The Infinite Blessing of Teaching & Knowing Refugee High Schoolers

My 90 students are refugees and immigrants. They are funny, kind, brilliant, strong, wise, brave, courageous, and chock full of perseverance. I am fortunate to work with them because, after working amongst them for the past twelve years, I know that they are waiting to bless me.

Too often, I think I am the one who is working to bless and be a blessing when, indeed, it is the other way around. As a Christian woman who seeks to become a more compassionate individual, I take serious note of Jesus’s words: “Blessed are the poor.” He did not state, “Blessed are those who care for the poor!” I am learning that compassion has more to do with identifying with my students, allowing them and myself space to express ourselves as we walk alongside one another on this educational journey which, at a much deeper level, is also about learning how to be, how to love, how to bless, how to demonstrate and dole out kindness. This reality keeps me grounded, keeps me unlocking my classroom door at 7:30 each weekday morning.

Tech High School, where I work, now has a majority of students who receive a free and reduced lunch. I do not know my individual students’ status regarding their lunches, but I am keenly aware that the great majority of them receive the benefit. My students are almost all East African refugees who were sent to Minnesota in order to escape life in refugee camps like Kerbribeyah in Ethiopia and Kakuma or Dadaab in Kenya. They come to America and find themselves sitting in my classroom, excited and nervous as they pursue a safer, more stable life. And they bless me. People who don’t know them may think, “They are needy, impoverished, lacking educational backgrounds. All they will do is take and not give. How could such students possibly be a deep source of blessing?”

Consider this. Since my students and their families often struggle to make adequate incomes in their first years here in the U.S., more and more of my high schoolers are working daily from 5-10:00 p.m. at a local company, FDC. The great majority of them give their paychecks directly to their parents in order to meaningfully contribute towards their families’ rent, food, and basic needs. I have never heard one of them complain that they don’t get to keep the money for themselves. They are blessing their families, at great cost to themselves. Since many of them toil until 10:00 pm and then enter my classroom at 8:30 the following morning, I must tread carefully and gently as I teach and direct my weary brood. Although they may enter sleepily, they offer me smiles, hellos, a hug at the door. Blessings.

As my students walk in, I ask myself, “How can I be a source of blessing?” It’s not easy, even with the best of intentions, to act on that thought consistently. While challenges arise (tardy students, cell phones, earbuds, sleepy heads), I am acutely aware that these youngsters are also thriving teenagers who have the beautiful ability to work diligently towards their goals. As their teacher, I am working hard to guide, direct, educate, and instill in my learners a deep love for literature and language while also working to build foundational relationships with them with a heart of compassion. I’m seeking to bless in my lesson planning, in my choice of books and stories, in the words that I choose to utter even when I’m unduly irritated or exhausted at the end of the day. As I stand in front of my class, I have come to understand that those sitting before me seek not only to be educated but, like me, to love and be loved, to bless and to be a blessing.

It’s a two way street. I’m not the only one striving to love and to bless, and for this I am grateful. How so?

“How are you, Mrs. Marolf?”
“How are your children?”
“How is your family?”
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“How was your weekend?”
“I am praying for you.”
“God bless you.”
“Thank you for teaching us.”
“Thank you for always being here.”
“Thank you for finding this book.”
“Thank you for letting us check this book out of the library. I really like having my own book to use.”
“Thank you for teaching us how to summarize.”
“Thank you for teaching us these difficult vocabulary words.”
“Thank you for teaching us the Academic Word List. It is so helpful. I use these words every day now.”
“Thank you for giving us tests each week. It is helping me.”
“Thank you for helping us understand this figurative language. It’s fun to pick out the similes and metaphors in our stories. We’re getting good at this.”
“We missed you so much!” (after I returned from being gone for a few days).
Such love. Blessings.

My students clap after we finish reading the end of a book, just like at the movies or at the end of a theater production. The words have been molded into their hearts and souls and become a balm, a soothing intellectual embrace. Their clapping, their real pleasure, their enthusiasm: blessings.

It is a gift, this arduous work of teaching. The love and blessings I receive from my students keep me mindful that their road is my road when we are together, even on days when some of us might be going through a struggle. We are on a shared journey of discovery as we learn about literature and about one another’s cultures, traditions, and beliefs. As the periods of the day unfold, my students’ minds are opened to new words, new truths, and new literature that has the power to shape them into better students, better people. As such, the blessings pour out as their words escape onto pages in their journals or aloud in our discussions. We soldier on, in community, making meaning and discovering the singular art of blessing one another—even though that’s not on the syllabus! If you live in the area, come and see us. Blessings surely await, and I’m sure my students would so enjoy meeting you! Peace!