Amy Hewett-Olatunde sparkles. Not just literally—glitter-encrusted fingernails, gold-flecked eyeliner, and bold jewelry add an approachable twinkle to her appearance—but also in her demeanor. The English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher brings a bright, welcoming enthusiasm to her work at St. Paul’s LEAP High School, where pupils new to the United States are able to earn their high school diplomas while they learn English.
Hewett-Olatunde primarily teaches in English but can converse in Norwegian, German, and Canadian French—not languages likely spoken by the school’s 350 students, who hail from nearly 30 countries including Burma, Thailand, and a host of East African nations. “There’s always a way to teach someone without speaking the same language as they do,” says Hewett-Olatunde, who was recently selected as Teacher of the Year by Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. Rather than being split into traditional grades, LEAP divides its students, ages 14 to 20, into four levels depending on their English comprehension. She strives to find content for her students that is not only appropriate for their language level but also for their ages, since much of ESL curriculum is made for elementary-school kids. “We break it down in ways so that it’s academically rigorous but the students can still feel successful,” she says.
Multiculturalism has always been important to the native Canadian, who was raised in a small town with little diversity. “We were a very different family there,” she explains. “My mom was American, and she always tried to infuse different cultures into our life. We always had exchange students from Indonesia or Malaysia when I was growing up. I grew up with a very open-minded, global perspective on things. Every Saturday, we’d go to Winnipeg and my mom would take us to a different part of town—the Italian village, the Chinese markets. The different cultures were a part of me.”
That open-mindedness influences the approach she takes in working with students. Primarily a writing teacher, Hewett-Olatunde incorporates journals, poetry, and drama into her curriculum to support her students’ academic writing. Collaborations with local organizations and theaters, such as movement and improvisation lessons with St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre, help pupils blossom. “Learning how to speak when you haven’t practiced and feel uncomfortable is huge,” says Hewett-Olatunde.
She also makes her students feel more comfortable by joining them in vulnerable exercises. “I participate in all of this stuff with them,” she says. “If I give them journals to write, I write very personal entries as models for them. If they’re going to give me something that’s very intimate, I feel like it’s my responsibility to model that.”
Hewett-Olatunde hopes that she can help her students express their feelings and learn to be advocates for themselves—a skill she believes is imperative to their futures. She doesn’t see teaching the students as her greatest challenge; it’s the outside perception of her pupils that she really strives to change.
“So many of these students come from refugee camps and politically oppressive situations,” she explains. “People view them through a deficit lens, when really, they’ve done greater things than many of us will ever do. It’s so humbling. They tell you about the way that they grew up, and there’s no way you couldn’t feel like your life pales in comparison to the ones they’ve led.”