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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

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Theresa Kashale: Featured Educator

June 2015

Theresa Kashale is an English language learner teacher in Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she arrived in the United States in 1995 as a refugee. She works as a teacher while earning her Ph.D. in education and running an orphanage called Theresa’s House in Kinshasa, DRC.

photo ofTheresa Kashale
Theresa Kashale

Q: Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

TK: I teach at three different elementary schools in the Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota. I’ve been with the district for 11 years now. Sioux Falls School District is surprisingly diverse, as Sioux Falls is an official refugee resettlement area and has a growing ELL population. We get about 1,000 families in Sioux Falls each year, which means about 100 people arrive each month and for the past three years, the largest number of our refugees have come from the Congo. There are about 2,000 ELL students out of the 22,000 in the district, and at least 46 different languages are spoken by students in our schools.

Q: What is your job like?

TK: I teach mostly immigrant students who are English language learners. In our district, we have many children from Africa and I teach them English and try to make their transition into school in the U.S. as easy as possible.

Our school district has a wonderful program for identifying ELL students and matching them to a program that will best meet their needs. In the classroom, we use many different approaches. The first thing we turn to is WIDA. WIDA materials help us learn where the students are in their language development, and give us different strategies for different levels of students. When I’m not teaching, I also do WIDA training with the teachers in the district.

Q: What strategies or methods have you found to be successful for supporting ELL students?

TK: Everything I do with my kids has some aspect of show and tell. I do a lot of modeling for students, scaffolding, and I also give children time to talk. Students need time to articulate their learning. I also emphasize learning vocabulary. I use pictures with my kids, but they have to be relevant and in context so children can make connections. I use a lot of visuals like graphic organizers—I especially like these because they are very specific and help kids with visualizing and representing ideas.

I also make sure to find out about students’ prior knowledge and I often ask my students to share their own experiences. I start by sharing something about myself and try to connect with them, and then I ask them about their own life experiences. I was a refugee myself, and my children as well. Like many of them, when I came to the U.S. I did not speak a word of English. So I share a natural connection with them.

Q: How did you become a teacher and why did you choose it as your profession?

TK: My first job was working as a teacher’s aide in a French school in Burundi. At that time the situation in Burundi wasn’t going well due to the genocide in Rwanda. A Kindergarten teacher, who was French, went on summer vacation and didn’t return. The principal had to teach that class, and she asked me help her. The principal then started to mentor me, and we met every afternoon and prepared lesson plans together. The next year, I became the head teacher of that Kindergarten class.

Q: How did you end up in the U.S.?

TK: As the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi got worse, people were being killed every day. I saw neighbors and relatives being killed—I lost eight brothers and sisters in the war. So I applied for and received asylum for my family. We were placed by Lutheran Social Service in Sioux Falls in 1995.

We arrived on April 10 and by April 12, my kids were in school. It was a very scary experience for them, and for me—I didn’t know who I was giving my children to. The teachers didn’t know how to work with kids from different countries and I felt helpless to try to help them. There were not many African people here at that time. We didn’t speak the language and everything was difficult. And through all of it, we were still dealing with the trauma of everything we experienced in Africa.

Q: What were your first experiences like with schooling your children?

TK: The school program for immigrants was very new. One teacher, whom I now teach with, told me, “We didn’t know what we were doing.” Teachers were sending homework back home to me, and report cards, and I couldn’t read them. But I kept all these documents, saying to myself, one day I want to know how to read English. I asked Lutheran Social Service for help and was set up with a tutor. The first thing I did was have my tutor translate the notes from school. One of the teachers had written to me, “It seems like these kids don’t understand anything. They don’t do homework. It seems like you don’t care about education of your children.” I was so scared and upset that the school thought I didn’t care about my kids’ education. But really, I couldn’t read anything, there was nothing I could do.

Q: Even though you had a negative first experience with your school, you ended up going back as a volunteer, and now you work there. Why?

TK: Once I started to understand how to communicate in English, I started volunteering at Lutheran Social Service, translating for the new immigrants from Africa. I also started working for the school as a tutor for science, math and social studies and then they hired me for a language specialist position. I loved it but I realized I needed a four-year degree in order to have a teaching job. With the encouragement of my mentor, I went to University of Sioux Falls for my undergraduate degree and master’s degree.

Q: How has the Sioux Falls School District changed the way it approaches its immigrant and refugee students since you arrived?

TK: I can say that the district has come a long way since my own experience with it 20 years ago. We have a new summer program that helps immigrant children learn about and get familiar with the schools they go into in August. Over the summer, I also work with teachers, helping them understand African culture. I tell them that it’s so important to get to know their students’ history. Knowing just the basic information about students’ ethnic and linguistic background and the situation which they came from helps a lot.

I tell them about my personal experience with the district, like that note the teacher sent home with my child. I understand that my children didn’t do their homework and that the teacher was frustrated, but I was working three jobs trying to support my family, and my children couldn’t understand anything going on at school. If that teacher had taken the time to know our situation, her empathy would have improved greatly. She would have known this family was struggling and had experienced trauma. Once teachers know the situation of their students and their families and can put themselves into their shoes, they will understand their stories and connect with them.
Q: You have already accomplished so much with your life. What are your goals for the future?

TK: I am now pursuing a doctorate from the University of St. Thomas, so that is a big short-term goal. But for me, teaching has been a calling. I do it to help others. I am in a position where I can really see the impact of my work, where teaching a language can really help a family survive and change the fate of future generations, that makes me feel as if I am fulfilling my life’s work. But I also feel as if I am learning from my students even as I teach them. It is a wonderful feeling, but I want to create an even better situation here: where all teachers and children and parents put their full commitment into the schools and make them the best place they can be.