Seattle's Child

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Paraeducator Mahamoud Gaayte

Paraeducator Mahamoud Gaayte helps students who bring other languages to the learning table. Photo by Joshua Huston

For the love of language: Paraeducator Mahamoud Gaayte

"Correct people’s pronunciation until they learn your name'

Paraeducator Mahamoud Gaayte could easily be described as a Renaissance man. He’s a polymath, an educator knowledgeable about many subjects, and that comes in handy for his work with the Seattle Public Schools (SPS)

Paraeducators provide many kinds of support to students. Gaayte started his career with SPS 12 years ago as an instructional assistant (IA) before transitioning into his current position as a multilingual family advocate. It’s a role for which he seems ideally suited. Originally from Somalia, he speaks three languages fluently: Af-Soomaali, Arabic, and English. Additionally, with the help of some elementary students, he’s actively learning Spanish. 

“The kids are keen to correct me,” he says. “That’s one of the benefits of being young—they have no problem telling me when I’m saying something wrong.”

Mahamoud Gaayte, a Somali student and family advocate in Seattle. Photo by Joshua Huston

More than a translator

Working out of the SPS central office, Gaayte serves K-8 students in multiple Seattle schools. He’s much more than a translator for immigrant and refugee students. Multilingual family advocates often serve as de facto social workers, connecting students and their families to support within the school district and the community. 

Of course, they also provide critical translation of documents into families’ native languages. In addition, multilingual family advocates may serve as everything from role models to surrogate parents for students with common language and cultural backgrounds. 

The oldest of seven siblings, Gaayte has lived in Seattle since 2009. While his father still lives in Somalia, the other members of his family live on every continent except South America and Antarctica. After helping with the summer school session, Gaayte and his family traveled to Turkey to visit family there, including a sister and a cousin who attends college. He enjoys visiting new places and immersion in different cultures.

Taking only enough

One of the significant perks Gaayte has found about living in Seattle is access to cuisine from around the world. He loves eating South Asian food, especially Vietnamese Pho, teriyaki, Thai, and Japanese cuisine. And he will always splurge on dark chocolate.

A proponent of minimalism, he encourages folks to “take enough to sustain you.” Still, he’s not averse to creature comforts. Besides the aforementioned dark chocolate, if he were chosen to compete on a TV show like Survivor, the one luxury item he’d take is a good pillow. 

When he’s not working, you might find Gaayte riding his bicycle or using his advocacy skills to connect members of his community with his passion for bicycling and bike safety. He loves all things nature and spends much time outdoors, enjoying activities like camping with his wife and 4th grade son. He walks his son to school each day before heading to work.  

A love of language — and kids

An avid Star Wars fan, Mahamoud’s favorite character is, fittingly, Yoda —he admires the lovable, little green character’s use of language. 

If he had just one opportunity to give a child advice, he’d tell them:

“Be kind, and don’t be shy to ask for help. Students might be afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to look silly or be embarrassed, but they need to ask. Kids also need to say their names the way their families say them—don’t be afraid to correct people’s pronunciation until they learn your name.”

Language learning tips

Gaayte wishes the school district would expand language offerings, making more languages available to students at earlier ages. He has some tips for learning new languages:

  • Bring determination.
  • Bring passion.
  • Bring listening skills. 
  • Listen to podcasts and music in the language you are learning.
  • Find, listen to, and talk with native speakers.

And most important, Gaayte encourages new language learners to take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

More at Seattle’s Child:

The age game: When is your child ready for kindergarten

About the Author

Claire Sheridan

Claire Sheridan is a US-based writer and writing group facilitator. She enjoys debating about policy, current events, and critical existential concerns such as the best gluten-free cookie recipe. Connect with her at