Coffee with … Irma Guerrero-Kusmirek, ELL paraeducator who’s seen it all

When one English Language Learner (ELL) teacher tells her students she's been in their shoes, the reality is she actually had it worse. Irma Guerrero-Kusmirek (Mrs. GK to the kids) was 13 when her family immigrated from Mexico, and there wasn't such a thing as English Language Learner classes. "I didn't know how to count to 5 when I came here," she said. "I know the fear they have inside of them."

Irma Guerrero-Kusmirek (Mrs. GK to the kids) was 13 when her family immigrated from Mexico

When one English Language Learner (ELL) teacher tells her students she’s been in their shoes, the reality is she actually had it worse.

Irma Guerrero-Kusmirek (Mrs. GK to the kids) was 13 when her family immigrated from Mexico, and there wasn’t such a thing as English Language Learner classes.

“I didn’t know how to count to 5 when I came here,” she said. “I know the fear they have inside of them.”

Now the ELL paraeducator is giving students what she wishes she had as a youth, a teacher who understands how hard it is to not know English at an American school.

Her passion for helping kids is so strong, most nights of the week are filled with volunteer work. She even started a traditional Mexican dance group, after being approached by Foster High School students.

“I don’t want the kids to lose their culture,” she said.

The class started with a handful of teenagers, but it slowly grew, and now the troupe has up to 30 students between elementary and college.

The dances are traditional, and their performances are complete with colorful costumes.

In addition to having fun, dancing gives the students, who often grow up in a different culture than their parents, a way to connect with their parents.

That parent involvement combined with being involved in an after-school program is a recipe for more successful students, she said.

Parents are also able to connect with GK, who is fluent in Spanish.

She shows them everything from how to call a teacher to how to use a food bank, she said. “I see that these people have so much need.”

Money for the program is tight, but she still insists on having the correct costumes.

So she often modifies clothes she finds at secondhand stores, she said. “I improvise a lot.”

Filling every night of the week, GK’s volunteerism doesn’t stop with dance.

She helps out with the safety patrol at the elementary, and once a week mentors fourth- and fifth-grade Latino girls at Cascade View Middle School who are at risk of dropping out.

She’s been in the district for 15 years, and is now working at Tukwila Elementary with 50 kindergartners and first-graders.

“I love the babies. They’re like sponges. They just want to learn,” she said with an upbeatness that could stir excitement in any room.

She allows the kids to teach her words in their language, and then uses that interaction to teach them basic phrases in English that allow them to function in a classroom.

“It’s life-survival skills,” she said.

GK was the youngest of eight siblings when her father decided to move the family from Michoacan, Mexico, to Auburn.

They arrived on her birthday in November 1966. It was the first time she had ever seen snow, and she hated the cold. Not knowing English only added to the shock.

“It was the worst birthday I’ve ever known,” she said.

She was very small for a teenager, so instead of placing her in junior high, the school district opted to put her in a fourth- and fifth-grade class while she learned English.

“I fit right in. I was the smallest one in that class,” she said with a laugh.

The teacher took GK under her wing, but not all teachers were so kind.

One, she recalled, would tell the whole class that he expected all A’s from the students except from GK.

Her father challenged her to break through stereotypes about Mexicans, to work even harder to prove those misconceptions wrong, she said.

A year after she arrived in the United States, he died in a car accident.

She started a job to support her family and continued pressing forward in school.

“I’m not a quitter,” she said. “My father had very high standards. I just followed his values.”

Life didn’t get easier.

She graduated from high school when she was 17, and the July that followed her mother also died.

“I’ve been on my own since,” she said.

After graduating from Highline Community College, she attended the University of Washington, where she learned to dance with a Mexican dance group.

She worked as a restaurant manager and a secretary, before deciding to become an ELL paraeducator.

“It’s my calling to help different people,” she said. “I’ve always been told I have some little spunk in me.”


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