Every spring semester, Lorraine Berak takes several Central Michigan University students to the agricultural community of Immokalee, Florida, to student teach.
Some of them put down roots.
Six out of 12 CMU student teachers in Immokalee signed employment contracts April 25 with the county school system for the fall semester. In addition, two special education majors hope to join in November after they complete their last field experience.
"Another year I brought down 15 students, and I think 13 of them signed," said Berak, a faculty member in teacher education and professional development.
Currently, about 20 CMU alumni work in or around Immokalee in Collier County schools.
Scott Hart is one. It's his seventh year in Immokalee, where he teaches special education for grades K-5. He's also an adjunct faculty member for CMU's Global Campus and teaches early childhood special education courses online.
"The Immokalee experience gave me more than just a teaching position," Hart said. "It opened my eyes to an entirely different way of life."
Learning who they are
"Study away" programs like Immokalee exist partly to immerse CMU students in other cultures and economic situations. In the past, students have traveled to Australia and England. Some now study in Ireland. But students have to pay some of the costs for these programs, and for many a U.S. destination is more affordable and just as educational.
"Teachers need to be able to relate to people of all cultures and all economic means and understand that kids can learn no matter what," Berak said. "While teaching overseas is wonderful, and I encourage that, there are certainly places within the U.S. that have high poverty and are diverse in nature that need teachers."
Looking for such a place, Berak found Immokalee — where many families work from dawn in the farm fields, and many young students get themselves to school.
"You almost feel like you're in a third-world country when you go into the little town," Berak said.
This is Berak's seventh Immokalee student teaching group in eight years, and she knows the experience makes an impact.
"They learn not just about teaching, but about who they are," she said. "Any experience outside your comfort zone helps you grow."
Berak asked her student teachers to share some of their experiences and reflections for CMU News:
Rebekah Adams of Aurora, Illinois, is majoring in chemistry:
- "Some of these kids have next to nothing, and they still make the best of their lives. Everyone should have the mentality that they do about making it through life."
- "My time in Immokalee decided my career path. I fell in love with the culture and my students. I could not imagine working anywhere else. I plan to stay in Immokalee to teach starting next year."
About the photo: "This day really stood out to me because the point of the class was to show students that there are positive ways for them to relax and get out their stress," Adams said. "Through art, the students were able to finally relax after a long day and de-stress with their friends."
Emily Branigan of Shepherd, Michigan, is majoring in elementary education:
- "My biggest surprise is discovering that many of my students don't know when their birthday is. This can happen for a couple of reasons: They were born in a third-world country in areas where medical treatment is scarce (therefore, there is no birth certificate), or their parents obtained new identities and a 'date of birth' for them when they migrated to the U.S. When I was a kid, my birthday was always a special day filled with cake, ice cream, gifts, friends and family. Most of the children down here can't do that.
- "Teaching is much more than delivering instruction. Being a teacher, especially in a community like Immokalee, requires an incredible amount of patience, flexibility and perseverance. Additionally, I have gained a lot of respect for my students because they come to school every day despite the major responsibilities they have at home, such as cooking, cleaning and caring for their younger siblings. Many of them do not eat breakfast or get a full night's sleep because their parents are working long hours in the fields.
About the photo: "All 16 of my students are in this photo," Branigan said. "This photo is meaningful to me because each of these kids have a piece of my heart."
Myia Bunker is a special education major from Wolverine, Michigan:
- "Coming from rural northern Michigan, I'd never experienced diversity. I wanted to go to Immokalee to gain better understanding. I think the program has done that and more for me."
- "Immokalee will always be on my mind wherever I go. From this experience I hope to bring back compassion and understanding of those who come from different backgrounds."
About the photo: "I taught the kids poetry," Bunker said. "It helped me to learn more about the kids and their personalities. It felt like a successful day of teaching and connecting with the students."
Garrett Comer of Greenville, Michigan, is majoring in mathematics:
- "I learned a lot when teaching my English language learners class. The students helped me to teach more visually than orally and to take more time to allow those struggling to really understand."
- "I will be working in Immokalee Middle School in the fall, so my experience here has set me up for my next step in life. There also have just been a lot of great people that I have met while being down here that I hope to stay in contact to help strengthen me as a teacher."
About the photo: Garrett Comer, right, signs his employment contract to work in Immokalee schools in the fall.
Bailey Dull of Coleman, Michigan, is majoring in secondary English education:
- "I heard from people that a large population of the students speak only Spanish, and as a part of their culture they can be rude and disrespectful. The naysayers, they were all wrong. My students are respectful and eager to learn. They look up to their teachers. This experience taught me to ignore negativity and listen to my heart and make my own decisions."
- "Being in Immokalee was more than just student teaching; I learned about myself as a person and what I care about on a deeper level."
About the photo: "When it really started to sink in that I wasn't going to see my friends or family for another month, I turned to my roommate, Ali Denman, and found a lifelong friend in her," said Dull, left.
Alainey Embury of Grass Lake, Michigan, is majoring in secondary English education:
- "A lot of the students I work with at the middle level are responsible for siblings at home or have to work out in the fields with their parents after being at school for 7.5 hours. I've realized I can't assume what's going on in students' lives, because they're all going through something different outside of school."
Kayla Smith of Remus, Michigan, is majoring in physical education:
- "I did not realize how much I would learn from all 750 of my students. Not only have they taught me a variety of languages, such as Mam and Akawaio, but they have prepared me to accept no excuses in my future classroom. The students in Immokalee have every reason to give me an excuse — such as food deficiency, inability to speak English, lack of sleep since their parents leave early and return home late from the fields — and yet they do not."
- "The biggest surprise was receiving new students every single day from countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, etc."
- "All of my students displayed discipline, hard work, respect and a compassion for learning on a daily basis. Experiencing this amount of determination and grit will influence and impact my career path because I have new expectations of how my future students should act and what they will accomplish while in my classroom."
About the photo: "The most meaningful lesson that I taught was part of our dance unit, which allowed me to teach students different line dances, such as the Macarena, Cupid's shuffle and cha-cha slide," Smith said.
Paige Trombley of Sterling Heights, Michigan, is majoring in special education:
- "The biggest surprise from this experience is how hard the students work. The students are excited to come to school and are eager to learn. For some children, school is the only form of structure in their life, and they love being in school."
- "I have been working with a second grader who does not speak very much English. One day, at the end of the school day, she turned to me and said 'Bye' with a big smile on her face. This made me feel like I have been making an impact in her life."
Megan VanPembrook of Kingsford, Michigan, is majoring in English language arts:
- "My time in Immokalee has changed my perspective and path. I desire to teach in a community similar to Immokalee and educate those who are underserved. The students changed my life – they love more than anyone I've ever met."
- "On our very first tour of Immokalee, we were able to see the living conditions that many of our students are in. During this time I felt an overwhelming amount of compassion. This only grew when I met these incredible kiddos. They have a genuine appreciation for education, and it was refreshing to witness."
About the photo: "The after-school running program allowed me to build authentic relationships with the students," VanPembrook said. "I am so thankful for the time I got with each and every one of them."
Alaina Wier of Comstock Park, Michigan, is studying elementary education, Spanish and English as a second language:
- "The biggest lesson I learned from my time in Immokalee is to make sure that I set high expectations for my students. Students are capable of anything if you give them opportunity."
- "The staff, the students and the community welcomed us with open arms. I now know exactly what I am looking for in a school when looking for a teaching job."
About the photo: "My students and I took a trip to the Naples Zoo, about an hour away from our school," Wier said. "This was definitely a highlight to the students' kindergarten year."