If You Only Knew: A Conversation with Emily Francis

If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher brings readers into the lives of immigrant students in ways that affirm the identities of students and educate those whose experiences are different from the stories featured in the text.

This post is also available on Share My Lesson.

Emily Francis with her students. Emily is on the far right in the back row.

Too often, students’ lives outside of a classroom are a mystery to the educators charged with teaching them. At the same time, many students know little about their teachers’ lives and this is particularly true for students and faculty new to a school. 

The lack of understanding and connection has real consequences. Writing in Education Week, Sarah Sparks explains, “A Review of Educational Research analysis of 46 studies found that strong teacher-student relationships were associated in both the short- and long-term with improvements on practically every measure schools care about: higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates.” 

Despite the importance of teacher-student relationships, research from NYU scholar Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng indicates that “teachers report weaker relationships with students of color and children of immigrants than with white students.”

Emily Francis prides herself on her relationships with her immigrant students. As an immigrant, she sees herself in her students’ experiences and uses lessons from her experience to support them. Her new book,  If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher, captures much of her wisdom. The book, written as a series of letters to her students, should be required reading for anyone in education. With great tenderness and respect, Emily offers insights, advice, and inspiration, revealing the strengths her newcomer students bring with them and the challenges they face. 

Re-Imagining Migration Executive Director Adam Strom recently spoke to Emily about the book. 

Adam S: Emily, I really loved your book. You write beautifully, and I feel like I know you so much better than I did before reading it. I was struck by how directly you write about some of the challenges you have navigated. At the same time, it’s clear that you had a purpose behind every story you shared. Each of these stories comes out in the letters you write to your students. Can you talk a bit about the format of the book? Why did you decide to write the book in the form of letters? 

Emily F: Hello again, Adam! It is always a pleasure exchanging words with you. I always learn something new when we chat. 

First of all, THANK YOU for making time for my book, “If You Only Knew.” It means a lot to me that you would not just read it but also for you to provide your feedback on the impact these stories had on you as a reader. I believe that one of the reasons you felt a great connection with the book, besides the fascinating stories you read in the book, was the letter format. I wanted students to read as if I was talking to each and every reader personally. I believe students – all students – need that one book that affirms their existence and experiences from an author who has lived those same experiences. Students read not only about my own personal experience but also about a student who lived those same experiences. 

I feel this format will touch more lives than if it was just written as a memoir.

Adam S: Are the students you describe in the letters actual people, or are they amalgamations? And have you shared the book with your current or former students? If so, what has their response been?

Emily F: The students I share about in the book are actually former students. Each and every one of these students made such an impact in my life, personally and professionally. I know, without a doubt, that I also made an impact on their life – In one way or another. So far, the only one who has read his chapter is Orlando. We wanted to get a student’s perspective on the book, so I was given the green light to have Orlando read it since he was still on campus. Orlando cried while reading his chapter. Not only because he was in the book along with his peers but also because he felt validated and affirmed by having his story shared with the world. He thanked me and said that he couldn’t wait to read the rest of the stories.

I’ve told a couple of other students about being in the book, and they are super excited to read it. My students are so humbled. All they say is “Thank you, Mrs. Francis.” 

As soon as it’s published, each student is getting a personalized copy and an invitation to a café con pan. It will be a great moment to catch up with each of them and recount our beautiful moments on campus. 

Adam S: I wish I could be a fly on the wall for those discussions. At the same time, students are just one audience for the book. Teachers are another. I’d like to focus on them for a second. I feel like all teachers should read If You Only Knew. What would you hope teachers take away from the book?

Emily F: As an avid reader and an educator myself, I read to learn. My hope for educators as they read my book is that they make strong connections. If they have similar experiences as mine, they will feel reaffirmed, seen, and heard. Personally, I love reading books that reflect my own identity, there’s such a powerful feeling we experience when we see ourselves reflected on the pages of a book.

For educators who have not experienced what our stories tell, I hope that the stories serve as a window to our walks of life. Chances are that educators have students sitting in their class right now who need an educator who not only understands but embraces their experiences. To all educators who read my book, I hope that this book serves as a key for students in their classrooms to have a space at the table to share their stories. Make your classroom a place of healing where students heal, restore, and put themselves back together. 

Adam S: That’s powerful and worth reiterating; young people need to have teachers who embrace who they are. 

I’d live to flip from all teachers to you as a teacher. How do you think your identity and experiences have shaped you as an educator?

Emily Francis

Emily F: I know, without a doubt, that my identity and my experiences not just shaped me as an educator, but they are core to everything I do, as well as how and why I do what I do. 

You know, one of the things my mother did after reading my book was to apologize to me. She said, “Emily, I’m sorry for everything I put you through.” – Is she kidding me? Every single experience in my life built me. They influenced my identity development, so as I function in my space, like my classroom, I choose pedagogical practices that influence my students’ identity and individuality. My experiences afford me a great understanding of the obstacles my students face to be successful, and my identity is a bridge to get to their hearts and soul. I’d just add that my identity and experiences empower me to seek equitable systems that support my students’ culture, language, identities, and strengths. 

Adam S: Not everyone who teaches immigrant students has your background. In fact, the vast majority of those who teach newcomers are not newcomers. What advice would you give them? How might they be able to authentically connect their identity and experiences with their students’ lives?

Emily F: While reading Identity Affirming Classrooms by Dr. Erica B. Rivera, I learned that as educators, our pedagogical approaches and socialization are among the most influential factors in identity development – our students’ greatest gift! Hence, my advice is to stand strong in the commitment to human development. We want our students to develop their identity and function in society, embracing who they are—not assimilating to something they are not. We don’t need to have walked in our students’ shoes to have empathy. We don’t need to experience what they’ve experienced to embrace their diversity. All we need is to approach our students’ lives and journeys with an open mind and heart. 

One way I’d say that educators can authentically connect with students is by reading diverse literature written by diverse authors. Read, learn, embrace, and demonstrate to students and others around you that you are doing your part to build systems of validation and not oppression. Your students will thank you for being their advocate and for protecting their identity and existence. 

Adam S.: While there is so much I’d like to ask, I don’t want to give the book away. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me and for all you do for your students and the teaching profession.

Emily F: Thank you, Adam. I really appreciate this space and time to share our voice. By sharing our stories, you’re telling the world how much we matter, and that is appreciated.