“The bilingual classroom community is like a puzzle; every piece plays a crucial role in creating the whole picture. If you’re missing any piece, the puzzle is not complete.” This metaphor sums up the teaching philosophy that Paulette Arquer-Haddock, a current MA student in the Bilingual/Bicultural Special Education Studies (BiSPED) program at Teachers College, strives to exemplify in the classroom.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Paulette came to the United States to attend the Pennsylvania State University where she majored in English literature, writing, and rhetoric. During college, Paulette thought that she would end up teaching high school English and had applied to various English Education graduate programs in New York. It wasn’t until she received a letter from Teachers College regarding her application to the English Education program that she considered Bilingual Education. “I thought I was going to go on to be a high school English teacher, but then I received an email saying that based on my personal statement, it looked like I was heading more into bilingual education.”

The letter mentioned that Paulette may be interested in TC’s Bilingual/Bicultural Education program. “I wrote about my background in bilingual education and how I saw different learning needs and multiple intelligences. I wrote about how we need to get to know students’ individual needs and go from there instead of a ‘be all, end all’ as far as curriculum. After getting the letter back from TC, I started to look into the Bilingual/Bicultural Education program. It interested me so much because it perfectly matched my experiences, and I could apply so much of what I already know.” After discovering what the bilingual education program entailed, she decided to switch into it. Paulette ended up enrolling in the bilingual special education stream of studies where she is preparing to teach in inclusive bilingual programs where children with and without disabilities learn together. Upon graduation, she will have obtained childhood, bilingual extension, and teaching children with disabilities certifications. Although this is one of the most demanding streams of study, Paulette declares, “I’m so glad that I am where I am now because I can use both my experiences and what I’ve been learning in the bilingual classroom to help students who are just like me.”

Paulette is acutely aware of both the potential power and the shortcomings of bilingual programs because of her experience in dual language programs in Puerto Rico. “When I was in school in Puerto Rico, there were so many things that I thought, at least in my experience with education in a bilingual school, could be fixed to better help the students. These changes could be made to help the students who come in not knowing how to speak English or those who don’t know how to speak Spanish. At my school growing up, those monolingual students weren’t seen as academically achieving, even though they were stronger in other areas like the arts or literature or Spanish; they were not valued in the classroom.”

Using her own educational experience in a bilingual school, as well as what she has learned at TC so far, Paulette’s desire is to “see different ways of learning, such as learning through art and through using the students’ funds of knowledge, including culture, previous background and education, and their home life - what students learn at home and outside of school.”

Paulette radiates enthusiasm as she describes her student teaching experience last semester. She is an Arthur Zankel Urban Fellow (Zankel Fellow) at the same school where she student taught last semester and did her work-study last year. The Zankel Fellowship is named after, and made possible by, the Teachers College’s esteemed trustee, Arthur Zankel. According to the website, “Zankel Urban Fellows carry on Mr. Zankel's legacy of passion for education by contributing their expertise to programs serving disadvantaged inner-city youth.”  Paulette’s metaphor of her students each being a unique piece of one collective puzzle is not just an ideal. Rather, it’s a philosophy she strives to live out in the classroom. “These students learn in different ways, and we have to pay attention to that more because we’re missing so much of who they are by just trying to follow a curriculum, thinking that this is what we have to do, these are the standards, and this is how we need to follow them.”

Drawing on the educational and cultural backgrounds of her students is essential to creating an effective and engaging bilingual classroom. “A lot of the curriculum is very Anglo-American influenced. A lot of things are not culturally relevant to them. I’m interested in exploring the ways that we can use what they already know as well as their interests, integrating that into the curriculum. A lot of students get so excited when they understand a concept better because we were able to relate it to what they knew back home.”

Story after story emerges as Paulette reflects on her time in NYC, at TC, and in the public schools. One of her students exclaimed, “Oh! I see myself in Frida Kahlo because just as she expresses herself in art, and I express myself in art.” This simple statement was very powerful for Paulette, who smiled and recalled, “That student is so proud of her culture and coming from Mexico. She’s always so excited to share that, and I love seeing it. She saw someone who is so influential in her culture and she’s able to relate to her because some people express themselves through art. That’s their strength; that’s their passion. So it was very transformative for me to see how a girl who’s seven years old is so aware of how she learns and so proud of where she comes from that she wants to share it with everyone.  She’s also so aware of the immigration issues that are going on in the country, but she’s still so happy to be where she’s from.”

As she shares, it becomes more and more evident that although she loves her courses at TC, Paulette’s heart is already in the classroom with her students. “I was in a student teaching course this year and I learned so much through everyone sharing their experiences student teaching. We record our lessons in the classroom and every person in the student teaching course is supposed to watch it and give you feedback. Hearing my peers’ comments about my student teaching lesson helps me so much because they’re saying things I just don’t see or notice myself.  Now I’m able to think about, and apply to my lessons and teaching, all of the things I’ve learned at TC; however, I think to find your voice as a teacher, you really need to be in the classroom. I think both being in the classroom and all the theories I’m able to apply to my lessons and then in the classroom as I gain more experience help me to find out who I am as a teacher.”

Paulette sees the potential in her students and wants the best for them. “I want to make learning something they enjoy. Some kids don’t want to write all the time, and although that’s important, we also need to integrate different ways that they can write, read, and learn, finding a way that engages them. And maybe give them an opportunity to think more abstractly. I was learning English myself at one point, so I can use the things I did to see if it helps my students. I can also utilize things that are outside of the curriculum.”

Not only does Paulette strive to use her own language learning experience as a guide in her lessons, she also wants to learn more about bilingual students and their identities in the US. “Although we may have different home countries, I can identify in a lot of ways with my students, even outside the classroom. I’m very interested in exploring student self-identity when they see the high value placed on English in the US and the current state of the political climate. I’m interested in how it affects their identity, and how it affects what they want to integrate into the classroom in terms of their home language and culture.” Paulette recalls the high value placed on English in her school in Puerto Rico and wants to make sure her students feel affirmed in both their English and Spanish. “In my school growing up, the focus was heavily on English, so I invested a lot of time into making my English perfect. Now my perspective has shifted; I want to celebrate both languages and cultures in the classroom, making sure students value their own background and are affirmed in their identities.”

“I see how much the issues going on in the States are affecting them; they’re just so aware of everything that’s going on. There are certain things that I can see that affect them negatively, but there are things that affect them positively as well.” Aligning with her puzzle metaphor, Paulette proclaims, “Not every student is the same. Some students are a little more reserved because of everything that’s going on. Some students just want to share everything. One of my students said that she wants to be president when she grows up because she wants everyone to be able to come into the States. I love hearing things like that, and hearing my students’ experiences, and how we need them as much as they need us.” Paulette’s ultimate desire is to make the world a better place, starting with education. “I hope that together we can make it better for all the minorities in the country,” ensuring that no puzzle piece goes missing, and that students can come together as unique individuals to create a beautiful masterpiece.