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Mastering a new language is hard. And for children learning English in American schools, it can be especially hard - new grammar rules, awkward pronunciation, and your parents may not be able to help. But a great teacher can. And today, we're going to meet one as part of our 50 Great Teachers series. Thomas Whaley teaches second grade on Long Island, N.Y. And as Jasmine Garsd of the NPR Ed. Team reports, he's doing more than teaching vocabulary and grammar. He believes in creating a community.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's election season here in second grade, and tensions are running high. Today is speech day.
CHRIS PALAEZ: I'm here to tell you today why you should vote for me, Chris Palaez, to be the next president.
GARSD: Chris Palaez, 8, is nervous. His teacher is next to him helping out.
CHRIS: One time I when - wait. I think I did a mistake.
THOMAS WHALEY: When I...
CHRIS: When I got hurt, it hurt but I...
GARSD: Public speaking is hard, and despite some stumbles, Palaez is doing amazingly well. Born and raised in the U.S. to Ecuadorian immigrants, he started learning English a little over three years ago - his teacher, Mr. Thomas Whaley, says even at the beginning of this year.
WHALEY: I would say, OK, Chris, it's your turn. Why don't you read the next paragraph or the next sentence? And he would start to read it, and then he would stop and say, I need to go to the bathroom. I can't do this. I can't read. I'm not a very good reader. And I would say to him, actually, you really are.
CHRIS: I want to be your president.
GARSD: Those of us who have been ESL students know what it's like to get pulled out of class in front of everyone so you can learn to master the verbs and teach your tongue and throat to say the high school prom instead of the high school prom like your parents say it. What you need is a great teacher who lets you make mistakes.
WHALEY: It takes a lot for any student, especially a student who's learning English as their new language, to feel confident enough to say, I don't know, but I want to know.
You did a great job, buddy. I know you were a little nervous, but you were awesome.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I love how you want to give money to the poor and help them.
WHALEY: Absolutely. Say thank you.
CHRIS: Thank you.
WHALEY: Excellent job. Excellent job.
GARSD: Impeccably dressed with a gravely Long Island accent that turns one vowel into many, Thomas Whaley does not look like the kind of guy that dabbles in magic markers. Before he was a second-grade teacher, he worked at a PR firm in New York City. He had an aha moment while on the Long Island Rail Road.
WHALEY: I, you know, would talk with the people on the train at 6 o'clock in the morning and at 8 o'clock at night on the way home. They were people who had a complete disconnect on the young people in our world because they were all so focused on the rat race. And I realized that this was not for me.
GARSD: That was 16 years ago. He's been teaching ever since. In addition to teaching, Mr. Whaley has found time to author a novel, and he's starting to write children's books. Last year, he won the New York State Teacher of the Year award. This second-grade presidential campaign is an example of why. He tells me he got the idea when he asked the kids to...
WHALEY: Raise your hand if you think that you could never be the president of the United States.
GARSD: The answer broke his heart.
WHALEY: Almost every single child who is an English language learner believed that they couldn't be. I can't run for president because my parents are from a different country. That was a biggie. My family is poor, and you need a lot of money to be the president. I don't like to read, or I can't read.
GARSD: Mr. Whaley says this project is about more than just learning to read and speak. He wants these kids to learn to boast about themselves.
WHALEY: Presidents are not the only leaders. Who's a very important leader?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yourself.
WHALEY: Yourself. You have been since you were little teeny, tiny babies. When you cried for food, you were being your own leader. You were letting people know - feed me.
WHALEY: Right? Yeah.
Bragging about yourself and your best qualities is very difficult for a child who came into the classroom not feeling any confidence whatsoever to read three or four words.
ROBERT EPSTEIN: There's a sense of community in his classroom that's really unsurpassed, and they will take risks as a result.
GARSD: Robert Epstein should know. He's Mr. Whaley's boss, the principal of Canaan Elementary. He says this is the essence of what makes Mr. Whaley such a great teacher.
EPSTEIN: If one needs sneakers, I've seen him go out and buy them sneakers. He's gone to homes. He's constantly on the phone, constantly emailing parents.
GARSD: It's not an easy job juggling native speakers' needs with those of the ESL students. There's a lot of late afternoons and coming in early. On this Tuesday morning, I drive through Long Island before the traffic gets bad. The school is quiet except for Mr. Whaley's class. Many of the parents have dropped their kids off early, and Mr. Whaley is here with them.
WHALEY: A tall metal lady stands on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
GARSD: Today, Mr. Whaley is teaching the kids about a history they are now a part of.
WHALEY: Last but not least, immigrants - now, this is a very important word because we've been learning about our ancestors. Did all of our ancestors always live in the United States of America?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: No.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: No.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: No. But I don't think I ever had an ancestor.
WHALEY: You have tons of ancestors.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: My mom and my dad were born in Ecuador.
WHALEY: There you go. So most - a lot of your ancestors are from Ecuador. They were all this word - immigrants, someone who comes from a different country to a new country. So...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: To live a better life.
WHALEY: To live a better life - you're absolutely right. So we're going to...
GARSD: And that better life can start here in the classroom. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.
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