Yanitza “Yani” Mala knows what it’s like to come from a home with limited financial resources and to arrive at the door of an elementary school with no English language skills. She arrived from Puerto Rico under those very conditions when she came to Connecticut as a nine-year-old.
“I had this wonderful teacher and her name was Mrs. Callihan,” Mala said. “That's where I spent most of my day because that was the ELL (English-Language Learner) classroom. “Back then it was called ESL (English as a Second Language), and that was just like my safe place away from home,” she added.
Mala said one of her most indelible memories is of Mrs. Callihan’s bulletin board. It featured a world map and pictures of all her students pinned to it, showing where they each lived before they moved to Connecticut.
In that safe space created by her teacher for Mala and the many other students from around the world she was in class with, including her best friend at the time who was from Pakistan, Mala said she flourished. “I learned English pretty quickly,” Mala said.
From the basic interpersonal skills that she said helped her to “just get by,” she progressed enough to go on to middle school and receive what is now known as ESOL, or English Speakers of Other Languages, support.
As a middle schooler, she was bussed to her community’s local high school because there was no ESL teacher in her school in Vernon, CT. Mala said she received that support all the way through 11th grade.
Now, Mala is the ESOL teacher in charge of providing a safe space for English-learning students at Roger Sherman Elementary School in Meriden. She’s currently in her 17th year of teaching – the last six at Roger Sherman Elementary – and she said that she sees so much of what she does as advocacy.
“I advocate for my ELL students, but also for my parents,” she said. “[With me], they have someone that they can go to.” Mala said no matter what it is – a sick child, a computer that doesn’t work, plans to go on vacation, or even a problem with immigration status – ELL parents want to speak to her when they call the school.
She’s proud of the trust that she’s been able to build with the students and their parents. Mala said most of her parents are from countries like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador where Spanish is the dominant language. Many of the parents do not speak English and are also functionally illiterate in their native tongue, she said.
“They're embarrassed to say it but as I'm talking to them and getting to know their situation, and teaching multiple siblings,” she said she often discovers the difficulties the parents are facing. They’re the same kind of difficulties that her mother faced navigating the education of Mala and her younger siblings.
I was in my student's shoes at one point, you know, and my mom was one of these parents. My mom only finished high school. Being the oldest in my family, my mom said that I was always the teacher.
Mala said she often went to her brother’s parent-teacher conferences in her mother’s stead and she began translating for her mom at an early age. Now, in addition to helping students learn she’s helping their parents navigate immigration paperwork and even talking them through interacting with state agencies.
“It's more like everyone just says, ‘Go to Mala. Go to Mala. Mala will take care of it,’” she said.
Mala said she’s happy to be a trusted resource for her students and their parents even when she feels discouraged by the many obstacles that ELL students face. She said her students are tasked with meeting the strict demands of learning at a particular grade-level, while simultaneously learning a new language.
“It’s discouraging sometimes because I feel like we're just running in circles,” she said. “I work so hard, but it's just not enough…[because] we have all these other factors that just decrease their chances of making it.”
Mala said as her students prepare to leave her at the end of the fifth grade each year, she sits them down to offer them a pep talk about the brightness of their future if they can keep overcoming the obstacles in their path.
She speaks to them as one former ELL child to another. Despite the obstacles she faced, Mala went on to the University of Saint Joseph where she almost pursued nursing but after struggling through her first science class and watching all the nursing students stress out from studying until 3 a.m., she knew it wasn’t for her.
Mala ultimately received a fellowship to study for her master’s degree in education at the University of Connecticut and went on to become an ESOL teacher. She said she wants her students to understand that they have the same ability that she did at their age.
“I sit them down in my classroom and I tell them, ‘You're going to come back here one day when you're in high school and you're gonna ask me to help you fill out your college applications,’” she said.