Leuthold teaches English learners at Worthington Middle School, and learns from them in turn
Kourtney Leuthold graduated from Adrian High School in 2009.
WORTHINGTON — Fresh out of college and in need of a job, Kourtney Leuthold really wanted to teach second-graders, but agreed to teach English learners at Worthington Middle School because that position was open.
She fell in love with the work and years later, still teaches seventh-grade English learners at WMS, helping them simultaneously navigate the unfamiliar world of adolescence and an equally unfamiliar language in which “through,” “though” and “cough” sound completely different.
“Coming here was a big eye-opener for me,” Leuthold said. “It was very special. I was very lucky to be here.”
Geographically, the distance between Worthington Middle School and Leuthold’s alma mater, Adrian High School, is about 16 miles, but culturally, they were many more miles apart. When she attended AHS, Leuthold said, it was a very white school, with very few minority students — especially compared to the extremely diverse District 518 schools.
Leuthold attended the University of Sioux Falls for elementary education, and during her time there, her teachers convinced her to get a minor in teaching English learners because it would look good on her resume.
After graduating, she began job hunting, and found that District 518 had two open teaching positions — one in a second grade classroom and one split between fourth and fifth grade English learners in two different buildings. She was offered the latter and accepted it.
Then a teacher in a seventh grade EL classroom quit, and WMS administration more or less informed Leuthold she would be taking that position instead.
“After that, I fell in love with my seventh-graders and their cultures and their families,” she said.
That spring, she decided to return to college to earn a master’s degree in teaching English learners so that she could keep teaching in that area.
Now, she is the chairwoman of the EL Department.
At Worthington Middle School, English learners are divided into four groups by proficiency level.
Newcomers are new to the U.S., and can stay in the Immersion Center for up to two school years if needed, but can go on to the Beginner level sooner by meeting the criteria. Beginners attend more general education classes than Newcomers, but also go to some classes at the Immersion Center. Intermediate learners also attend history, science and math classes, and eventually English learners reach the Advanced level.
EL teachers ensure that teachers in other subject areas are aware of their students’ proficiencies so they can make accommodations in the classroom if needed, and EL paraprofessionals help support students in those subject areas.
This year, there are 253 EL students at WMS, with 56 in the seventh grade alone.
“With almost 30% of our students requiring EL services, along with 70% of our students qualifying for free/reduced meals, you could expect there to be many challenges,” said Jeff Luke, WMS principal. “Our team of EL teachers see the majority of those challenges and make our school a place for so many students to feel safe, challenged academically and loved.”
He praised Leuthold as a passionate teacher who always keeps her students’ best interests in mind.
“She cares for all of her students and finds ways to support them both in and outside of school. Her upbeat personality, positive attitude, and creativity in the classroom keep her students engaged and improving their English skills every day,” Luke added.
As English learners, many of Leuthold’s students face barriers other kids don’t.
They are an incredibly diverse group of students, hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, South Sudan, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Laos, Burma and Nicaragua.
Some speak multiple languages already. Some are already highly educated, and some can’t read or write their own language. At least one of Leuthold’s students didn’t know how to hold a pencil in fifth grade, but is now thriving as an Intermediate learner in eighth grade.
Some have different customs, like showing respect by not making eye contact or walking behind their teachers.
Some of them are refugees, such as the Karen people who are fleeing ethnic cleansing in Burma, first to camps in Thailand and then to the United States. Others are asylum seekers going through the lengthy legal process of applying for asylum.
“It is very normal for me to have students that are living with people who are not their parents,” Leuthold said, explaining that many of them live with grandparents, or one parent and one grandparent, or an aunt and uncle. Often a lot of people will live in one house together.
Sometimes families are divided between their countries of origin and the U.S., where adults go to work, make money, and send it home, with the hope to eventually reunite.
Many of Leuthold’s students are traumatized to some degree, and that’s why they left their countries of origin — they were unsafe, they couldn’t get a good education or there simply wasn’t enough money for survival. Just moving to an unfamiliar country can be somewhat traumatic, and some of her students have gone through harrowing experiences in order to get to Worthington.
Sometimes it comes up in the classroom, too. Once Leuthold asked a student about their mother, only to learn she had died. Sometimes a story will remind a student of a past trauma. And some students simply shut down entirely in the presence of strict words.
She navigates those moments by talking it through, bringing in an interpreter if needed and apologizing if it’s warranted.
“The most important thing I can do is make personal connections with students,” Leuthold said. “They need to feel safe here, because if they don’t feel safe here, they’re not going to learn.”
Her fellow teachers and the team-based teaching structure at the middle school help immensely, she said, as have the counseling staff.
Leuthold emphasized the importance of not making assumptions or being frightened of a student because they’re different.
“Be open to knowing them, and be open to them knowing you as well,” she said. “Be OK with the awkwardness of not-a-perfect conversation”
Leuthold, too, has learned from her students.
“I’ve learned how to be brave in new situations… to try new things, to be resilient, and not give up when things get hard,” she said. “To try to see life through other people’s eyes… and to be gracious.”