Shjarback reflects on her time teaching in El Paso, TX


Courtesy of Mrs. Stefania Shjarback

Inside Eastwood HS in El Paso, TX.

A mixed chorus of Spanish and English greets Mrs. Stefania Shjarback’s ears as she stepped into her 9th grade classroom at Eastwood High School in El Paso, Texas.

Just 15 miles from her school, a looming fence sits, separating Texas from Mexico.

Although there may be a wall separating them, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are sister cities, and it is a common occurrence for people from Ciudad Juarez, as long as they have a passport or work visa, to travel to El Paso. Some of Shjarback’s students even had family living in Mexico and would visit Ciudad Juarez and other towns on the weekend.

Even with the wall in place, Shjarback, an English teacher who taught regular and honors English at Eastwood from 2017 to 2019, said there is a mutual respect between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

“There wasn’t tension because [the bridge] is very fluid,” said Shjarback. “It was a daily occurrence for a lot of people to cross it.”

Therefore, the environment of Eastwood represented this fluidity between nations. Eastwood students were American citizens, but some students also had ties to family in Mexico. The culture of the school represented this idea, as archetypal high school traditions, such as a marching band, were mixed with Mexican traditions, such as Mariachi bands.

Shjarback believes the environment, although commonly characterized by the wall, is similar to any other school.

“A lot of people think because I taught where the wall is, the kids were super different, but what I found that was enlightening was that kids are all the same,” said Shjarback. “Teens like music and they like hanging out with friends.”

Although 70-80% of Eastwood students were fluent in Spanish, Shjarback could communicate in English with all of her students.

This teaching experience taught me that I should judge less and sometimes, if the kids can’t finish their homework due to a holiday, it’s okay.

— Mrs. Stefania Shjarback

“I did have a few students who were ESL [English Second Language] so that was something I had to be aware of,” said Shjarback.

As a first generation student herself who could speak Italian, Shjarback found that she could connect with the kids on a deeper level due to their ease with speaking their native language.

ESL students wrote essays in English and teachers closely monitored them for improvements. Once students reached the top tiers of the essay grading rubric, they could leave the ESL program. Shjarback gave out extra reading material, Spanish-English dictionaries and Translation services  to the students as additional learning resources.

Eastwood also emphasized Spanish culture and events, celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday, among many others.

“There were [dance] groups to really perpetuate the love of Mexican cultures,” said Shjarback.

One of the groups even dressed up in traditional attire for their folklórico choreography, a mixture of Mexican dance and folk culture.

Eastwood’s own Mariachi band immersed the school in festive Mexican music while decked out in the authentic outfit topped with a sombrero.

“Nowadays, we tend to judge so much,” said Shjarback with a grin.

Now an English teacher at Cherry Hill East, Shjarback will always remember her time teaching in El Paso and the students there.