The first week of May was Teacher Appreciation Week. If you missed the chance to thank a teacher then, you’re not too late. It’s always an opportune time to express our gratitude to awesome educators who change the lives of students each day.

I’m recognizing teachers this month as part of my ongoing series about outstanding Portland Public Schools staff. I’m focusing specifically on educators who teach English Language Learner (ELL) students.

Henry

English Learner (EL) teachers are a very important part of PPS, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Nearly one quarter of our 6,500 students this year are ELL students.

The main role of EL teachers is to evaluate, instruct and improve students’ proficiency of the English language. EL teachers also provide an important cultural bridge for students, helping them to understand the United States’ cultural landscape, while also being responsive to their students’ own cultures and languages. Teachers also have to be sensitive to the social emotional needs of students as they make their way in a new education system and society.

One of our amazing EL teachers is Portland High School’s Rohan Henry. Rohan cares deeply about his students and understands what they’re going through – because he was an immigrant and ELL student himself. He now has a master’s degree in EL and special education. He’s also the author and illustrator of an award-winning book, “The Perfect Gift.” Here’s more about Rohan:

Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born in Jamaica and my family immigrated to the Boston area when I was 6 or 7. Moving here was difficult because I had never really seen white people, except on TV. I’d never seen snow before, so it was just a 180-degree shift for me. I thought people here were speaking too fast because in Jamaica we speak what is called Patois. It’s more a Creole, so I didn’t really understand what people were saying very well. You think it’s the same language, but it actually isn’t.

What was your English-learning experience like?

There was no such thing as an English language instructor then. People didn’t need to have credentials when it first started, so it was pretty sad the way the profession used to be. People thought I needed special ed because they couldn’t understand what I was saying. They just thought, “I can’t understand this kid. Maybe he has some sort of learning disability.” They never thought, “Maybe I should learn more about his language.”

How does that impact your own teaching?

I don’t stigmatize kids; I value them. I look at students who might not know English as assets, not that they have a detriment, and that’s a huge difference from how people looked at me. I say to my kids, “You are much more advanced than Americans who only have one language – you have three or four.”

How has COVID affected your job?

I’ve always considered the social-emotional health of the students I serve. I have to, because some of them have been in refugee camps and some have had harrowing journeys to the United States. I have kids who have walked a thousand miles from Central America up through Mexico and across the border to get here. I have always used trauma-informed techniques when I teach, but COVID has increased that exponentially. So I go 150% into creating a therapeutic environment where they feel welcome and safe.

What drives you?

There’s a song inside me that says that kid in front of me is my priority. That gets me out of bed and wakes me up.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

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