Laura Wittmann is the Bangor School Department's only English for Speakers of Other Languages -- or ESOL -- teacher. She teaches English to Bangor students whose primary language isn't English in both Mary Snow School and William S. Cohen School. On March 18, Educators for a Multilingual Maine named Wittmann the nonprofit's 2023 ESOL Teacher of the Year. Credit: Kathleen O'Brien / BDN

Language posters and world maps dot the walls of Laura Wittmann’s colorful classroom in William S. Cohen School. The decor is meant to assist her students, who come to Bangor from five different continents but share a singular goal — to learn English.

Wittmann is one of Maine’s 218 instructors tasked with teaching English to multilingual learners, or students whose primary language is not English and are not yet proficient in the language.

Maine public schools had 5,615 multilingual students during the 2021-2022 academic year, making up about 3 percent of the state’s total enrolled public school students, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The number of Maine’s multilingual learners has hovered between 5,000 and 6,000 in recent years, but increased slightly from the 5,145 multilingual students public schools had in 2016 as the state’s demographics shift. In 2021, Maine had more than 56,000 foreign-born residents compared with about 36,700 foreign-born residents in 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Last month, Wittmann and Ellie Nichols, a Bangor High School senior, received the two top awards from Educators for a Multilingual Maine, a nonprofit aimed at promoting and improving the teaching and study of languages and cultures of the world. Wittmann was named the 2023 English for Speakers of Other Languages — or ESOL — Teacher of the Year during the nonprofit’s annual March 18 conference, and Bangor School Board recently recognized her work.

Wittmann has held many roles since joining the Bangor School Department in 2001 including tutor, district coordinator and Spanish teacher. Today, she teaches a modified English language arts class, a math support class and a “newcomer class” for students who are new to the country and don’t speak English. Her classes are held at Mary Snow School and William S. Cohen School.

Wittmann said her current students represent five continents but declined to share which countries her students are from.

Though Wittmann’s goal is helping non-English speaking students learn the fundamentals of the language so they can communicate with others and succeed in school, she sees herself as an advocate for students and their families. This means she often connects students and their families with other community resources so they can become comfortable in their new school and community.

“It’s good to be the connecting point and give students a place where they can feel comfortable,” she said. “The language, culture, weather and food are all new. How can we make people comfortable, take a risk and speak a new language in this class?”

Recently, Wittmann had a classroom of students, all of whom spoke different languages but no English. Despite these language barriers, they used an online translation service to debate whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better soccer player.

Ellie Nichols (center), a Bangor High School senior, stands with her teachers after Educators for a Multilingual Maine named her the nonprofit’s 2023 Student of the Year. Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor School Department

“It’s so fun to see them try to figure out how to communicate because people want to communicate and feel like they belong,” she said.

Wittmann said she finds success when students make friends, go to a sports game or participate in a school activity because it’s a sign they’re growing more confident in their English skills and are comfortable in their new community.

“Putting together who you are as an adolescent, then throwing in a new language and culture is difficult,” she said. “For them to feel like their identity can be both where they came from and also encompass this new world — that is very powerful.”

Wittmann said she wished more people understood that all people have more in common than they might believe, despite differences in clothing, food, religion, customs or language.

“Our newest Mainers are good people with good hearts, good minds and some funny stories to tell, once you figure out what they’re saying,” she said.

In addition to teaching multilingual students, Wittmann was Nichols’ freshman year Spanish teacher. Nichols credits Wittman for inspiring her to study Spanish and Chinese throughout high school, which earned her Educators for a Multilingual Maine’s 2023 Student of the Year award last month.

“I have worked very hard to maintain my grades and progress in two languages for so long, so it was an amazing feeling for that hard work to be recognized by receiving this award,” Nichols said. “I know there are a lot of students in my school and across Maine who share my passion for language, so it was both a surprise and an honor to be selected.”

Nichols is also a member of four honor societies — National, Chinese, Spanish and Social Studies — and is a member of Bangor High School’s Cultural Exchange Club.

After being introduced to Spanish in middle school, Nichols said she signed up for Chinese “purely out of curiosity,” but soon fell in love with both languages.

Learning both languages, and the cultures associated with them, was a way for Nichols to expand her worldview from Maine, one of the country’s least diverse states, despite its slight demographic shifts, she said.

“Through taking these classes as well as classes like World History and Humanities, I have tried to become the most educated and aware person I can be,” she said.

Nichols will attend the University of Maine in the fall and plans to major in biochemistry, though she hopes to study abroad and maintain her passion for other languages and cultures.

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...