First Time Immigrant Teacher in a Brand New Country

Ruslana A. Westerlund

Imagine a brand new immigrant arriving on Labor Day in 1995 and stepping into the classroom on the following Tuesday. Not sure who had a stronger culture shock: me or the students who interacted with me. I spoke highly educated but very formal English. We learned English from a book and called it bookish English (for more details, take a listen to my memoir).

In our English classes, we learned that you make requests with verbs in their imperative form, where every command starts with a verb (just stop and think back to your foreign language classes and how you learned imperative mood). For example, we would say, “ Pay attention”, “Sit up straight, don’t slouch”, “Raise your hand when speaking”, and “Line up at the door”, “Greet your teacher when she enters the room.” Well, in Minnesota, I learned that no one makes commands using the imperative mood of the verbs, unless you are angry (just think of your parenting language when you want your kid to do something). I think I know why. They didn’t learn English from a book. They learned English by being socialized into it. And when you are socialized into it, you learn the language from your family members, community members, teachers, peers and others.

So, in the Midwest, in the context of schooling, commands are formed as suggestions. And, as I was told by one teacher educator who got her teaching degree in the US, that you were taught how to make requests to improve student behavior not as commands but as positive reinforcements. See Table below. According to that theory, behavior cannot be corrected with negative language, instead, teachers were taught to reframe everything into positive comments to draw attention to the positive and diffuse the negative. My Soviet schooling in the 90’s did not whatsoever pay attention to such nonsence, and when Ukraine became independent in my sophomore year, our pedagogues didn’t switch that fast to reflect some other philosophy of addressing negative behavior. So, my first experience in an American school in Minnesota involved me speaking English like a foreigner: perfect grammar, high “bookish” educated vocabulary but very inappropriate for the context.  My first year was a year for building experience, getting to know the culture of school and thank goodness, I was not assigned my own classroom (I was working on translating my Ukrainian teaching degree to a Minnesota Teaching License). 

One time I said, “Children, look at me.  Stop talking. Pay attention”. I learned that “Pay attention” phrase does not have an equivalent in the U.S. schools or I have never heard it.  Instead, it was something like “It’s story time, children”.  Whenever I would make those behavior corrections of children using verbs in the command form, the teacher corrected me by modeling sentences like “I like how Johnny is sitting patiently and waiting for his turn.”, “Amanda is ready for story time.  She is sitting crisscross applesauce.”  What?  Crisscross applesauce?  First, we were taught not to sit on the floor like that but to keep your legs together, plus Soviet children never sat on the floor because they would catch either a cold or a draft or pneumonia.  We only sat at desks, no slouching, no crisscrossing of legs and no applesauce.  Wait, why are we talking about applesauce anyway?  So, with those experiences, I was very confused my first year but I enjoyed the experiences. 

The children knew me as a fun teacher who spoke like a foreigner but with perfect grammar! They had this interesting look on their faces when I would talk to them.  Like, “we understand what you are saying, but it sounds “interesting”.  I remember some students repeated my way of talking.  I thought it was charming.  I didn’t take offense because I thought that the funny part was their way of sitting when they had to turn and talk.  I also couldn’t understand how they would stretch out their arms all the way to the sky for the teacher to call on them.  They didn’t know the proper way of behaving by sitting on your desk with your hands folded and your right hand had to be raised perpendicular to your right at 90 degrees.  That’s when we learned geometry: in first grade when the teacher would correct us and say, “Raise your hand at the right angle”, and not “I see Ruslana sitting there politely with her hand at the right angle, and not stretching it into the sky like some desperate student.”  We understood direct commands and obeyed them.  We were good obedient young October revolution children.