Teacher Voice: Cultivating seeds of empathy

25-Mar-2021

To be an effective teacher, when approaching a new instructional situation, I must be able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. In Victor’s case, I immediately recognized where he was coming from. As an immigrant, I myself faced the challenges of acculturation to a new language and culture.

By Cornelio "CJ" Ancheta

“Mister, you have a new student from Mexico. He has limited comprehension of the English language,” my former student’s low, whispering voice wafted into my last math period. Our discussion of trigonometric functions paused.

“Buenas tardes,” I greeted Victor and introduced him to the whole class, who gave a warm welcome in return.

At dismissal, I spent time learning more about Victor, a reserved young man whose aspiration in life is to finish higher education.

While I have an equal amount of understanding and familiarity with Spanish, I am cognizant of Victor’s language barrier, and a cobweb of questions started to spin in my head. “How am I going to meet Victor’s learning needs?” “How can I be an effective math teacher to him?” 

For an immediate Band-Aid, I placed another Spanish-speaking student next to Victor. This strategy provided an opportunity to build his social network as well as give access to some communication in his initial transition. After a while, I observed that the partner whom I asked to help Victor started missing some of the content as he is translating. So I switched gears and started a one-on-one conference using a translator app and math manipulatives.

To be an effective teacher when approaching a new instructional situation, I must be able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. In Victor’s case, I immediately recognized where he was coming from. As an immigrant, I myself faced the challenges of acculturation to a new language and culture. I related to what Victor was going through. I knew firsthand how difficult it is to adjust to a new world and much more — to a whole new ecology of formal education. I wanted him to experience a sense of belonging by incorporating multilingualism activities in my classroom.

At an intermediate point during the school year, Victor presented as part of a group project in Spanish using Google Slides in English. Encouragingly, he received warm applause from his fellow students. Through this opportunity, I have sown the seeds of empathy. I saw how he has grown and how he has welcomed the challenge of getting acclimated to his new circumstances. He told me of his deep appreciation of what I have done for him. In his halting English, Victor pointed out how my encouragement helped develop his self-confidence that he needed so much. Conversely, he unknowingly challenged me to create a slide deck of geometry vocabulary in Spanish using the Fryer model graphic organizer. 

With these valuable hands-on interactions, Victor successfully completed Geometry.

Sometimes I think of the days when Victor would be searching for the word in English whose Spanish equivalent was a word that I did not know. I think of the struggle for progress during the inauguration of his learning in the new language of his immigrant life. Though I didn’t know what to do initially, what I did do was give a positive vibe. The embrace of a welcoming attitude is one I can never fake. Either it is there, or it is not, and students take notice.

As teachers build relationships, the quality of the time we invest in our students is essential for students to navigate the complex world of formal education in a new language. Listening to them respond to our prompts is not an easy task. It takes a lot of patience and endurance, with attention to non-verbal cues and on-the-spot adjustments to those needs that surface. These interactions gave me an exponential rate of return. 

My experience working with Victor revealed my vulnerability as a teacher. Another strategy I could have implemented to further enhance his self-esteem was building on his interests. From those one-on-one interactions, I discovered that Victor had a passion for music. I could have challenged him to compose a piece of music using geometry terms as lyrics. 

As I keep sowing the seeds, I must continue the natural process of growth and development of myself as I cultivate students who are planted in my class. Victor and all the "Victors" who will come to my class need to have a healthy and sustaining source of support and inspiration.

Pictured above is Joshua Fifita, a student of Mr. Ancheta's Geometry class last school year, testing the strength of the popsicle stick bridge that his group constructed.


Cornelio “CJ” Ancheta is a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow and a secondary mathematics teacher at Lāhaināluna High School. He is an advocate of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and a staunch supporter of incorporating multilingualism in the classroom.

Contact Information

Communications Branch

Phone: 808-784-6200

Email: doeinfo@k12.hi.us

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