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Alumni, Alumni Spotlight, Leadership, Ministry & Missions

Cultivating Community in the Classroom: An Interview with Emily Herlinger ‘15


By Emily Herlinger on Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Portrait of Emily Herlinger

Q: Emily, can you tell me a little bit about what you are doing today?

I am an ESL teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools. Last year I started the ESL Program at a high school; we received many new students that came from other countries like Somalia, Iraq, Malaysia and Thailand. I am also the only ESL teacher at another high school. I spend my mornings at one school and my afternoons at the other. Half of my students are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds and the other half come from all over the world. There are 22 languages represented in my classroom. I have been teaching for MPS for two years and spent one year teaching in Bulgaria as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant or an ETA.

Q: Can you describe what it was like to start this ESL program at your school, as well as what it was like teaching in Bulgaria.

I was actually the first Fulbright ETA to teach at my school in Silistra, Bulgaria. I was in a very small city, which gave me the opportunity to be really immersed in the culture. I enjoyed teaching there, but it is very different from teaching in the United States. Bulgaria is a post-communist country, and I could see how this affects the school. Creativity in teaching, for example, wasn’t something that was necessarily valued there as it is here, so that was a little challenging for me. I really loved my students there and loved being able to live in another culture.

Being the first ETA there in that school helped to prepare me for the following year where I jumped into a new school that had never had an ESL program before. I was coming into a new setting with no expectations for me or no big shoes I had to fill. It was nice in that it gave me freedom to make decisions and didn’t force me to compare myself to anyone that came before (since no one had), but it did require a lot of extra work from me. I think I worked harder last year starting that program than I have ever worked for anything before in my life.

Q: What would you say is your most important job as a teacher?

For me, my most important task each day is to make sure that my students leave my classroom knowing they are loved and that they belong. Community is the core of my classroom. I have students coming from all over the world and sometimes it can be tempting for them to feel like they are different or even an outcast. I think it is so important for them to feel part of our classroom community which is beautiful and diverse, and that they are an integral part of it. I know that if a student feels comfortable and part of a community, like they belong, it will be much easier for them to learn the things I teach them. Before I teach them anything in English, I want them to feel a sense of welcome and belonging.

Q: How do you think Northwestern impacted your life?

The education I received really did prepare me for what I am doing now. The ESL professors and the cooperating teachers I had helped prepare me well so that on day one, I felt prepared and equipped to create curriculum, manage a class, and love the students in front of me. The Intercultural Studies program helped me to gain experience in working with people from all over the world and being comfortable in unknown or uncomfortable places. It is also really cool how God used my Intercultural Studies trip to prepare me for my future job I have now. On the trip, we went to Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Jordan. Last year, I received students from Thailand, Malaysia and Jordan. For me to be able to look them in the eye and greet them with a word from their language that I learned or to say that I have been to their country was huge in helping me gain their trust and build a relationship with them.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you grew in your faith while at Northwestern?

I learned a lot about trust during my time at Northwestern. There were a lot of unknowns: “How will I pay for this? How will I know what to do in the future?” But, I learned how to place my trust in Christ and trust that he will provide the finances and answers in time. I also learned about my identity in Christ.

Q: Is there a particular example of this that stands out to you?

The strongest memory that is coming to mind was during my senior year. During the first week of senior year, my aunt, who I was very close with, passed away very young from cancer. I had a really difficult time with it and was very angry at God for allowing it to happen. I remember one of the first chapels of the year, Drew Shepp, who was part of Campus Ministries at the time, played the hymn “It is Well” and I remember him saying, “My hope for all of you is that by the end of this year, you can sing ‘It is well with my soul’ and mean it.” I remember sitting in my grief and not knowing if I ever could. Through the chapels that year, the Bible Studies, and working through the grief with a counselor at Northwestern, by the end of the year, I was able to sing it and mean it and was able to trust God again. Despite the grief and pain, that process was very monumental in my faith journey. I was able to see His love for me and my family even through such a tragedy.

Q: How do you think Northwestern impacted your worldview?

At Northwestern, I learned a lot about serving, and the importance of having a servant’s heart. This has hugely impacted my worldview as I seek to be His servant no matter where I am and no matter who I am with. I also learned about the relentless love of God. At Northwestern, I learned that Jesus loves without conditions and now I seek to love the world like that.

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