On the door to her room at Gunston Middle School, Robin Liten-Tejada has posted the names of her students.
It is a rich mix, even for a country as diverse as Arlington: Russian rubs shoulders with Thai, Somalia blends with Latin America. The curriculum is often just as diverse. Depending on how many students enroll each semester, Liten-Tejada may teach a blend of students from sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
But Liten-Tejada, a teacher in Arlington’s High Intensity Language Training, ties them all together. Part of Arlington’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, HILT classes must present some of the standard curriculum — for Liten-Tejada, social studies and basic math — while helping students catch up on their English language skills.
Arlington’s School Board members and Superintendent Robert Smith will honor Liten-Tejada, a 16-year veteran of Arlington schools, at their April 18 Board meeting, since she was recently named the county’s Teacher of the Year for 2002.
She also won National Board certification this year, she said. Despite her achievements, the year doesn’t seem all that different from others – at least not at first.
“For me personally, this is 16 years of teaching. On the surface it’s the same thing,” she said. “But it’s never the same. I always get new techniques and ideas.”
HILT CAN BE a tough field, Liten-Tejada said, and one she came to purely by accident.
She was working on a master’s degree at George Washington University, and planning on working in international banking.
“As I was finishing my master’s, I decided I wanted to work with Latin American immigrants. I spoke Spanish,” she said.
A position opened up at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, as an assistant in the school’s HILT program. “I juste fell in love,” Liten-Tejada said, “working with the kids and the families. So after I finished this expensive master’s degree, I never used it.”
At the time, most of her students came from El Salvador, and in 1985, many were fleeing that country’s civil war. “There were whole groups traumatized by the war,” she said, uprooted from rural areas and driven out for fear of becoming targets.
In some cases, that combined trauma and illiteracy. “Children from rural areas may have a limited education,” she said. “They needed to learn their alphabet, their numbers. And I worked with families in the parent outreach program, helping parents learn what their children needed to do in school.”
NOW, LITEN-TEJADA’S students come from all over the world. “It’s not only Spanish. That’s still the largest group, but there are a lot from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Arabic speaking countries. Everywhere,” she said.
After 16 years, she has seen many of her students change from American newcomers into regular citizens. “Especially when they’re new arrivals, they come in, they speak no English. Then you see them later, and they’re living here, working here,” she said. “They’ve really become part of the community.”
Part of the HILT process also means shepherding students through the same pitfalls as every other adolescent. “Middle school years can be tough,” Liten-Tejada said. “They’re tougher in HILT classes. You’re not only dealing with normal adolescent changes, but you have to adapt to a new culture.”
That’s complicated by family reunions, she said, in some cases after children haven’t seen their parents for years.
At the same time, however, middle school in a HILT program may be a little easier. With so much focus recently on taunting, teasing and power trips among middle school students, Liten-Tejada said she doesn’t see those problems in her classes.
“They’re from different cultures. I think a lot of others are more communicative, more sharing, more social. Latin America, definitely more than ours,” she said. “I think there’s less of that ‘alpha’ male or female thing.”
Besides, she said, students need to help each other as much as possible, to learn English or just to adapt to America.