Dr. Luay Shalabi is the principal of Central Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he won the 2015 Michigan Charter Schools Educator of the Year award. He serves as a mentor and coach to principals at Global Educational Excellence, an educational service provider serving schools in Michigan and Ohio.
In the 1990s, I was teaching here in Dearborn, and we had an influx of immigration, like what we are having right now.
Students came from refugee camps where they had lived for about four or five years. And when they came to our system, teaching them grammar and English and social studies were not the top priorities. The top priority was to survive and deal with the trauma they had lived with for years.
So many students I can never, ever forget. I remember discussing a grammar point with one girl in the class, her eyes looking nowhere. She put her hand in her pocket and she showed me a picture. She said, “This is my brother who was shot next to the tree.”
Nothing against teachers, but teachers don’t know. They think, “My job is to teach them. I want them to be the best writers. I want them to be speakers. They’re new in this country, so English is my number-one priority.” But there’s much more than that. Right now, we are experiencing the same thing again.
We’ve been getting many immigrants from Syria. The first day of school, two weeks ago, there was a high schooler who I knew had enrolled along with his five siblings at this school. I knew that they hadn’t been in school for the last four years. They were in camps in Turkey.
After everyone went to class, he came to me and he was shy. Of course, he did not speak any English. He said in Arabic, “Is there anything I can do in this school? Cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the kitchen, whatever it is, so I can make more money to help my family?”
The idea of learning is not at the top of his list.