Growing up in Montreal, Canada Valerie Gates learned to speak both English and French and later in life, while traveling through South America in her late teens and early 20s, she picked up her third language, Spanish. Knowing what it’s like to express herself in three different tongues, especially in a language learned after the prime years of language acquisition have passed, gives Gates a special understanding of what it’s like for her students, many of whom are refugees, navigating their world and their educations as non-native English speakers.
“You aren’t able to ever truly express what you’re thinking,” says Gates. You may begin to feel that the level of language you can express is the level of your intellect.
Over the years, Utah, one of the most refugee-welcoming states in the Union, has resettled close to 60,000 displaced people. In addition, the latest census numbers show that more than 400,000 Latinos now live in Utah. So it’s little surprise that one in eight school-age children (ages five to 17) speaks a foreign language at home (according to a 2014 report from the Center for Immigration Studies).
With our school population changing and becoming more diverse, helping students achieve their most requires addressing not just academic achievement but, first of all, language comprehension and fluency. The work of teachers like Gates is becoming increasingly important.
In September, Valerie S. Gates, who has been teaching at West High School in Salt Lake for 13 years, earned the title of 2017’s Utah Teacher of the Year. “Valerie Gates speaks to students as if they are all partners in learning,” wrote historian Eileen Hallet Stone in support of Gates’ nomination. “Since [Gates] respects [each student’s] ability to take on high expectations and extend their own ability to learn, they seem more willing to achieve.”
The recognition honors the way Gates has dedicated her life to helping students master English as their second language and set goals for education beyond high school.
In addition to her work with ESL (English as a second language) students, Gates incorporates into her classroom a new national program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), to help close the nation’s achievement gap and make college aspirations a reality. Starting in elementary school, the AVID program focuses on organization and preparedness and teaches young students how to formulate strategies for success. In later learning, the program folds into the overall culture of learning, creating a positive learning culture with high expectations that students understand they can meet through hard work and personal determination.