I’m Not in Iowa Anymore

I woke up this morning feeling strange, like I was in some foreign place—one with no air-conditioning and sticky weather (an awful combination for someone who is already warm all the time). I grabbed my cell phone, checked the time, and saw that it was 5:50a.m., and I had no cell phone signal. “Why on earth is my alarm going off?” I thought to myself as I reached to flip on the light switch that was no longer there. Suddenly it clicked: I’m not in Iowa anymore.

Not only am I not in Iowa, I am not in the United States. I am now located in the Dominican Republic, doing the first session of my student teaching at a Christian school here in Santiago. I came here with very few expectations and intended to leave with two things: 1) an awesome tan, and 2) the most incredible student teaching experience an undergrad career can offer. So far, I’m well on my way to both, thanks to the fact that I never wear a sweater, my boots, or sunscreen, and the ability to work with a variety of ages and learning needs with the ESL (English as a Second Language) department.

Santiago Christian is an international Pre-K through 12th grade school. Students are primarily Dominican or missionary/school staff children. Other nationalities represented include (but are definitely not limited to) Korean, Honduran, and Haitian. Students vary from native English speakers to struggling ESL students all across the grade levels. Some have learning disabilities, some struggle with literacy in their native tongue—making it even more difficult to acquire a second (or 3rd, in some cases) language. Not only do the students struggle, but so do the teachers—as many are North American and used to the ‘Merican way. Meeting the needs of students will be a challenge wherever you go. However, when a school has so many ESL students and a turn-over employee rate higher than the commons at Dordt College, maintaining consistent standards and means to meet those needs proves itself extensively more difficult.

As an educator, I recognize my responsibility to meet the needs of my students, no matter how diverse they are, and it is my pleasure to do so—that is, when the needs are things the students can’t help. For example, students can’t help that teachers come and go every year, and they can’t help that they may have some sort of learning disability. When the needs are self-induced (let’s call it “laziness”), that’s a different story. The question I struggle with now: are any needs really self-induced, so to speak?

Many of the students at Santiago Christian come from extremely wealthy families: TV personalities, restaurant chain owners, businessmen, etc. The kids are brought to and from school by chauffeurs, brought a hot lunch from home at noon, and often have nannies after school. They see their parents for just a few moments a day, making it difficult to encourage practicing their English, or doing their homework, and making it easy for students to become passive in their school work. With the parents always gone, the nannies always taking care of other household responsibilities, the kids left with the iPads and iPhones their parents bought them, and the primary language spoken in the house is Spanish, it’s easy to see why so many students are falling behind in an English-speaking school.

Knowing the home-life and culture of your students is important. No, it doesn’t make motivating a seemingly lazy student any easier, but it does allow you to empathize with their situation. Being held accountable isn’t something they may be used to, especially in English. It’s important to remember that students need structure in the classroom, whether they receive it at home or not. A healthy balance of accountability and empathy is important, but it’s extremely difficult, as I’m starting to see and understand here at SCS.

Jennifer Van Der Hoek, Columnist

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