Let’s distill all education debates into one, central question: Do Americans believe that all students have a right to feel safe and welcome at schools, or do only a privileged few deserve such a guarantee? Every single education initiative will fail until we answer this question correctly and earn our students’ trust.
While I strapped my son into his booster seat last Sunday, my eyes caught a glimpse of hope in Detroit. Staked in a front yard was a Welcome Your Neighbor sign written in Spanish, English and Arabic. The message was clear, simple and sorely needed: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
I searched the sign online and was delighted to discover that it is a growing phenomenon found in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Canada. The sign is the brainchild of Mennonite Pastor Matthew Bucher and is being rapidly replicated to counter Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
The Welcome Your Neighbor signs are transformative for both those who display them and those who see them. My ancestors immigrated here and, because I am not a hypocrite, I know it is my American duty to actively participate in welcoming new immigrants. Simultaneously, people new to this country receive comfort in the affirmation that this is the land of immigrants.
Neighbors are not the only people who need warmth during the oppressive reign of Trump and his supporters. Children are fast becoming casualties of our nation’s bigotry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests have increased 40 percent since Trump took office. Teaching has become even more challenging because my students live under constant fear of deportation. Research (and common sense) demonstrates that fear interferes with students’ ability to learn, solve problems and relate positively with others.
I am committed to replacing my students’ fear with the peace of mind that schools are a safe place for refugees, immigrants and children of immigrants.
As a teacher of immigrant and refugee students, this sign became a revelation to me for how to vanquish fear and better foster an inclusive school environment. Trump and his followers vomit hateful, xenophobic rhetoric that terrorizes my students on a daily basis. We must combat Trump’s terrorism and protect our students.
Let’s distill all education debates into one, central question: do Americans believe that all students have a right to feel safe and welcome at schools; or do only a privileged few deserve such a guarantee? Every single education initiative will fail until we answer this question correctly and earn our students’ trust.
As educators, we are morally bound to not impose our own political beliefs upon our students. However, the Trump administration has concocted an ethical conundrum for us: we are government employees teaching during a time when our president is openly hostile toward specific demographics of our students.
Because I serve my students and their parents first, I created a sign to make it clear to every passerby that our learning community is an inclusive sanctuary for refugee and immigrant students. In English, the Welcome Our Students sign says, “No matter where you or your parents are from, we are honored that you are our student.”
The original Welcome Your Neighbor sign is comprised of Spanish, English and Arabic; however, few of my students speak Spanish, and I needed to make a change. Forty-six percent of the students I currently teach in Michigan are categorized EL (English Learners). For most, their first language is Arabic or Chaldean, followed by students who speak Albanian, Bengali, Bosnian and a then a smattering of Hmong, Polish, Urdu, Spanish, and Vietnamese speakers. I chose Arabic and Albanian because the majority of my EL families are literate in one or the other.
Cultural inclusion can be a complicated task. Often times, the dominant culture interprets multiculturalism as excluding them. That’s why I love how the second row is devoted to English readers and creates a genuinely inclusive message.
I enlisted help from students, friends and brilliant, bilingual English learner aides to edit Google Translate’s lackluster Albanian and Arabic versions of the sentiment. And a sign was born.
I am currently lobbying my district’s administrators to purchase and post the signs for the start of this school year. Will you join me by doing the same?
I know that this sign can revolutionize the community’s perception of how much our schools value them. In an effort to gauge the sign’s influence this past May, I made a copy and taped it to my classroom door. My students’ reactions speak volumes as to the Welcome Our Students sign’s positive impact:
“I think this makes parents feel like our district is a safe place.”
“People aren’t sure who’s racist now and this sign makes us feel safer.”
“The signs make parents feel like they will be accepted at this school even though English isn’t their first language. I think it has the same impact on students too.”
“This sign sends the message that our schools are diverse, and they are, so it makes people feel comfortable.”
Imagine an America where every single school has a Welcome Our Students sign proudly displayed in front. Tome after tome has been written on how to reform schools; however, until students feel wanted, needed and valuable, there will be no academic progress.
If you are a parent, student or educator, you have the power to create a welcoming school environment in direct opposition to Trump’s toxic version of America.
A welcome sign is the first step.
Please visit Regan Manwell Sowinski’s Welcome Our Students website for a free download of the sign in either Albanian, English and Arabic or Spanish, English and Arabic.