Podcast: Finding Acceptance as an Immigrant Student Feat. Margarita Lezama

Photo: Margarita Lezama and Noelle Morris met before school closures.

Join us on the HMH Learning Moments podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Margarita Lezama, a middle school ESL and ESOL teacher at Brownsville Middle School in Miami, Florida.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series, hosted by HMH's Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Margarita Lezama is a middle school ESL and ESOL teacher at Brownsville Middle School, part of Miami-Dade Public Schools in Miami, Florida.

When she was a child, Margarita and her family fled the political situation in Nicaragua and immigrated to Mexico before seeking asylum in the United states in 1983. She now teaches a large immigrant population and relates with her students on topics like coping with culture shock, learning English, and facing discrimination. Margarita encourages her students to strive for higher education and set goals for themselves to pursue their passions. This episode was recorded before school closures took place for COVID-19. Now, here are Margarita and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: How would you describe the students that you're teaching and the approach that you take to connect to them?

Margarita Lezama: The students that I'm teaching, I feel I really identify with them because they're immigrants as well as I am. Because I have been here for more than 30 years, and most of my life, I can say, I feel like I belong here. But I know that they don't.

So I like and I enjoy helping them to make the transition and kind of be the bridge between what they have behind and what they are becoming in the future. And I want them to be successful.

NM: And I love the student who made you come up and share that you were also Nicaraguan and had been from Nicaragua so that they are also proud of that. You have several students from Honduras, Dominican Republic, and even students who shared that they were born here but predominantly speak Spanish at home, and so we're still working on their language skills and developing that. They were not shy to share or contribute. What have you done to allow them to feel that confidence to speak in their language and also make this transition as they're learning English?

ML: I think that the key for that is to make them feel welcome and accepted. That is the key. If I accept them as they are and they accept me as I am, we accept each other, and that is the key to start building a personal relationship with them as a teacher. And as a student, they feel comfortable. Sometimes I have a student who doesn't want to leave my classroom. And I understand they feel like home here.

And that was something that it made me feel really, really good about myself because this is a different culture. For example, when I stand at the door and I say, "Welcome, good morning," they are very caring and each of them, they say, "Good morning." They look at me, they look at them and it’s coming naturally when you identify with them.

Margarita is originally from Nicaragua, as are several of her students.

NM: So tell me a little bit about what you notice about your student's previous school experiences. When they move here and they come into the classroom, what do you notice that they are having to transition the most into American culture of a classroom?

ML: One thing is that this schedule here, this schedule is long. It is the whole day schedule. I did my elementary, middle, and high school, and even part of my university in Nicaragua. And we have only five hours in school. And here it’s the whole day. We don't eat in school. We don't have breakfast in school. We start early, and we leave at noon.

People who decide to go in the afternoon, they start at one, and they finish at five, six, and here is a long day for them. So I understand that, and I try to explain to them, "Listen, this is why you need to get adjusted to a new schedule." And it's good for them because what I made them to understand that they won't be alone at home.

So it's better for you to be safe or for you to be here in school and not to be alone at home. Also, you need to learn a lot. So you need to take advantage of the time that you're here and in school, and you need to learn the language, which is the most important for you because that's when everything is started.

And I just tell them, everybody goes through the same, so don't worry. You will make it. Look at me. I made it.

NM: And it's so important because the cognitive load of learning a new language, learning a new culture, it's a lot, it takes a lot. What do you notice, and how do you pick up on behaviors of students when you know they may need a break, like they just need a pause?

ML: Well, I told them when you feel that this is too much, let me know. And I will give you a break. And I noticed that I have had only like we can say three or four that tell me "This is too much for me. I want to go home. I start feeling sick. My stomach hurts. I feel dizzy."

And I told them "Do you really want to be home? Do you really want to call your mom? What's going on? Tell me what's going on." And they tell me, "No, so and so made me feel bad today." Most of the time, that's what happened.

NM: Oh, someone made them feel bad.

ML: Yeah, because they don't feel accepted, and it's hard. It's hard. And I understand the other side as well, because everything that is different, it scares us.

NM: So let's talk a little bit more about, they don't feel accepted. Has a student ever shared with you something that, you know, almost breaks your heart, but you have to help them work through it?

ML: Definitely yes. Unfortunately I have heard people, we can say colleagues, that they really feel like they don't accept the students, because I understand we have a lot of pressure because of the grades and they represent a minus. And I understand that, but as a human being, I think that that's not the right thing to do.

NM: It saddens me to hear you say they represent a minus. And how much do you see that they pick up on that, and how can we continue to strive together in education teacher-to-teacher to know every student has a story, every student needs and wants to thrive? Because what I got to see from your students is they are definitely more on the side of thriving, and they are together and a community.

I loved seeing them make eye contact with each other when they talk or when they're about to say something. They know a student who's from their country and might think the same as them when they were sharing with me the foods that I should try from their country.

When we asked what food that they have learned to love here, and there was like this crescendo of "Pizza!" and I loved seeing your smile. Do your students worry about anything?

ML: Yes, my students, those who have their family here. They come in, most of them, they come into a broken family with a new father or stepfather, and they are broken in pieces because their family, they're not together anymore.

They were living with a grandmother here and now they're living with the mother. The mother has a new stepfather who they don't know. They do not get along with that person. And if they try to live with their father, they have to deal with a new stepmother.

And they go through a lot. They're going through a lot of issues. But like I said, even if you have a struggle in your life, you need to go through it. You’re going to make it. Just take advantage of everything that you have here that you’re missing in your country and just keep going. Keep going, keep going. Don't do silly things.

I understand that probably you will have some distraction, but don't pay attention to distractions. Just focus. Don't let those things to take it away from your path because, and I asked them, "What is the point for you to be here? Why [did] you come here?" Not “because my mom told me." No, there is a reason why, and you know that reason.

The reason why is because you're safe here, and also you're going to have a better life. And they listen to me, they start telling me what they want to be.

Margarita tells her students that they can be whatever they want to be, as long as they have the tools and the passion to do so.

NM: What do your students tell you they want to be?

ML: Most of my students, they told me, Oh, I want to be an accountant. I want to be a doctor. I want to be a firefighter. And I say, Oh, of course you can do it, whatever you want, you can do it, but you need to know what you need. What it takes for you to reach your goal. And you will make it. Don't have doubt. You will make it. I have seen people who have—a student who has been even coming out from jail and they have to be struggling and struggling. And now they're successful. So don't limit yourself. You can be whatever you want to be

NM: I want to talk a little bit about your story of moving here when you were 18. For us, we're graduating or we're just starting our college. Tell me a little bit about that. And then we'll talk about how you continue to keep your roots so that you stay connected with the transition that your students are going to make. So tell our listeners a little bit about your move from Nicaragua to the United States.

ML: I had to leave Nicaragua when I was 17 years old. And I had my uncle who was established in Mexico because he was starting in Mexico so he had a stable job. And we have to practically just run away because of the political situation that we had in Nicaragua.

NM: When you say had to leave quickly, does that mean your parents had to decide, you had to decide, there were things that weren't even to get packed up? Like you left that fast?

ML: What happened was that after the revolution in Nicaragua, they [put] a military service in place. They put it in place. And my brother was about to meet the time that he had to go. And of course we don't want that. So my parents decide that me and my brother, we have to just go away.

So it was hard for me. To begin with, I had never been away from my mom. My sister, she was five years old. It broke my heart to leave my sister. So that was really hard for me.

NM: You're telling me that you and your brother, you’re the two that left, and you moved to Mexico?

ML: Yeah, we’re the ones, the first who has to go to Mexico. So when I get to Mexico, I was blessed because I have a family. I have my uncle, I have my two cousins and my aunts. So I feel safe in this place. Without my mother, without my father, I didn't know what may happen to my father because of the political situation, like I said. And his father was part of the government, the previous government.

So I was afraid. My uncle was afraid as well. And it was difficult. There were so many things going on at the same time. So my uncle told me one day, I want you to go to continue to study. And I said, okay, and I started going to university in Mexico. I didn't feel welcome in Mexico. Probably because...I think it was me. That I feel I was missing part of my family and I was not comfortable. Probably that was the issue.

But even though they speak the same language, I felt different. So my mother told me, don't worry. My grandfather as well, he told me don't worry. That is not going to be the last place that you're going to be established. We are going to try to do something different. I even tried to go back to Nicaragua.

I asked my father, and my father said, no, no, [there] is no way that we can go back. We have to go forward. So you have to be patient, and you have to listen to what I'm saying. If I decide that you and your brother have to be out of here, you have to be out. And you have to endure everything that you have to go through. I know that you're in a safe place, and you will understand me when you grow up. You will understand me.

Now I understand him completely. And I didn't understand at that time why he decided to be the last one to leave the country when he was the one who was in danger. Now I understand why they didn't give us details.

But it was dangerous because if the government decides that he wants to live with the family, they will say, no. He will be in jail. Because of political situations, they were out of control. So I decided just to follow his directions and that’s it. I just move on. I move on, and my uncle, my cousin, they helped me to just keep going.

So after six months, my mother arrived to Mexico with my sister, and—sorry—my sister broke my heart. She broke my heart because she was too little. She was six years old by that time. Whew, it was difficult.

Margarita has a story that many of her students can relate to: dealing with culture shock.

NM: Right. I mean, cause she's really not understanding.

ML: Yes.

NM: And she's missing her dad, your dad. So what was that transition like? You're 18 and working your way into school in Mexico. Did you continue school or did you start working?

ML: No, I attended university. Like I said, I was, I was studying for engineering. So most of the people were men, and I didn't feel comfortable in this place. But I kept going because that's what I was meant to be, in engineering. So I say, okay, I have to keep going.

NM: Because this is the eighties, right?

ML: That was in the eighties, yes. It was in Mexico. But probably that's why I feel uncomfortable because I've always studied in Catholic girls schools. I was not used to being in an environment, just the majority of them were only men. And I was really young. I was too young.

NM: Okay. But you knew what you wanted to be.

ML: Yeah, I knew what I wanted to be, and of course, I feel like, okay, I have to get adjusted. Everything was different. It's weird, but I felt more different when I arrived to Mexico than when I arrived here.

NM: So tell us about, now, the transition because you moved from Mexico to Miami.

ML: To Miami, yes, because after my mother arrived to Mexico, we went to the American embassy, and thank God we got the visa to come here to this country. So my mother came first with my sister, and we waited for three months, and then we arrive to Miami, my brother and me.

So it was like peace of mind to arrive here, even though my father still was in Nicaragua. And after three more months, my father arrived, but to San Francisco, not to Miami. And we were trying to get the resident [visa] because my grandfather got a political asylum, so he was able to give the resident to everybody.

NM: What year is this that now you—?

ML: 1983. Transition to 1984.

NM: Okay. And so you're here because your parents—your mom's family's here?

ML: Yes

NM: And your grandfather has been able to support residency because of the political asylum. Okay.

ML: Yes, but I was already 18 years old, so I didn't qualify to be part of that packet.

NM: Oh, okay.

ML: Yeah, so I have to be waiting for a political asylum, my brother and me.

NM: You had to go through that on your own, like file your own?

ML: Yes. Yes. I have to file it on my own, and it was really hard for me to get it because when I arrived here, I got married two years later. And it was difficult because by that time, I was already 20 years old, and plus I was married.

So I have to be like, find the resident for another way. And I got married with somebody who was in the same situation as me. So it was hard. It was tough, but I feel blessed because the way that they transition was just— I was willing to be here. Like I said, it was a blessing for me to be living here in Miami because I was able to take care of my sister—at that time was already seven years old, she started going to school. So I started taking care of her. I stay home, my parents were working. My brother was working. And after, like I said, after two years, I get married. I stay home, I was a housewife for many years.

Every teaching journey begins differently. Margarita's started with her own children's education.

NM: It was a nurturing path to education, and I'm sitting here listening to your story and I'm reflecting on the years. You're just reminding me the importance that we really need to embrace each other's stories and understand what our stories do to contribute to who we are as a teacher. So after being a stay-at-home mom, what brought you to deciding, I'm going to be a teacher?

ML: My son was really attached with me. Extremely attached. My youngest, my baby boy who's now 31 years old.

NM: Still your baby boy.

ML: He's still my baby boy. He's still living with me. So I started being a volunteer because he doesn't want me to leave school. He wants me to stay with him. The more the time that I can be with him the better.

So, and I started being a volunteer when he was in kindergarten. I liked this environment. I like to help the teachers because by that time back then, there was a lot of immigrants in Miami. And I noticed that they need help. Definitely teachers need help, especially in kindergarten. So after a few years, they offer me a part time as a paraprofessional.

And I say yes, yes, it's a good idea to be a part time because I leave the school with my kids at school. And it was okay. I like it. I start enjoying it. And when my baby boy went to middle school, I started working full time as a paraprofessional. So I was in a classroom helping a teacher who was in math class and she was going crazy with 40-something students.

NM: And you're like, I was in engineering.

ML: My major, I was good at math. And I used to be sent to competition when I was in high school.

NM: And you're probably like move over! I can do this. I got you.

ML: She told me well, listen, you don't have the certification, but you are a teacher. When I saw you working with this student, you are a teacher. Let me just divide the class in half. And this is going to be your half, this is going to be my side, and we are going to be teaching and we are going to make the students to be successful in this state test.

NM: How amazing that your teacher recognized that, despite everything else, was like, we're going to do this together—which is so important too between teachers and paraprofessionals because so many of our paraprofessionals are also in that path.

So let's talk about the math because now I want to make sure I'm clear. You volunteered in elementary, but it's sounding like you moved to middle school...

ML: Yes, when my, when my two kids went to middle school, I went with them.

NM: Okay.

ML: Yes, because the assistant principal told me when your son left school, you are going to have a job next door because you decided to be working over there with whatever they decide.

And I say, what do you mean "whatever?" She said, no, whatever it is, they decide to have you for math, for social studies, whatever you want to do, whatever they need you to be, I know that you're capable to do it. She gave me that push that I need, that confidence.

NM: I like that you’re like, "What do you mean 'whatever?'"

ML: Because she meant any area, any subject that they need me to help with. She told me, I know that you can make it. I know you [are] capable to do it. And I said, okay, I never went to school just to study English, but I grasped the English. My ex-husband, well, but that time it was my husband, he speak English really well, so I just picked up the language. But listen to him and my kids, because we decided that I will speak with them in Spanish, and he's going to be the one who's going to talk to them in English. And they want us to be most of the time in English, and they pick up the language really fast.

Margarita volunteered at her children's elementary school before teaching at Brownsville Middle School.

NM: Bilingual, but they preferred just speaking English or... English is their choice?

ML: English is their choice, definitely, but I push them to be bilingual. I made them take classes in Spanish. And when they went to high school, and I made [them] read in Spanish, to speak Spanish, and to understand. And I don't force them to like what they don't like because they weren't here, but they root out from Nicaraguan roots because both of us were from Nicaragua.

NM: So what's a day in a life? What do you do when you go home? How do you shut down from the classroom and just enjoy your evening and getting ready for the next day?

ML: Well, at this particular point in my life it’s hard for me to disconnect it because I have—teachers, we all will have homework to do. Like I have to be checking papers.

Sometimes I take my granddaughter to the park, or I just enjoy time with her. Or if I don't want to drive—like yesterday was raining, it was not a good day date to be out—I just stay home watching TV, just—I have plenty of books to read.

NM: Do you have a favorite show?

ML: Friends.

NM: Friends!

ML: I love Friends. I watched Friends over and over again.

NM: Oh my goodness. I love that Friends is on, and I can relive it with my daughter. So Friends. So that gives me a little insight into your humor and your joy. What books do you like to read?

ML: I like to read books that mean something like Teach Like a Champion. Give me some hints. There's another one that is called Heart. And that is a personal experience from people who have been going through different stages in their life. Somebody asked me how can you cope with this? I wouldn’t be able to answer, but I made it. I made it. You know, like it’s not easy to come here to this country, being here, and hard decisions that you have to make.

NM: I want to talk about math and ESOL students, because do you notice any strategies or skills that they bring from how they were taught math in their country and then here or is it a different concept?

ML: It's different, the procedures. My major is in math. When I went to university, I started going to college with my daughter. When my daughter started going to college, I started going with her.

NM: Oh, nice!

ML: Yes, so my major is secondary math.

NM: Okay. So you are a secondary person.

ML: Yes.

NM: You like middle school.

ML: Yeah, I like middle school.

NM: Me too. I am totally...middle school is my world. I tried volunteering in elementary, and it was like, I'm a volunteer. I think you're either born elementary or secondary. So what grade levels does your daughter teach?

ML: No, my daughter decided to go all the way down to early childhood.

NM: Oh, wow!

Margarita's middle school ESL/ESOL classroom.

ML: And I decided to go for math. So, because the first two years, they’re just general education, but the last two years of the career, you have to choose, you know to decide.

So I go for math, and she went for early childhood. She's been working successfully for more than 12 years. She is working with the little ones, with the early childhood students. And she said that the more that she can go for kindergarten—she cannot stand the other ones. No, I'm okay with them or middle school, but I also got my certification for elementary.

Okay, and I try elementary, but it's not my thing. My thing is middle school. Definitely.

NM: And you have to know that. And once you know where you belong, you soar. So what do you notice about students and what they bring with strategies and the language of math?

ML: In math I think that data is stronger in math than in any other thing, because numbers are numbers everywhere that you go. And the procedures are different, but you get the right answer. When I was teaching math that's what I understood. As soon as you get the answer, that's okay. The procedure probably is different, but the answer, it has to be the same one.

And I told them, listen, you need to understand like division. We divide and we make calculations in our head. Now you hear, you have to write it down. So it is confusing because it's like taking more steps, but it's something—it’s simple. And I told them you need to learn because you're going to be successful here in the U.S., and you're going to be in college here in the U.S.

And I don't make it like "maybe." No, I say you’re going to, you are going to be doing this. And that, because that is my goal. I want them to understand that even like, I was a stay-at-home mother, and now I'm a professional. They can do it. If they want to go straight to be a professional, okay. That's good for you, but you have to do it.

You're here to do this. There is no maybe, if, no, you are going to be a professional. And I have seen many of my students who now they are detective, nurses, they're working in hospitals. They are professionals. And that is very rewarding. I feel so happy about them.

NM: How do y'all celebrate together in class, and how do you continue to give that energy that you wanted as a student when you moved here? How do you continue to let them enjoy where they came from, where they're going to be? How do you promote growth?

ML: Well, to promote growth, what I tell them is you come into US to the right age. Because the time that you have now is just to study, just to learn.

So that give them like, it's true. I'm here to learn. You will have time to play. You will have time to enjoy. But first learn the language, and then you will enjoy it more because this is the right age for you to be here. I try to make them see the advantage and forget about the disadvantage. That's what I do.

Celebrations honestly, for us, is like having a party. We're not allowed to do that. The more that I can do is when they do good in a test, we can have a pizza party outside of the cafeteria, and I have had many. And they enjoy it just to have a little pizza with their friends and enjoy, you know. That is something that's special for them.

What they appreciate, [it's] coming from my teacher; they recognize me somehow in some way. And I asked them what kind of cookie do you prefer? Oreos? Okay. I try to buy Oreos, you know. I try to encourage them for just little details. They really appreciate those details.

"I want some of [my students] to listen to this and to understand and notice that they are important. They count."

NM: And they're like, "Oh, you remembered!" So on the part of just the joy. How do you, how do you want to be remembered?

ML: Well, I have one student who wrote me a letter. He was going through a lot, and he wrote me a letter towards the end of the year. And the letter just said, thank you, Ms. Lezama, for telling me how to think. So that broke my heart, yeah, because it’s like, okay—

NM: I was just like, yeah, okay—

ML: And it made me feel like I made it.

NM: Right. Because I mean, if I can think, if I'm thinking for myself, I'm going to make it.

ML: Exactly. I have a student who has...

NM: Don't make me tear up anymore. Ms. Lezama.

ML: That is something that made me inspire myself, because I need something to help me to keep going as well. So when I remember, oh my God, they’re going to miss this writing, and so I want them to remember that I can do it. If I want to do it, I can do it. No one can stop me. So number one, reach a goal. Not reach it, but before, they need to have a goal. They need to have a purpose in life.

And I want them to remember that they can make it. Like I said, everything that they want to do, they can, they can do it, even if they have to go back and read that and redo it and fix something, you can make it.

NM: Well Ms. Lezama. I know your students are going to make it. I know you've made it.

You continue to make it to have accepted this path into a profession. Own it. But your true passion is ensuring not your curriculum first, but the students first and letting them see their future and their potential, which is such a gift. I ask every teacher, what would be your walkup song? What, what do you hear in your head when you are ready to get into class and get to work?

ML: There's a song from Whitney Houston. That I can see, I believe the children. I don't know exactly the title of the song right now. I don’t remember, but it’s one that says, I believe that the children are our future.

NM: So perfect. You know yourself. That is so perfect. Exactly. That is your walkup song. Thank you for letting me come in. Thank you for letting me have these conversations.

ML: I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience with you. I really appreciate it because I want some of them to listen to this and to understand and notice that they are important. They count.

NM: Thank you so much for listening to this episode with Margarita and myself. I had an amazing experience in this classroom.

So when I think back again and reflect and hear Margarita's voice, what I hear is a teacher who was leveraging and using her personal story about immigrating to the United States. I saw that connection happening with her students and how she embraced the assets that they bring from the various cultures from so many countries that are represented.

You may not have heard it in the episode, but she connects and works with a co-teacher to expand and embrace and meet the needs of all of her students. Regardless of how we're working and what we're working on and who we're working with, remember the importance of using your story to connect to your students until the next time, your friend Noelle.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

We hope you enjoyed today's show. Please rate and review and share with your network. You can find Teachers in America on the HMH YouTube channel, and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped for the transcript and key takeaways. The links are in the show notes.

During this time, HMH is supporting educators and parents with free learning resources for students. You can visit hmhco.com/learning support for more information.

Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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