ELL teachers explain how their backgrounds influenced their career choices

Monday, May 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

Maricela Politte grew up in a bilingual home in Texas, with a mother who spoke Spanish and a father who spoke English and Spanish.

Her mother encouraged her to stay bilingual. She minored in Spanish to learn more about the culture and become more fluent in the language.

Politte tries to practice her Spanish to maintain it, which she said her job as an English Language Learners teacher helps. She said she feels "lucky and blessed" to have opportunities to translate and help others.

As a child, Cathy Fulkerson pretended her dolls were children who were left on her doorstep, adopted from other countries. In first grade and kindergarten, her best friend was a Japanese student whose home was full of Japanese clothing, furniture and traditions.

Fulkerson's father grew up bilingual, so she knew some phrases of German, but as she grew up she forgot them. Because of that, she encourages her students to hang on to their native languages.

Fulkerson held several jobs before getting into ELL education. She sometimes tells her students, "You are the living dolls of my life."

When Courtney Siewert was in high school, her family hosted an exchange student from Ecuador. She decided she wanted to be an exchange student, too, and went to Chile for a summer.

She met her best friend on a trip to Mexico after she graduated high school, then returned to the country for visits over summer and winter breaks and two semesters of studying abroad.

During one summer, Siewert volunteered at a bilingual school, teaching English to Spanish-speaking children. "That's when I fell in love with it and decided that's what I really wanted to do," she said.

Stacey Karabegovic,the child of an Irish-German, Catholic mother and a German, Jewish father, remembers hearing stories of the Holocaust, emigration and hardship from a young age, which led her to realize that her background is connected to a historical record.

Karabegovic sees her job as one of service, teaching, listening and assisting. The families she works with are in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language — English — that she loves and speaks, she said.

"Maybe I have taught so that I can be the first to hear their stories or perhaps it's a way to lay the stories of the past to rest," she said.

Sushama Nagarkar, who coordinates the ELL program, grew up in India. She speaks two Indian languages, Hindi and Marathi, and learned English at a young age while attending a bilingual school. Because India used to be a British colony, she learned British English.

When she came to the United States with her family in 1998, she had to relearn the simple things that are different between British and American English, such as spelling and slang words. Where she grew up, for example, gas stations are called "petrol pumps" and faucets are called "taps."

Her challenges were not the same as those of families who come to the country not knowing any English, but she understands the difficulties associated with being pulled out of a familiar culture and transplanted into a new one, she said.

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