Honored Teacher Bridges Language Gap

Winner of bilingual association's teacher of 1999 award looks to her own past in helping. Non-English speaking students achieve fluency.

DIRKSEN ELEMENTARY—Never forgetting her past has been a powerful motivator for Magali Williams, who moved to this country as a child 31 years ago.

The bilingual teacher at Dirksen Elementary School in Schaumburg vowed to never let her students experience the loneliness and isolation she felt because she couldn’t speak English when she moved from Puerto Rico.

The efforts Williams, 37, puts into her job today help non-English speaking students become bilingual, and helped the Schaumburg District 54 teacher win the title of Illinois bilingual teacher of 1999 from the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education.

IAMME President Josie Yanguas said Williams was chosen among 12 candidates statewide because “she has wonderful compassion for students and a complete admiration from the staff.”

Although Williams studied management in college, teaching was always in her heart, even as she took time off to raise her children.

“I came here from Puerto Rico at the age of 6. I didn’t speak English, and they put me in kindergarten even though I should have been in 1st grade.

“No one helped me. I remember struggling in school. But my experience has helped me to empathize with what some of my students go through. Some come (to Dirksen) not knowing any English, and they’re terrified. They’re intelligent. They just can’t express themselves in the English language,” she said.

Williams works with about 30 pupils in 1st through 6th grades who are assigned a teacher in their regular classroom and then come to Williams for a minimum of four hours a day. Spanish is the native language for most of her students. Some, however, speak other languages, including Polish, Chinese and Serbian.

Williams helps the pupils with academic subjects in their native language and in English, with the goal of helping the pupils become bilingual.

She uses computer software programs to encourage the students to practice reading and writing, and guides them in the use of the Internet for various projects.

To explain simple assignments in math and science, she may use English. With other subjects, such as spelling, she may work with students in their native languages.

Rather than marginalize a student’s heritage, Williams tries to instill in students an appreciation of bilingualism. “I want them to see their bilingualism as a gift. They speak two languages fluently. That is amazing,” she said.

Dirksen Principal Kathy Polach said Williams has used her bilingual gift to get results from her students. “She has the ability to really get to know her students and to help them feel comfortable so that she has a handle on their individual needs,” Polach said.

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