This Tennessee ESL teacher ensures that her students learn the language — and feel the love

Missy Testerman, an ESL teacher at Rogersville City Schools, is one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
Missy Testerman's passion for teaching immigrant children English has earned her a place as a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Missy Testerman)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

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Missy Testerman has been teaching at Rogersville City School for 32 years. But for the past few years, she’s been teaching more children who weren’t born in the rural Appalachian community where the school is nestled.

Some of the children are from Mexico and Honduras. Others are from India, China, and various Arabic-speaking nations. She heard stories about immigrant families braving dangerous routes to get to the United States.

“We’re very rural. We see cows every day,” said Testerman, 54, who also directs the ESL program at the school. “But what we’ve seen here is that [Spanish-speaking immigrants] aren’t settling close to the [southern] border anymore … they’re coming to towns like ours.”

To help these families acclimate, Testerman earned her license to teach English learners two years ago. What she’s learned is that the job requires more than helping children and families learn English and find their way. It means helping newcomer students fit in socially as well.

Sometimes, she said, the political climate can make that daunting.

“I try to make sure that my children and their families are assimilated here, that they’re participating in sports and everything, because if they assimilate, people will accept them more easily,” Testerman said.

She said it’s “heartbreaking” to hear people, particularly elected officials, make hurtful blanket statements about immigrants.

Last year, Testerman’s passion for her students and her work as an ESL teacher earned her the title of Tennessee’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. This year, the Council of Chief State School Officers selected her as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

The winner will be announced in April.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “I’m still a little baffled as to how and why, because there are so many awesome teachers in my state and community who pour their heart and soul into their work. To be named as a finalist is just incredibly humbling.”

Testerman recently talked to Chalkbeat Tennessee about how she approaches her work.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you go about teaching English to non-native speakers?

You just start small, using photo cards, and expanding their reach, just like you would with a baby, by trying to fill their world with language. In the beginning, it means very basic language that you build on.

I do a combination of push-in services, where I go in, plan with the teacher, work with the teacher, and help deliver English language development skills at the same time I’m delivering academic content, and I also do [55 minutes of] pull-out for kids who need it — new learners, students who struggle.

This year, I really tried to focus on my fourth graders, because they were kindergartners when the COVID shutdowns started. They were home during most of first grade, and they’re the ones who have had the most loss.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach and why?

I love everything about the reading process. My master’s degree is in education, so I love any lesson that has to do with the components of reading — whether that is breaking down themes, character development, contractions, antonyms, and synonyms.

What’s going on in your community that affects what happens in your classroom?

Unfortunately, there are [those], and they’re mainly politicians, who are on social media pushing out these untrue statements about immigrants, and a lot of times, that causes a bias to form against some of my students and their families, and that does affect their education.

Luckily, my school here is kind of insulated. We built this community inside our school, but outside our school, these are the things that my students and their families have to face. They want to fit in, but they also want to be proud of their heritage, and we want them to be proud of their heritage.

Also, something that is also very important to me is that they preserve their home language. It is a gift to have two languages, and I constantly work in examples of how they can use both of their languages in a career someday. I tell the story of my son’s girlfriend. [Her family is] Honduran. She was born and raised in Houston but she speaks both languages. They’re in supply chain management and real estate. She’s just incredibly talented because she’s able to talk to people in two different languages. I urge [students] to speak their home languages at home, so they don’t lose it. I can teach them English, but not Arabic or Spanish.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

I think I was always destined to be a teacher. I was always that typical kid who lined up the dolls taught the dolls, and forced my little sister to play school. I had so many incredible teachers when I was growing up, and I wanted to be like them, to emulate them. I wanted to dress like them. I remember when I was in the first grade, and I was so proud when my mom bought me a cardigan to wear with my Easter dress because my teacher wore a cardigan every day. I was so proud of that sweater.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I worked with the very best mentor. She’s no longer with us, but she was always that voice asking what’s best for kids and how something will impact students. That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten: To keep kids as the focus and to ask yourself what’s best for students.

How do you take care of yourself when you’re not at work?

This may sound weird, but my husband and I get up at about 5:30 every morning, and we run before school. That is my stress reliever; it helps me manage the stress of the job.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Reach her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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