Lessons of a Lifetime

Brown​/​White. Catholic​/​Lutheran. Democrat​/​Republican. Trinidad Junior College​/​Colorado School of Mines. Introvert​/​Extrovert.

These are the juxtapositions of the people who began the process of molding me. What does a girl from these contrasting parents, who grew up in Pueblo, become as an adult? An English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESL) teacher on the plains of Northeastern Colorado, of course. Diversity was in my blood and there was no escape. At first that was just a fact. Now, it’s the unimaginable.

Lessons of a Lifetime: family photo

Me (Karen Liston) with my parents, Don and Frances Kidder

I spent my early college years getting a bachelor’s degree in English with an Area of Emphasis in Spanish and a Minor in Secondary Education. My dream was to teach Shakespeare and Dante to the eager young minds of high school students. I took Spanish classes in college only because I was looking for something easy that I could put on a job application. Little did I know what lay ahead.

After graduation the fates had different ideas. I was hired on August 31, 1992 at Fort Morgan High School in Fort Morgan, Colorado — the day before school started — to teach Spanish 1 and something called ESL. I had no idea what it was. I only knew the job I had applied for was posted as a position split between Spanish and English.

I had never realized there were students with little to no English in American schools, but I feel like I should have. I was from Pueblo; I had attended East High School. I was used to diversity as it was the foundation of both me and Pueblo. At that time, I thought diversity was something different. I was in the same college prep classes with the same classmates all through school. Our top ten students consisted of two girls who were originally from India, an Asian-American girl, a Hispanic girl, and the expected mix of White boys and girls. I thought we were diverse, but really, we were not. We might have looked different, but our mindsets were all the same: of being driven, goal focused, and not having to work through or around any kinds of barriers. The only times we saw “different” kids were in the required classes of Physical Education (P.E.) and American Government. It was in those classes that I saw kids struggling to know what to do. Looking back, I can see those students were probably English Language Learners (ELLs) before they were named as ELLs. This is why my unfortunate students had to learn from such a naïve and clueless first year teacher.

Getting Started/Musical Chairs

In my new job, the first bucket of cold water in my face was discovering that I would not have my own classroom. That was OK. The real shock was the location of my class: the teachers’ lunchroom, right off the cafeteria kitchen.

For those not familiar with the experiences of many ESL teachers, this sounds like I must be kidding. I’m not. The sad reality is that for many teachers who work with immigrant and refugee students in modern public school systems, conditions such as this are neither novel nor unusual. Storage rooms, closet areas, cubbies, and trailers away from the main building are typical classroom settings for students coming from culturally and linguistically “different” backgrounds.

Lessons of a Lifetime: in the classroom

Me (in dotted black sweater) with students during a 2010 classroom celebration

Thankfully I only had to endure the sounds and smells of the kitchen for a few months. I was then moved to the choir room for three hours in the morning and then on to three different classrooms for teaching Spanish I in the afternoon. This was a step up! My students had the straight back plastic choir chairs to sit on and their legs to balance notebooks on. We were no longer separate, but we definitely did not feel equal.

However, things continued to improve. I spotted discarded folding chairs with attached folding desk arms under the library walkway. One day my students and I formed a parade. We went across the high school, down the stairs, and outside, then picked out the least rickety “desks” and made an about face to the choir room. Of course, we made sure to be quiet because students were working in the classrooms along the parade route. I was also gifted a free-standing chalkboard to drag across the music room at the beginning and end of my instructional time. By Spring Break, we got our first classroom materials. The Oxford Picture Dictionary arrived! What a blessing! I was able to teach something more than the alphabet and letter sounds.

I went back and forth, shuttling them between teaching the alphabet and how to write a five-paragraph essay. It sounds psychotic, but that was the variety of English proficiency levels that were put together for three hours a day. If students had no English or a strong accent, they were put into my ESL class.

Luckily, that situation only lasted two years. By my third year, the principal and I had agreed that the students needed to be organized into language proficiency groups. I was fortunate to have a principal who learned and grew in the area of ESL with me. He wanted me to do a great job with and for my students. He encouraged me to attend professional conferences and to visit other high schools to see their programs. He said he wanted me to develop an ESL program that would have other schools wanting to come see what we did. Ultimately, we did. We may not have seen eye to eye on many issues involving my students, but I will always remember and appreciate his support for me to develop and grow a strong English as a Second Language program.

With this backing, I was changed from a part-time to a full-time ESL teacher. I had three levels that I worked with for two hours each. I was still in the choir room, but now I also had two computers and a printer that I pushed across the school to the elevator, and around hallways on a merry-go-ground of classrooms. And that is how my first five years went. I taught ESL 1, ESL 2, and ESL 3.

By year six enough teachers had retired and more rooms had been added so my principal could grant me a full-time classroom with actual desks. I was two doors from the main office and nurse’s office. Restrooms, a water fountain, and the lockers assigned to most of my students were right outside my door. We had arrived! In the midst of all of that, I worked to receive my master’s degree in Educating Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations. What a whirlwind!

Language Testing

Amid all of the changes, one consistent element in my ESL world was that of language testing. Students took, and still do take, a language assessment test if indicated at registration. This is in compliance with state and federal laws. All families who register in a new school are given a Home Language Survey to complete. This survey has questions to determine if a student has a language other than English in his or her life. What is the first language of the student? What language is used by adults in the home? What language does the student use at home and with peers? Did the student attend school in another country? If answers indicate another dominant language, then the student takes a language assessment test. I have had to smile that over the years there have been more than a few native English speakers who read the form, answer the question about attending school in another country incorrectly, write the name of a neighboring county, and then write in big letters, “This is the United States. We speak English here!” I understand that there is only one letter difference between “county” and “country”, but it is ironic that some who are so adamant about using English here still pay little attention to their own native language.

There have been a few different tests over the years, but they all assess English language levels in speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Even though the element of testing has not changed, the attention given to the test and addressing the needs of students has. In the early years of testing, I was not just a cog in the ESL wheel but the only wheel in the machine in my high school. It was my duty to organize students for large group assessments in reading and writing. The testing situations changed over time. In the early years, I started with 150+ students taking the test in the school auditorium using wooden lap boards for a writing surface. This morphed into smaller numbers of students to fit whatever classroom was available during different class periods of the day. This then changed to rotating small groups through my classroom when I had one. And that was just testing for reading and writing!

Testing was a completely different beast for listening and speaking. I was still solely responsible for administering these tests, but the additional challenge was that these tests had to be administered one on one. To manage, my students continued to come to my classes as usual, but they watched a movie as I pulled them one at a time to sit in the doorway of my room. I pulled one desk and two chairs, cracked my door open about an inch, and administered the test while keeping an eye on the other students in my classroom at the same time. This was the easy part. I then had to use student schedules and walk around the building finding kids, bringing them to my doorway, testing them, walking the student back to class, going to the next class and starting again. Overall, this took almost three weeks. As a result of this inefficient process, three weeks of instruction and learning were lost, twice a year. At the beginning of the year all students new to our building were tested. In the middle of the year all students classified as non-English and limited English proficient were tested. If students moved to our building during the year and qualified according to the Home Language Survey, they were tested, too. Of course, after the testing came the scoring, recording, and reporting.

With all this testing, a person might think that the data would have been used in some productive manner. I honestly never saw anything immediately come from that testing, until at least 10 years later. Sometime after 2002, with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, “someone” took notice. Someone noticed that large numbers of students from non-English speaking backgrounds were part of the “left behind” group.

At that point, a school counselor was designated to be the testing organizer for our building. In fact, each building received a designated testing organizer. Other people were trained to help with testing. A sub was called in to cover my classes. Students who were teacher assistants were “runners”, taking passes to kids to come at specified times to quiet rooms to do the speaking and listening tests. Kids were organized by grade levels for classroom sized groups for the reading and writing tests.

A few years later the testing became even more specialized. A District coordinator, Building coordinator and Test administrators were added. Now, the tests are sent to the state level to be scored. It became the policy in my school district to include the scoring in the evaluation system of district performance. Some principals chose to make the ELL overall scores and growth, as shown by the annual testing, part of the individual teachers’ performance evaluation score. This is especially important for schools with high student populations classified as ELL. It has taken nearly 30 years for our district and teachers to pay attention to the connection between instruction and learning for all students. Of course, not all teachers get to that point, but gaining a small number is better than none.

Cultural Competency

There have been many times other teachers have not given a second thought about making smart comments about the content of my ESL classes. Basic vocabulary is an easy target for teachers to “attack”. As an example, I remember teaching a lesson on American Christmas culture. I was making copies of pictures for vocabulary of items such as Santa, a sleigh, a wreath, and Christmas cards. “What a cute lesson that is! It looks like much more fun than what I work with! How cute!” It took everything to not answer back, asking if they could give me quality sentences using the vocabulary in another language. I could have responded in Spanish, really leaving them with something to ponder. I have had to learn to be more diplomatic and to breathe deeply before answering. I still have not mastered control of my eye-rolling, however. That might require another twenty-nine years of practice.

I hope that with patience and diplomacy, maybe other teachers will start to understand what ESL entails! Just understanding more of the hows and whys involved in language learning and teaching would greatly reduce frustration on both sides of the desk. So many teachers put a lot of time and attention in creating their lessons. They become frustrated when that preparation is not understood by their students. Students become frustrated not understanding what is given to them to learn. If teachers took the time to implement ESL strategies into instruction, life would be much less stressful and more productive for everyone in the classroom.

Also, just think how much our schools could gain by learning from our families and how much better we could do our jobs if we took the time to form relationships with them. It is frustrating for me to hear a teacher say, “We had a meeting with the mother about my student, but the mom was not interested. She showed nothing in terms of wanting to be involved in the meeting or how we plan to help her student.” Did the teacher even think that the mother who was sitting at the table possibly had not gone to school in her home country? She also did not speak English and Spanish was a limited second language, even though a Spanish translator was provided for the meeting. How much more beneficial could it have been for the teacher to take the time to learn about the home life of the girl to better understand how to help the student and how to make the mother feel comfortable at the meeting, an important part of the equation to help her daughter?

Lessons of a Lifetime: student and parent

A former student and her mother on awards night

In another instance, the school office called to find out why a student was not coming to school. Through a translator the parent said she understood her child was missing school and would address the situation. After more absences and phone calls the office finally had the translator tell the parent that they could be taken to court if the student did not come to school. This was the point at which I became aware of the situation.

I then asked a friend to make a home visit. Importantly, this friend was active with family support in the community and had built a relationship of trust with this family already. My friend found out that something happened that the student wouldn’t tell the parents about. The parents also appeared to be in need of counseling or support of some kind. How much differently could the situation have been handled by talking with the family to understand instead of at the family as to why the student did not want to come to school? Why take it to the level of threatening the parent with court?

Our schools have people in the position of liaison, but these people never receive training on how to work with families. It is also difficult to have one person assigned to three schools as the liaison for all of them. What kind of relationship building has a chance with that kind of superficial attempt of the position? It would be incredibly powerful to have district staff trained in family outreach and for people in education to understand how much better we could all be with that outreach.

Lessons of a Lifetime: graduation ceremony

Graduation day with the Mateo family

Walking the Line

With so many difficulties and struggles in the world of ESL, a person can easily become disillusioned, even depressed. The ESL teacher holds a unique position in both the school and in the immigrant/refugee communities. On the teacher/professional side, I have struggled to walk the thin line as advocate for my students and being a district employee. Learning to be strong and flexible at the same time has been a daily exercise.

Other than teachers sharing derogatory comments to and about my students, another challenge is being a shoulder for students to confide in and lean on. I am, and will forever be, humbled and in awe of what my kids and their families go through and overcome. The stories are all different, but painful.

One of my families joined the father and eldest son in California after the two of them had walked from Guatemala to the states, found jobs, and earned enough money to bring the rest of the family to join them.

Another common situation was that of one of my tenth-grade girls and her younger brother who lived with their dad. The dad found a woman and moved her in. The woman already had three children of her own, so she cooked, cleaned, did laundry and cared for her three and her new man. My student had to go home after a day of school and take care of all those jobs for her brother and herself. She was exhausted taking on a full-time “mom” position for her brother and being a student. She ended up moving in with a man who let her bring her brother. She dropped out of school and any element of youth ended.

I had another student whose mother had left the family in Guatemala. This young man came to Colorado, enrolled in school, and got a job. He was fifteen doing the job of two people. He paid back the uncle who paid for him to come to Fort Morgan and then worked to pay for his own rent and living necessities, all the while saving money to bring his two younger brothers from Guatemala to live with him. Once they arrived, he continued with school and worked, supporting all three of them.

One of my students from Kenya told me about his life before going to a refugee camp. He told me about having to miss most of a day of school because he encountered a lion on his way there. He ran and spent the day in a tree. By the time the lion lost interest and left, he arrived at school just before it ended. His teacher beat him with a rod. Then, when he got home, he was beaten again for missing school.

I have listened to countless life stories like these over the years. Some situations have been easier and some have been more difficult. I have gone home day after day completely exhausted, drained physically and emotionally. You could not imagine my relief when I found out my feelings were not uncommon for ESL teachers. I discovered this when I attended a session on Post Traumatic Stress at a conference for the Colorado Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (CoTESOL). I expected to learn how to better support my students. Not only did I learn helpful strategies for them, but I also learned why I struggled with many symptoms of depression. I learned that my students experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress. I also learned that often, ESL teachers experience secondary PTSD. The presenters explained that as teachers, we carry feelings connected to the difficult life situations our students have experienced and shared. We experience sympathy, empathy, anger, sadness, guilt, and other feelings. As teachers we want to help our students and struggle because we feel powerless. The presenter explained to us the importance of understanding that we do not have to solve everything. That we are enough and what we give our kids in class by listening to them, supporting them, cheering them on, and believing in them is more valuable than we can imagine. Of all the classes I have taken in my life, that session at my CoTESOL conference has been among the most positive and beneficial, helping me to be both a better teacher and a better me.

Besides wanting my students to learn English, American culture, and school content, I want them to be strong and independent individuals. I want them to have the confidence to move forward and keep learning to be the best they can be. I have tried to teach them through lessons in American history and various literature the power of an individual who has vision and drive. An extra special opportunity we were able to participate in was traveling to Washington D.C. with the Close Up organization. After my first year of teaching, I was extremely fortunate to have had the local BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) ask me to take a group of migrant students to Washington with a Close Up for New Americans program. In my 23 years of teaching at the high school I was able to take five groups of kids to D.C. The week each group spent there was life-changing for almost every student.

Through the New Americans program, my students were able to meet other high school students who were in the process of learning English and about their places in their new country. We met kids who had come from schools in Florida, Texas, Oregon, California, North Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, and American Samoa. When the kids came together, they learned about the immigration experiences of kids who had come from nearly one hundred different home countries. The program taught the students about how the branches of American government work, the process for bills to become law, and the power of an individual to be a force for change by participating in a mock election and visiting community non-profit services such as food banks and homeless shelters. We visited monuments and met Senators and Representatives from our state. Kids who were scared and nervous when they started the trip came home filled with the power of experience and knowledge.


Even though my students were progressing and succeeding with their English and academics and participating in sports and clubs, I was moved from the high school after 23 years to our Migrant Education New Comers Academy in its final year, and then moved to an elementary school. There was nothing in my life that had prepared me for working with elementary aged students. My initial teaching certification was for Secondary English/Language Arts. My Master’s Degree is for grades K-12, since language acquisition knowledge, strategies, and practices are straight forward and beneficial for all kids no matter what grade. Other than that, I knew nothing about grades 1-5.

If this disconnect weren’t bad enough, the position of ESL teacher in my school district does not teach English Language Development (ELD). The elementary ESL teacher is to teach reading and is given the newcomers and lowest leveled English proficient students, and even some native English speakers. So, I began. The first lesson for my students was the letter S, memorizing five sight words, and going over a story about a snake with words none of the kids knew. With that as my introduction to the elementary world, my inner ESL teacher came out. I drew pictures, scaffolded the story, and explained what the sight words meant and how to use them. I thought I was doing a good job. This turned out not to be the case, as I was written up and put on a professional growth plan.

Just when I did not think things could get worse, they did. I thought that I could have a frank, sincere conversation with my administration. I expressed my concern about the elementary students only being taught the mechanics of reading. The kids could parrot read phenomenally. They know how to sound anything out and read aloud beautifully. But they understood nothing they read. And, teachers, knowing the importance of checking for understanding, asked the kids if they understood the material. Being good ESL kids, they always smiled and nodded their heads. Great! Lesson taught. Material covered. Check that off the list.

I continued sharing what I had seen for 23 years of working at the high school. All of these kids moved from grade to grade, passing their classes. When they got to high school, these low language kids who could read beautifully, filled the lowest level class of every content area – Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, and Science. They lacked grade level content vocabulary and academic vocabulary. They had no background knowledge. Some of these kids had begun in kindergarten or lower elementary grades in our district. They should have had at least a working knowledge level of material that had been covered in their classes on the way to high school. That knowledge level has been spotty and basic at best. These students are destined to be in basic level high school classes to graduation, if they make it that far. If they choose to continue on to our community college, most cannot function in the 100-level classes. These second language learners have to pay for the pre-college level classes to learn what they need before being able to take classes to earn credits toward an Associate’s Degree or classes that transfer to four-year universities. They now have to pay for education they should have received in the public school system.

I presented my concern for the current instructional framework for elementary students. I truly believed that sharing my position on the need to approach English Language Development (ELD) was sound. I followed everything I had studied in my Master’s program and had practiced in my instruction after my feeble start. In my classroom as a new “reading/ESL teacher”, I spoke slowly. We used manipulatives when possible. I spent serious time on vocabulary building in English, with pictures, and in Spanish. I worked on learning about my students and supplementing what they brought with them in terms of experience to strengthen their background knowledge. Repetition and comprehensible input and meeting the learner where s/he was and moving him/her to the goal are basic elements of good instruction- that is instruction for all students and not just ELs. I truly believed that a constructive discussion would ensue and we could, possibly, have some kind of compromise. I was not prepared for the response from the administrators:

“It sounds like you have a different philosophy than our district. Maybe you need to find a district that has the same philosophy you do. You are to follow the reading program as it is and get to the same unit as the other ESL teachers in the district. If you don’t, you will be responsible for these students to be set up for failure the rest of their school lives.”

I was in shock. Nothing could have prepared me for this rebuke. I don’t think I have or will ever fully recover from that in my professional career because I have been dedicated, ingrained and fully invested in the training and care of my ESL students from the very beginning of my career.

The Upside

As time has passed in the last five years, personnel in different buildings and positions have changed. Along with that change has come a different perspective as to best practices for instruction of ELLs. I would be remiss if I did not include the reason, or rather, the person who was brave enough to say something about business as usual. I was blessed to work with a young lady who had been my student at the high school and had become a para professional in the ESL department. She saw the frustration on my part. She understood the needs of the students since she had started as a Newcomer in ninth grade a few years prior. She and I looked at books that the district had purchased in the past that were not in use. This wise young woman boldly asked why we had such good material and were not allowed to use it. She asked why I was teaching reading and not English to our ELLs.

From her questions and our discussion with my current principal and instructional coach, I was allowed to try out the program with one grade level. Then it was two grades. From the positive growth that showed in our annual language assessment, the following year I was allowed to teach all grades, one through five, actual English Language Development. I am now in my second year of teaching English Language Development to all students who are classified as non-English proficient. I use an approved ESL program for learning English and academic/content instruction. My students are now receiving reading, during reading time and ESL/ELD during Language Development time with me.

The change has already reaped benefits. Students are better connecting with material presented from their classroom teachers. Comprehension of grade level Science and Social Studies has improved. Reading and writing are improving. Our school has shown great growth on the annual ACCESS Language Assessment for the past three years. I can see and feel the positive change. It is something that lessens a weight I feel for our immigrant and refugee population. It is one step in one school, but it is in a very positive direction.

Baby steps are small, unsteady, and earned with constant effort and the bumps and bruises that come with change. I often feel that not much has changed in 29 years of teaching. But that is not really true. No ESL/ELD teacher in our district is working out of a lunchroom. Test scores are not allowed to be ignored. Every student has been provided a chrome book and Internet access. Each school in our district has a person or access to a person to help with communication with our families from 20+ languages in our small town. Teachers are given opportunities and are expected to attend trainings to make learning accessible and available to all students. Even though I would love to see instant and drastic changes for more, I must remember: that just as rock can be worn away from constant drops of water, old ideas, attitudes, and practices in the education of English Language Learners and their families are the same; little by little for powerful, lasting change.

Lessons of a Lifetime: award ceremony

At the Outstanding Teacher of Migrant Students awards for special people. The second woman from left was a Migrant Education Graduation Advocate from my high school, and the woman in the argyle sweater was a former student, now an amazing teacher.

Pride, Joy and Potential

I am proud of the families I have been honored to work with. I am in awe of their resilience. I have worked with remarkable people in the years I have been in the world of ESL. A student who spoke no English when she arrived from Mexico as a 14-year-old ninth grader went on to finish high school, complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and has been recognized as an Outstanding Teacher of Migrant Students from the Northeastern Colorado BOCES.

Several of the boys who have worked the night shift in our local beef plant, gone home to shower, and then gone to school and tried getting homework finished before starting the cycle again that night. Some of those boys are now men in supervisor positions in the same plant where they started on the kill floor. I have attended numerous quinceañeras, weddings, baptisms, and birthday parties for my students and eventually for their own children. Some of my students have proudly joined the military. I have been blessed to receive the trust, respect, friendship, and love from this amazing population that has come here with so little.

Carrying water

Three of my students and a family member at their home, with me in a loaned outfit to celebrate a 21st birthday of one of the girls

A question brought to my attention after our Newcomer Academy group presented at the National Migrant Conference some years ago will forever stay with me. A woman in the room was very clear when she said, “You have shared what you do for the immigrant/refugee population in your community. What have you learned from them that can help you do an even better job?”

Perhaps the greatest gift we can give immigrant and refugee families is two-fold. We, as school people, need to learn from and about others. We need to respect and appreciate multi-language abilities. Our school district could do amazing things if authentic motivation were behind professional development and not just something to check on a list to show the state that we “do” programs for a specific demographic. Fort Morgan does have the resources to accomplish greatness for individuals as well as for the community. It would be wonderful to provide our school families opportunities to learn our systems and teach them the tools to be able to help themselves grow. How much more wonderful would it be for the school system to learn from these families so that it can grow, too? The two elements could bring powerful and lasting positive change.

Brown, Black, and White. Muslim and Christian. Newcomer and long-time community cornerstone. Spanish, Somali, English, French, Akateco, Conjobal, and a dozen more language groups. All of these people have helped shape me into the person I am. Kindness, generosity, patience, humility, bravery, and perseverance are but a few lessons I have learned and grown from in my small position of ESL/ELD teacher. I am better and stronger now than when I first arrived in Fort Morgan from Pueblo. My hope is that all people in this small town on the Eastern Plains of Colorado can learn together and work together to become a place where others can benefit, too.

Lessons of a Lifetime: Karen Liston

Me (Karen Liston) in the classroom