Student Stories

Amy Hewett -762

Campaigning for Classrooms: Amy Hewett-Olatunde, MAEd ’02 EdD ’15

At the end of the interview, we joked about her being a superhero. But to many of Amy Hewett-Olatunde’s students, it is not a joke. Hewett-Olatunde, who received both her master’s degree in education ’02 and her Doctorate of Education (EdD) ’15, is an adjunct faculty member teaching graduate-level ESL courses at Hamline and was the recipient of the prestigious 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award. She has dedicated her life to bettering the lives of her students, both in and out of the classroom.

“There are a lot of things that a lot of people don’t understand,” Hewett-Olatunde said when speaking about her students at LEAP, a Saint Paul public school that enrolls English language learners. “What happens to you when you grow up in a refugee camp? When you travel for a month just to get here? What traumas follow you through your life? We are dealing with such a scope of mental health issues that haven’t been diagnosed, that aren’t recognized in other cultures. We are not just educating our students, we’re nurturing them on a daily level.”

The marriage between academic rigor and family-orientation in the classroom has been the mantra of LEAP since it was established in 1994 when a group of mainstream teachers began to realize the serious repercussions of not reorienting the learning system to English language learners.

When the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) began to umbrella the school systems, Hewett-Olatunde explained, a lot of the students who had been pushed along simply because teachers were not sure how else to teach them could not pass the tests, which meant they could not graduate. They would continue to sit in the system until the age of 21, when they were pushed back into a society that they had a seriously limited ability to navigate.

Instead of standing by as the needs of these students were neglected, the core founders of LEAP took in a couple dozen English language learners and constructed an academic format based on language levels, not traditional age levels. Twenty-one years later, what began as an institute of 40 students has grown to encompass up to 400 students, all of whom are immigrants and/or refugees.

Hewett-Olatunde completed her student teaching requirement at LEAP and has not left since. Her dedication to her students is astounding, and she eschews any thought of them being just a part of her profession. The stories that she has heard are heartbreaking, she said, but that makes it all the more compelling for her to embrace the holistic needs of her students.

“You figure out ways to take that load and shatter it,” Hewett-Olatunde said when talking about the different obstacles and traumas her students deal with daily. “That way it becomes positive, and you and the students can move forward.”

One of the methods that Hewett-Olatunde uses to overcome barriers is to include various forms of creative expression in her curriculum. “I’m a very dramatic person,” Hewett-Olatunde said, with a laugh. “I was always involved in drama and poetry, and I found a way to infuse creative writing and academic writing in my class. It is the lifeblood of community building among my students. You can build the deepest community if you start with a creative standpoint and implement academics.”

Hewett-Olatunde’s tactics have made a difference, because in 2015 she was recognized as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year—a huge accomplishment for not only Hewett-Olatunde, but for Minnesota’s ESL community as a whole.

At first, Hewett-Olatunde admitted that she was completely overwhelmed by the award. But once she witnessed how her being recognized energized her students and ESL coworkers, she realized that being named Teacher of the Year was really an opportunity to make her voice truly heard.

“It is frustrating, because my colleagues and myself have had all these things to say, but we’d never been listened to. It isn’t until you get a title that people want to listen to what teachers have to say,” Hewett-Olatunde said. “So winning this award has given a huge amount of opportunity to the whole field and learners.”

“The situation is pressing and critical. We have choices to make as educators, institutions, and a society whether to help these people become a successful part of society or not,” Hewett-Olatunde said.

One of the major perks that the city of Saint Paul provides for the Teacher of the Year is the allowance of a full time co-teacher, which enables Hewett-Olatunde to go out and advocate on behalf of her students and her community.

“What people don’t realize is that we’re not only educating these kids," she said. "We’re educating and advocating for their parents, as well.”

In this way, ESL teachers truly do make an impact on the English learning society as a whole—a message that Hewett-Olatunde is intent on sharing with as many people as she possibly can, partially by taking the message to Washington, D.C., when she goes to be recognized as an outstanding teacher.

In fact, she has already had her students write a collection of what she calls “green card poems” and plans on taking them with her when she has dinner at the Biden household.

After listening to Hewett-Olatunde speak about her students and the ESL community, it is hard not to think of her as a superhero. But at the end of the day, she still insists that she is the most fortunate of all. “We’re teaching kids that most people don’t know how to teach, and they think it’s just a difficult job. That’s how they think of these kids," she said. "But these kids are such a blessing; you can ask any ESL teacher—these kids are a dream to teach.”

Find out more about Hamline’s graduate ESL programs and the Doctorate of Education degree offered through Hamline School of Education, or contact the Office of Graduate Admission to learn more about joining the Hamline community.