Our center salutes all teachers, who have been valiantly and heroically attending to their students’ learning and psycho-social needs in these extraordinary times. We shine a spotlight on Puja Mullins, who is the Grade K-12 English Language (EL) coordinator, and a Grade K-5 EL teacher, at Lincoln Consolidated Schools (LCS) in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she has worked since 2015.

I met Ms. Mullins when I was invited to interpret for Arabic-speaking parents at a virtual family event, “Parents’ Tea Talk,” on December 16, 2020. Lincoln Consolidated Schools educate children of families hailing from all “corners” of the earth, including Vietnam, Laos, Yemen, and Peru. About 30 students and their parents clustered about screens and tuned into the evening to celebrate the children’s accomplishments and to learn what to expect during this unusual school year in terms of homework, grades, etc. On that evening, I also interpreted for Kerry Martin, staff attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, about legal rights.

Asked what she loves about teaching, Ms. Mullins recounts a formative and powerful memory. During her childhood, her family moved from Bangladesh to Qatar, where her father took a job as a civil engineer. One day he came home with a giant chalkboard and set it against the wall. Excited to use it, the young Mullins went around to the neighbors, asking for words in their many languages. She wrote these -- marhaba (“hello” in Arabic), kalikukka (“play” in Malayalam), shukriya (“thanks” in Hindi), and annyeong (“goodbye” in Korean) -- on the board and “taught” them to her siblings and parents. Sharing new knowledge, she discovered, brought her joy. Eventually, she obtained a Master of Arts with Elementary Teacher Certification from U-M’s School of Education, and in 2018 completed a second graduate degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at EMU. “I am exactly where I am meant to be. And I am never done learning!” she says. 

Ms. Mullins loves witnessing students “see themselves as learners and thinkers.” One of the highlights of her teaching career began with a field trip to local restaurants organized in 2019 as part of her summer program for K-12 students. Positioning students as the “digital” generation, Ms. Mullins designed both independent and collaborative learning tasks over a platform created by U-M’s Center for Digital Curricula -- Collabrify Roadmaps -- which housed annotatable mentor texts, multilingual videos, and chunked responses, to scaffold an understanding of the various genres of writing that students would ultimately produce throughout her summer program. After this outing, in a series of extramural activities and assignments selected according to individual interests, students interviewed “funds of knowledge,” family members who had immigrated to this country. Other students created a book of recipes including ones for Eid or conducted interviews of peers positioned as experts on the foods (maraqe, arroz con leche, samosa, and more!) of the countries under study. The students were charged with “letting the world know about this dish,” explains Ms. Mullins. Still, other students chose to write biographical essays about restaurant owners and servers, or reviews for future customers. The assignments were “lots of fun, but also authentic and real-world.”

Usually, Ms. Mullins travels between LCS buildings to connect with students during the school day. (“I see myself in them.”) Out of concern for parents’ equitable access, she rotates her meetings with them between different buildings. And she prepares and implements multi-cultural literacy events focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Various populations, including “newcomers as well as U.S.-born children who are heritage speakers,” often get “lumped” under English Learners, yet they all have different needs. Understandably, Ms. Mullins says, teachers can tend to focus exclusively on addressing students’ academic development. She hopes for professional training in cultural competency to better understand families’ cultures and norms and to serve psycho-social needs. Beyond the “basics” of food and rent, what are the questions, she wonders, a family “is not comfortable asking teachers and administrators? How to prepare their child for college? Bring a relative to the U.S.? I want to be proactive in helping my families.”

Ms. Mullins’ passion for teaching was celebrated when LCS Superintendent Robert (Bob) Jansen joined “Parents’ Tea Talk” to announce surprising but well-deserved congratulations: Ms. Mullins had been named “Teacher of the Month”! “It feels good to be seen, to be recognized in front of all my families,” she replies to my question about her reaction. But the light shines really on students and their families. Her own family immigrated to Canada when she was 11, and Ms. Mullins is keenly aware that the voices of many immigrants and refugee parents are all too often not heard. “It is a tremendous privilege to work with families and to speak up for them,” she says.