Maria Pais-Martin at Langley Secondary. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)


Above and Beyond: ELL teacher forges connections with refugee, immigrant students

Mari Pais-Martins’ background gives her insight into the kids she works with

Maria Pais-Martins says she doesn’t think that what she’s doing is out of the ordinary.

Her colleagues at Langley Secondary School (LSS) disagree.

“She is such a champion of her students,” said Principal Marcello Moino.

Teacher Maddaline Enns, who nominated Pais-Martins as a teacher who has gone “Above and Beyond” for her students, called her colleague “an amazing teacher.”

Pais-Martins is an English Language Learners (ELL) support teacher for immigrant and refugee students at LSS, where she has worked for four years.

Many of those students are refugees from places like Syria and Iraq. Some were born or raised in refugee camps, and many had years-long gaps in their education in any language.

“They come to Langley, they have to adjust to a whole new language, and a culture,” Enns said.

Pais-Martins has made it her mission to support and help those vulnerable students.

“It’s even the small things,” Enns said.

She recalled there was one student who didn’t have a jacket, and as the weather got colder and wetter, Pais-Martins made sure to reach out to the student’s family, to their social worker, not only about the jacket but about shoes, and about getting skirts for the student that wouldn’t get soaked walking to school in the morning.

“She takes the time,” Enns said.

“I think the biggest impact she has on her students is they absolutely trust her,” said Moino.

She’s protective and helps guide her students. Building trust with students who are at risk or have been traumatized in the past can be difficult, but Moino said Pais-Martins does the work.

Pais-Martins is doing what she can to make her students feel successful at school, Moino said.

“If they don’t feel successful here, they just stop coming,” he said, and Pais-Martins is a big reason why students keep coming back.

Enns and Moino both said that Pais-Martins does far more than teach her students to speak English.

She builds a safe space for them, they said.

Pais-Martins is drawing from a history that goes back to her own childhood when she works with students.

Before she became a teacher, she was working in mental health crisis work in London, Ontario. Working with street youths let her disocver that she had a passion for working with kids, and after some time as a stay at home mom, shedecided to get into teaching.

“I find that my skills that I used back in the day, they really come into play a lot,” she said.

But her childhood also plays a role.

Pais-Martins came to Canada with her family when she was seven years old, speaking no English.

“I can really relate,” she said of her young students who are also making the leap to a new culture and a new language.

She often talks about her own experiences with her ELL students.

Pais-Martins started her new career at a middle school in Chilliwack, and found she loved it. She came to the Langley the next year, and started work as a teacher on call.

“I was supposed to be there for a week,” she said.

But on her second day, the principal asked if she would stay. It was actually a tough decision, Pais-Martins said, as she’d been planning to work as a substitute to get her bearings in the new district.

“I ended up staying,” she said, and the opportunity to work in ELL programs was a part of that.

She’s thrown herself into the work, within and outside of the program.

Last year, Pais-Martins partnered with Donna Usher, a Langley Fine Arts teacher, on a project called Portraits of Resilience.

Students from LFA photographed and interviewed refugee and immigrant students at LSS for a project that allowed the recent arrivals to share their stories.

Putting the project together took a lot of work and was almost seven months in the making, because of the need to handle the interviews and photos sensitively, noted Pais-Martins.

“It was a wonderful collaboration, but it was also difficult, too,” she said. “There’s trauma in retelling our stories.”

In between working with her students and bringing the art exhibit to life, Pais-Martins finds time to be on the Langley Teacher Association’s Indigenous and Social Justice Committee, on the LSS Anti Racism Committee, and to run the LSS Christmas Hamper Program, and to be a first aid attendant at her school.

And of course, she’s teaching English and social studies along with her ELL work.

Ultimately, Pais-Martins said that what she does in her classroom is to develop connections with her students.

“The teaching comes after,” she said.

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