“Please make sure you’re looking after our children.”
In 2015, Durham School of the Arts science teacher Alex LeMay sat across the table from four Mexican women at Restaurant Los Escamoles in Mexico and listened to their stories. Over a shared meal, the women made the emotional request that Durham teachers take care of the Latino students in their U.S. classrooms.
The Mexican women described how they hadn’t seen their children and grandchildren in years because they were permanently living in the U.S. and could not cross the border due to deportation fears.
“It makes you take your job a little more seriously,” said LeMay, who was participating in a weeklong trip to Mexico to learn more about the country’s education system. “You see kids differently after a trip like this. You see what’s behind some of the behaviors a little easier, and you also have more compassion because you do understand about that grandma that might not get to see them or that students might feel isolated from family.”
The immersive trip to Mexico, called Visions, is organized by the Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs and annually invites Durham teachers and administrators to spend a week living with host families, learning about the history of Mexico and the city of Guanajuato, and visiting urban and rural schools.
Durham educators get the chance to speak with other teachers, administrators and families in Mexico, ask questions through a translator, share insights over dinner, and compare and contrast school experiences.
LeMay, who has taught at Durham School of the Arts since 1996, said she attended Visions because she noticed more of her students were from Mexico and were getting “lost in the system” in the U.S. After the trip, LeMay helped create quarterly, free workshops for Latino students and their families that addressed the transition from eighth grade to high school. Workshop topics included homework expectations, credits required for graduation, translatable online resources, and one-on-one teacher support.
“I understand where my kids come from,” LeMay said. “I’m more sensitive to things I’d be oblivious about before. I have much more sympathy and understanding of the fears of deportation and the devastating effect of living in constant insecurity and how that can play out in terms of classroom behavior and academic success.”
This year, June 10 through June 17, a new Visions cohort will visit Guanajuato, Mexico, and surrounding towns. The group is comprised of four educators from Holt Elementary Language Academy and three from Burton Magnet Elementary School, and they will get to learn about the Mexican education system, immigration issues, and the similarities and differences between Guanajuato and North Carolina schools.
Channa Pickett, senior program coordinator for Visions in the Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs, led a workshop at Burton Magnet Elementary in May to prepare the educators for the weeklong journey. They discussed the weather in Mexico, what to pack, the exchange rate for pesos, common wildlife (scorpions), dietary restrictions and more.
The teachers will get to cook with their host families, take a Spanish class, participate in tours of historic buildings, visit an abandoned silver mine, and talk with school directors. They will also attend a presentation with the Bajío Community Foundation, a Mexican nonprofit that promotes local infrastructure and economic development in rural areas.
Pickett said she hopes Visions inspires Durham teachers to share lessons from the trip with their colleagues as well as establish stronger relationships with Latino parents in Durham Public Schools.
“I hope that they come back with the energy and confidence to address a specific challenge at their school related to Latino student and family success,” Pickett said. “Having a conversation piece like Visions sometimes helps open doors and have Latino parents develop that trust in you.”
Holly Woodard, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Holt Elementary Language Academy, is traveling to Mexico this month with Visions. A majority of her students’ families are from Mexico. She has witnessed some of her young students spending a year studying in the U.S. and then spending a year studying in Mexico, and they struggle with the transition between school systems.
“Our students study Mexico and Latin America when they are in first grade. We need to do more programs that celebrate their (Latino) identities starting in kindergarten through fifth grade,” Woodard said. “I want some concrete ideas on how to involve our parents more and get them actively engaged in our school culture.”
Woodard and the rest of the group leave for Guanajuato, Mexico, on June 10. Follow the Office of Durham & Regional Affairs’ Facebook and Twitter pages during the week of June 12 to receive updates about the Visions trip.
Story by April Dudash, Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs