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Indiana Teacher of the Year discusses experiences as language instructor

| Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Indiana Teacher of the Year for 2017 Jitka Nelson spoke to the students of the Saint Mary’s education department in Carroll Auditorium on Monday, sharing insights about how she helps students reach their full potential. Nelson, an English teacher in the Logansport Community School district and a 25-year veteran of the classroom, said she empathizes with English as a New Language (ENL) students because she was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. She said she serves as an example of how students can grow.

“When an ENL student comes into class there are some surface level things that you can find out very quickly; gender, physical appearance, how the student acts and reacts in public, how they dress, what language they speak,” she said. “But then under the surface are things you can find out through an assignment or a simple conversation with a student  — for example ethnicity and culture can be very different depending on what country or what part of the country students are from. They can all have very different experiences.”

Nelson has been working with ENL students in Logansport since 2006. Often, as freshmen, students come directly from a different country, she said, and she works with them so they can transition to the normal classroom. 

“Many people look at ENL students as a glass half empty and that there is something missing but that is a misconception,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she has very high expectations for her students and believes strongly in them, which motivates her students to work harder and feel comfortable in the classroom. Many of her students were academically successful in their native countries, Nelson said, but due to the language barrier, they may struggle at first.

“Many times the students are very smart but don’t have the language to express their ideas,” she said.

Nelson shared how through various assignments she learns about her students. She has each student choose an object from their home country and write a story from its perspective. Through this exercise, she said, students are more apt to share their personal anecdotes and struggles. Nelson said she takes the success of her students personally and tracks their progress diligently holding them accountable and helping them reach their goals. 

Nelson tells students about her own story of immigration , as well as her experiences with learning a new language. She said she also shares other aspects of her life — from her poor drawing skills to her divorce — with her students to form relationships.

“[Being open] sends a message to the students that it’s OK to make a mistake,” she said. “Your students need to know that they are safe, that they know they can make a mistake. They are in a clean and safe environment when they work on their assignments.”

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