As a new teacher, I decided to get my CLAD certification. CLAD stands for Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development and after taking the night class for several weeks, boy, did I feel smart. I totally get how to help my ELL kids and work with their families, I thought. No problem.
But as every 22 year-old everywhere who thinks she knows everything soon finds out--I really had no clue.
Sure, I knew, intellectually, how families and students who don’t speak English may feel. But I didn’t really know it here--deep in the heart. And consequently, I sometimes pushed away when I should have pulled closer and I assumed the worst instead of hunting for the best.
Now I live in Mexico. I have children and I don’t speak Spanish very well. I’m surprised at how hard it is for me, a professional educator, to reach out and talk to their teachers. This little language gap isn't so little at all. I make my husband go to parent meetings. I mostly keep to myself at pick-up. I feel like crying as the homework piles up.
Oh, 22 year-old self--you did not get it!
Now I get it. And I want to help other teachers get it, too. So I write this letter, as the parent of a language learner.
I write this letter with a full measure of humility. I know that immigrating to Mexico is very different than immigrating to the US. I know that moving to a foreign country on an adventurous whim, is much different than fleeing your country for economic, political, or religious reasons. I know that I cannot speak for everyone's experience.
But I also believe that our human experiences are more alike than they are different. All I want is to help one teacher empathize and really feel, deep down in their heart, the experience of ELL families.
Oh, and I’d like to go back in time to give a hug to all my ELL students and their families.
Dear Teacher of My Children-
Here are a few things I'd like to tell you. Forgive me for not saying them aloud.
1. I didn't uproot my life, cross international borders, and wade through the bureaucracy of immigration for my kids to fail in school. Just because you don’t see me around the school very much, it isn’t that I don’t care. I’m intimidated and at times overwhelmed, but not uninterested.
2. Please give me information in several different ways and at several different times. I’m so glad that you are trying to communicate with me. Thank you! But telling me something at pick-up goes in one ear and out the other. Sending a paper home is good but I have questions that you may not even think about. A text is good but I need some clarification. In short--please, please, please keep trying to communicate with me and please make it clear you welcome my questions and won’t judge my confusion.
3. I’m smarter and more capable than you think. But helping with homework is still really, really hard.
Did you know I’m really funny in my home language? Did you know I can opine on a variety of subjects? Did you know it’s really frustrating when someone looks at me like I’m an idiot just because I mix up my verb tense? I know more than you think.
Homework is especially tough at our house. Can I please get an example of what you want? Can you tell me, specifically, how we can adapt the homework to better fit us? Please, give me a head-start on the assignment! Give me an outline, some sentence frames, a website to go to. Everything takes us twice as long because we are swimming upstream from the moment the pencil hits the paper. And we don't actually know how to learn another language. We're just wingin' it. Any help is appreciated.
4. Homesickness permeates everything we do. I cannot express to you how much we miss our family, our country, our friends. Thank goodness for Skype and WhatsUp. Please be patient if you see me texting with a friend back home during a PTA meeting. It’s not that I don’t care about what's happening here. It’s just that my heart is always in two places.
5. If only it was as simple as learning a language. I’m trying to learn Spanish. I really am. But that’s not easy because I also have to learn A LOT of other things. Like:
the way you talk to waiters
the way you drive
what you say to a stranger’s baby
what you do when you walk into a supermarket
what time you arrive to a party
the time that kids usually go to bed
how you politely leave a party
the way you talk to teachers
how you invite people to your house
what you bring to a potluck
how often you speak to strangers
how you find out where rec basketball is
6. When I speak to my kids in our home language in front of you we are never, ever, talking about you or trying to keep something from you. Don’t worry.
7. I always have lots of questions. Can I phone a friend? Even if I think I understand you when I’m talking to you, as soon as I walk away and have a chance to think about our conversation, I have a question. Can I please just have your phone number and an invitation to text you later? Or maybe “an assigned parent buddy”? Relationships don’t always happen organically for me.
8. A smile and a hello do more than you think. Seriously, you don’t have to do much (in fact, having a conversation is a bit terrifying!) but smiling and saying hi are like balm to my loneliness.
9. Our home language will always be our home. When I sing to my kids, I sing in our home language. When I snuggle up with them and read, we're going to read a book in our home language. Please reassure me that you understand how important that language is to my family.
10. The way you feel about your kids--I feel that way about my kids. Don’t underestimate the fierce love I have for my kids. Leverage it, instead. Show me you understand how precious they are to me. And please, love my kids. I know they present you with a challenge--heck, our whole family is challenge! But you are our entry point into this new, wild and wonderful country. Help us make it home.