Every year, scores of students whose families are new immigrants to the United States enroll in the Upper Darby School District and Margie Tavakalian helps them adjust.
The 55-year-old English Language Learners (ELL) teacher at Beverly Hills Middle School takes shy and scared youngsters who speak Punjabi, Thai, or Greek, and helps them communicate — and more.
When frustrations mount because a student can't open a locker or tell a cafeteria worker what he or she wants to eat, Tavakalian is there.
"Whatever I have achieved so far, it is because of her," said Monika Awal, 26, who was Tavakalian's student for two years after her family emigrated from India. "She gave us extra time and special attention, and told us that we could do it."
For more than 25 years, Tavakalian has played a key role in the district's efforts to educate 800 English-language learners from 70 countries and assist their families. This year, Tavakalian was honored for her efforts by being named one of 12 finalists for the 2012 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year award. She also received teaching awards this year from the National Liberty Museum and the Franklin Mint.
Tavakalian makes it her mission to get to know not only her students, but their families and their stories, said Jillian McGilvery, the district's English Language Learners coordinator. Tavakalian routinely works late, and helps runs an after-school homework program that students learning English use not only for academic assistance, but for companionship.
ELL classes are part of an expansive program offered to immigrant students and their families that includes adult English as a second language classes, family literacy programs, and an ELL services fair that provides information on medical services, employment, and social programs.
Students and their families often have fled war and poverty only to face continuing economic challenges in an unfamiliar cultural landscape.
"They inspire me," Tavakalian said. "I find them to be so courageous."
They also resurrect memories of Tavakalian's own family and perhaps give her a special insight into her students' situations.
Tavakalian's grandfather Napoleon Donabedian emigrated from Armenia as a teenager at the turn of the century. Destitute and homeless, he once had to sleep on a park bench in Camden. But after working hard at many jobs, he started a mint specialty business that eventually supplied candy to department stores.
"He never went to school and taught himself English by reading the newspaper," Tavakalian said. "I knew their struggles with the language and cultural differences.
As a youngster growing up Delaware County, Tavakalian always wanted to be a teacher. She saved her school handouts and homework to use them to play school, said her brother Brian, a business education teacher at Chester High School for 35 years.
Margie Tavakalian graduated from Marple Newtown High School and earned a bachelor's degree in education from West Chester University. She worked as a substitute teacher before landing a permanent position at Upper Darby in 1986. When she started at Beverly Hills, she was the only ELL instructor. Now, there are five at the school and 25 in the district.
"The first six months, when they have no English and they are trying to communicate, is the most challenging," Tavakalian said. "You've got to make it fun and memorable, and let them communicate in other ways. They have to feel like they are accomplishing something."
These days, Tavakalian's empathy for the students is perhaps keener than ever. She is taking classes to learn Armenian, which was only occasionally spoken in her family.
"I can relate to what they are going through," she said.
On the walls of Tavakalian's classroom are inspirational sayings — "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" — and flags of countries representing the students' heritage.
She encourages the youngsters to "appreciate their culture and value it" despite the occasional teasing," and also adapt to a new culture and value that also.
"Tavakalian makes us go in groups with other people and share ideas," said John Yamoah, 13, whose family emigrated from Ghana in 2005.
On Thursday, Tavakalian led the class in a small group exercise designed to teach the elements of fiction. Vanessa Puma, 12, whose parents were born in Ecuador, worked with Yassine Samake, whose parents are from the Ivory Coast.
"I'm getting to know many different cultures and many different people besides my own type of people," Puma said.
For Awal, who is on the verge of earning a bachelor's degree in business from Pennsylvania State University, Tavakalian's classes were invaluable.
"I think you need a spirit like her — someone pushing you," Awal said. "She gave us her best, and if I wanted to stay, I had to learn and give it my best."