By Rick Joseph
Michigan Teacher of the Year
I recently had the honor of presenting at the Teach-In for Freedom in El Paso, Texas.
As I gathered with teachers from around the country on President’s Day, I felt an immense sense of gratitude for the opportunity to share the realities of refugee youth who represent the more than 14,000 young people who have been detained in federal government facilities for the offense of exercising their right to seek asylum.
I deeply appreciate the support of the Michigan Education Association and every MEA member who made it possible for me to attend this event. I also felt the profound power and import of belonging to a teacher’s union.
The spirit of solidarity and community permeated this event as both MEA and AFT affiliates from across the country came together to rally around the common cause of supporting children in our role as mandated reporters.
Together with Dr. Amy Hewett‑Olatunde, a colleague from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Minnesota Teacher of the Year 2016, we gathered in San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso to present a 12-minute piece entitled The Voice of Immigrant Youth. Amy teaches children each day who arrive in our country seeking asylum. They have managed to escape from situations where the threat of imminent death is very real.
Amy and I alternated reading poetry that represented the reality of life in El Salvador for thousands of people each day, who struggle to survive in the face of extortion, rape and murder. Faced with these stark choices, many choose to seek asylum in the U.S., making a long and dangerous journey with few resources and a very uncertain future.
My poetry came from a children’s picture book in verse by Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta entitled Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds. I read the poems first in Spanish, then in English, which recount the steps in the journey of asylum seekers from cities and towns throughout El Salvador, through Central America, Mexico, and then the United States.
Amy shared actual poems that her students, themselves refugees from El Salvador, had written as they processed the same journey represented in Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds. Watch our piece at tinyurl.com/JosephTeach-in.
As I reflect on what this event meant to the participants and those watching, I thought about all of you, my sister and brother educators across our state who selflessly serve children and families every day with little or no recognition. Your influence on the students you serve literally saves their lives. We hold the future in our hands each day.
More than ever before, I feel a deeper commitment to our profession and the need to speak out at all levels. Whether I’m with my students in our fifth- and sixth-grade classroom or anywhere in the wider world, I am proud to be a teacher. I will continue to share stories of those seeking justice and advocate for the voiceless. Thank you for this profound opportunity.