After 31 years teaching in Auburn, Robin Fleck is retiring. Pictures of some of the students that Fleck taught English to hang on her office wall. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

AUBURN — Robin Fleck helped start the Auburn School Department’s English language learner program from scratch in the 1980s, after the department was cited by the state for busing students to Lewiston for help.

For years, she had between 12 and 20 students, sometimes running between schools throughout the day for pullouts and consultations. Now, she oversees a staff of about 16. The department has more than 200 students who represent more than 25 languages.

It’s been an incredible run that she said she’ll miss when she retires Friday.

“Some days I would feel like I learned more from my students than they learned from me,” Fleck said. “Their enthusiasm for learning is contagious. I love meeting the families, getting to build relationships with them and trying to fill in the gaps for them in what they need.”

Fleck grew up in Massachusetts and joked that she was destined early to be a teacher.

“I always loved school,” she said. “When we were cleaning out my mother’s house, we found some coloring books where I had corrected the grammar in the captions.”

In high school, she loved horseback riding and taught at riding camps.

“I enjoyed the challenge of helping the students that were afraid or having a little bit harder time,” Fleck said. “I made a connection there as well.”

She attended college at the University of Maine at Farmington and said she fell in love with the state. After several years teaching in Massachusetts, she started with Auburn Adult Education in January 1988 teaching English and history.

After the state’s Office of Civil Rights said Auburn needed an ELL program — known then as English as a Second Language, or ESL — she and a Spanish teacher were tapped to form it.

“I had tutored Japanese adults with their English,” many of whom were attending (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), she said, so that’s why she was approached.

At the time, most of her students spoke Asian languages and “a majority of my students were families running local restaurants,” she said.

That changed abruptly in 2001 when Somali immigrants began moving to Lewiston in large numbers, some settling in Auburn.

“As the population started to grow, we started to have more families,” Fleck said. “That’s when we needed to learn a whole lot.”

Today, Somali is the language most often spoken by her students, followed by Portuguese and Arabic.

In her role the past 15 years as coordinator, she’s interacted with many students from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade.

“That is a blessing, that I can follow the families and their growth,” Fleck said. “I’ve really tried to be an advocate for the students and families in this community, and felt that a piece of my role was to bridge the mutual understanding.”

As a teacher, sometimes that meant troubleshooting. She had a fourth grade teacher once remark that an ELL student was having a hard time learning “The County Song,’ which was set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

“He wasn’t familiar with that tune, so not only did he have to learn all the names of our counties that are this long, it was to a tune he had never heard prior to being here,” Fleck said. “The teacher was like, ‘Of course!’ She just hadn’t thought of it, but it made perfect sense once I could share that with her.”

Some foreign languages don’t have the same sounds as English, she said. Some don’t have past tense, or plural.

“The Somali language only has about 20 words that express emotions, whereas we have over 100,” Fleck said. “There isn’t always a direct translation and you need to have a context to really understand the meaning of the word when there isn’t a direct translation, so it’s important for educators to understand when they’re working with these students.”

She once had a former student in his 30s introduce her at his job site as his second mother, which really warmed her heart, she said.

Another student from Burma whose family moved from Auburn to the West for work emailed Fleck and his middle school teacher saying he wanted to come back to Maine.

“‘When I walk down the halls here and say hello to my teachers, they look at me as if I’m not there,'” Fleck quoted from the student. “That just about broke our hearts. We wanted to get on a plane and go out and get them. That’s one example. I could give you a list, the things that students have shared when they move and communicate back.”

Fleck isn’t sure what’s ahead in retirement. She hopes to see her grandchildren more in Massachusetts. She might learn carriage driving with horses. She definitely sees herself staying involved in the community.

“My wish is that our young people who are going on to further education and see the world, that eventually they’ll come back here,” she said. “We need them in our community, we need them in our schools, we need them in our community services.”

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