After the students are dismissed from Phalen Lake Elementary, educational assistant Mai Thao can take a moment to look back on her arrival in Minnesota and let a girlish laugh float over an empty classroom. "When I first got here two years ago I did not know how to drive in snow," Thao remembers. "I did not know how to shovel snow -- anything. It was really, really bad."
Apart from snow, Mai Thao's adjustment to the northland has been relatively smooth since she came here from Fresno, California, where her parents had settled when she was an infant.
The family's move to the U.S. from a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand was not as easy. No one in the family spoke English. Thao's smile fades momentarily as she recalls struggling through classes taught in a language she did not speak at home.
"I did not speak any English in kindergarten or first grade," she says. "And in second grade I was falling behind. I repeated the second grade. I remember I had a spelling test and I did not know how to spell the word 'dog' or 'cat' or any three letter words or anything. I remember that and I remember how hard it was for me."
Thao remembers the embarrasment she felt upon seeing her classmates promoted to third grade without her. The oldest of five children, she also remembers the pressure she felt at home. Her parents, who spoke no English and relied on public assistance, emphasized that education was her key to a better life and worried she was shirking her responsibility.
But on her second trip through second grade, Mai suddenly found herself thinking and speaking in English. No sooner did her language skills blossom than her family began relying on her as a bridge to the world around them.
"I remember going to the social worker's office with my parents and translating for them," says Thao. "And I was in, like, fourth grade. My English was...." Her voice trails off as she shakes her head. "I had to do it because there was nobody else. I didn't understand half of the vocabulary they used but I did the best I could."
Today Thao and her daughter, Angel, 6, switch gracefully between two languages. They use mostly Hmong around Angel's playmate, who is part of the most recent wave of Hmong refugees to St. Paul.
That latest influx of refugees follows successive tides of Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Somali immigration that have transformed St. Paul's public school enrollment in the last 25 years.
Mai Thao is among many immigrants who want to ease the transition for Minnesota's more recent arrivals. And officials with the St. Paul public schools see her as just the kind of person to teach English as a second language.
Melissa Hoglund directs a fellowship program called Teacher Quality Enhancement, or TQE.
"Our focus really is to bring under-represented populations into the teaching profession," Hoglund says. "We have a very diverse student population, so we want to find teachers that represent that student population."
The TQE program is funded by a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Education Department. It allows employees of the St. Paul schools -- many of them educational assistants -- to take the classwork they need to be licensed as teachers and then to be further licensed to teach ESL or special education, two areas where the district's need for teachers is greatest.
It's a joint project with the unions that represent teachers and teachers aides and with the University of St. Thomas.
In a TQE class at Arlington High School the students include Karla Lobo Johnson, who taught in a computer lab in her native Costa Rica.
When she came to Minnesota five years ago, Johnson enrolled in ESL classes and marvelled at the ability of her teacher, Barbara Holman, to make a roomful of students from so many countries feel so at home.
"When I applied for this," Johnson says, "I was motivated also for what she taught us. And I would like to be like she was with me as an ESL teacher."
Other students also say their immigrant experience drives them to help newer arrivals. Sidiq Mohamud is a Somali native who spent most of his teenage years in a refugee camp in Kenya. A 2004 graduate of the University of Minnesota, Mohamud says teachers who are themselves immigrants are uniquely positioned to help newly arrived students.
"You can be a role model for them," Mohamud says. "You can say, 'I used to be like you. I was an immigrant. I didn't know English.' They will look up to you if you are an immigrant teacher. You will inspire them."
Empathy alone is not sufficient for ESL instruction. Nina Mosser, one of the teachers in this TQE class, says first-hand knowledge of the immigrant experience will serve her students well. But Mosser says the effort to turn these immigrants into teachers won't succeed unless they also learn about education -- understanding concepts like how students acquire language skills and how that changes with age.
"I think that if your motives are only those of making the students culturally comfortable, linguistically comfortable, emotionally comfortable -- and you drop the rigor, then you have a problem," Mosser says. The licensing tests administered by the state, Mosser says, help ensure that teachers are competent, as well as empathetic.
Paul Magnuson, a supervisor in Minnesota's No Child Left Behind program, says the state tests measure competency in key areas. But Magnuson acknowledges that the extraordinary teachers are those who bring something beyond those competencies to the job.
"You could know a lot about second language acquisition, about linguistics and so forth, and not be able to bring it at all as a teacher," he says. Magnuson applauds St. Paul's new program, and says the life experience that immigrants bring to the classroom does give them the chance to become exceptional teachers.
Perhaps that description will one day be applied to Mai Thao, who says she's known since struggling through second grade that she wanted someday to teach other children.
As she watches Angel and her friend play, Thao remembers what she was going through at age 6, and can't help but wonder whether things could have been different.
"I remember repeating second grade and everything else," Thao muses. "And I thought, 'I don't have the help that I need.' I wish I could have gotten something at that age. I mean, who knows how much farther I could be now. So I thought, I've got to do something."
Thao says it will take her two years to complete her coursework in the TQE program, after which she hopes to begin teaching English as a second language in the St. Paul schools.
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