I am so thankful for dedicated teachers who do all that they can to make sure these students are included: that they are not sitting in silence, unaware of what is being said; that they have access to the lessons and ideas and information that everyone else does; that they have a means of contributing. In every class, it looks a little bit different, and a little bit the same. Some teachers take a few extra seconds to translate the lesson topic for the students before it starts, so students know in advance what the teacher will be talking about. Some have pictures up, in every lesson, that they point to as they speak. Some have translated and adapted worksheets, so that MLLs have access to the same rich curriculum content and class work as everyone else. Some use sentence starters and stems for the whole class, so that speaking in groups becomes structured and achievable for MLLs. 

I could fill a page with strategies and supports I have seen educators use to chip away at the barriers that MLLs face, that instead draw them into the learning community. But for now, please accept this blog entry as a little love letter to all of those educators who make sure every student is included and heard. Because if even one child is not understanding the way they deliver that lesson, those teachers change the way they deliver their lesson. Relentlessly. 

And yet again, I must concluded with a familiar quote, which always seems to perfectly reflect what these educators know:

“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space, for everyone.”

– George Dei 


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