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Teaching English in the shadow of the border wall

The kids in my ESL classes are, in many ways, regular teenagers. But some of them fear deportation every day.

By Kellye Hooks

On my first day teaching English as a Second Language students in Texas four years ago, a student asked me was if I was going to vote for Donald Trump. I was new to ESL, but not to teaching; nosy teenagers were old hat. But before I could give my standard response — I don’t discuss politics with students — he continued: “because if he’s elected president, he’s going to deport me and my parents.”

He was in the seventh grade. I remember being stunned that he would share such personal information, but as I look back on that conversation, I am most shocked by the ease with which he said it. It wasn’t a new problem or a new thought. He had been told about it. Followed it on TV. Talked with his parents about it. At 12.

Immigration is a hot topic right now, but it’s far removed from most people’s everyday lives. They tweet and retweet in reaction to the policies that come from the White House or Congress. They talk about whether walls are good border security, about “caravans” marching north. They watch the news in horror or glee, depending on the day and their point of view.

When I think of immigration in the U.S., I see the faces of the young men and women who populate my classroom on the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. For them, immigration policy is a more intimate companion, one who cannot take the hint and leave the party.

This is their thing. They get to feel how they feel, and like every other teenager in the world, they feel A LOT.

After two years at the local junior high, I began teaching and coordinating the ESL program at the high school. In my classroom, with its word charts and agendas and notebooks strewn everywhere, we are concerned mostly with learning and refining English, passing graduation tests, and helping with the ins and outs of a rural public high school. Like any special population in American education, my students come with an exorbitant amount of paperwork to keep track of growth, discipline issues, and attendance problems. In most ways, our days are full of the mundane everyday-ness of school life. We don’t go out of our way to discuss the president’s policies or what’s happening in the news.

Nevertheless, the news rears its head. Recently, I asked students to brainstorm things they were scared of, then share their answers on the board. Someone in every class referenced ICE and the threat of deportation, either for them or their parents. It is a constant, nagging worry for them. So we do not run from it. I don’t act like my opinion matters. This is their thing. They get to feel how they feel, and like every other teenager in the world, they feel A LOT.

Many share their worries not in front of a class full of peers but in whispered conversations or entries in their class journals. Early in the 2017 school year, I asked one queasy-looking child if he felt ill. “I’m a Dreamer, Miss,” he responded.

Nothing else needed to be said. This young man and his family had registered with the government, hoping and praying that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would provide a path to citizenship, or at least legal residence. But the night before, the Trump administration had announced that DACA was going to be discontinued, and suddenly my student felt like a sitting duck. He’d made his illegal status known. Would they be coming to get him? Would they come to school? No, I assured him. School is a safe place. Relieved, he returned to working on a paper for his English class, and I was left feeling overwhelmed. How is it possible to concentrate on academics and language acquisition amidst this kind of anxiety?

It’s possible because my students and their families are determined. They do not take the privilege of an American education lightly. They work hard in their classes. They are respectful to teachers. They participate in sports and JROTC and band. They are constantly working with flashcards and asking me how to pronounce things. They are normal teenagers, so they also get into trouble and can be a lot to handle. But together, we have etched out a place where they are loved, understood, and encouraged. I do not ask about their immigration status, because it is not my concern. I do not take lightly the trust they and their parents have shown in me.

When they need help, they ask for it, and I try to offer what assistance I can, whether it’s for the parent whose child is brilliant and should go to college but didn’t qualify for DACA and has no papers, or the young man who desperately wants to join the Marines and needs help filling out the forms for enlistees without papers.

Of course, we’re in rural Texas. I’m sure some teachers, like many local residents, hold hardline positions on immigration. But the ones I know here are educators first, and they have always sought to help our English learners in whatever way they can. Our schools have embraced the immigrant community with open arms.

When I first started as ESL Coordinator, I was prepared to go to battle on behalf of my students. I envisioned confronting conservatives in the faculty or community who were too focused on their political views to see my students as people. I thought I might have to fight for administrative support.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to fight any of those battles. Our students aren’t talking points in a debate. No matter what our viewpoints, our top priority is to provide a safe place for them for seven hours a day, to help them flourish and grow. That’s hard enough. And it’s the best way I know to fight for them.

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Kellye Hooks is an ESL teacher and program coordinator at a public high school in Princeton, Texas.


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