Do you have a lot of English Language Learners in your classroom? Beginning to see that what you learned in your high school French class is only taking you so far? Wondering how to engage with families when the barriers seem so high?
Don’t worry, you can do this. And the good news is, the more you learn to connect with families of diverse backgrounds, the better you will become at connecting with ALL families. So let’s wrestle this problem to the ground.
To help me, I enlisted the help of a dear friend and inspiration colleague, Christina Thuli. She has a whole section of her website devoted to helping you, as a teacher, connect with families. Here are some of the things we talked about:
1. Talk about the elefante in the room.
The absolute worst thing you can do is ignore the fact that your students and their families are learning English. Instead, talk to them about it. Ask how it's going. Offer support, resources, a friendly person with whom they can practice speaking English.
Don’t assume anything about them. Instead, ask. Ask what language they speak at home. Ask what language they would like to speak with you (later in the year, parents may want to practice their English). Ask what holidays they celebrate. Ask where they are from. Ask what questions they have and what support they want.
Have patience and understanding and know that families who don't speak English are just as concerned about and interested in their child’s education as the PTA president who you see at school all the time. Keep reaching out.
Also, know that families who don’t speak English very well may be reluctant to come to school and speak with you. I know from personal experience that trying to talk to a teacher in a language that I don’t speak very well about a subject that I am highly emotionally invested in (my child and their success) is super, duper, duper intimidating! (Read more here). Also, in their culture “supporting your child‘s education” might look different than coming in and talking to the teacher. So they don’t think it’s needed or even appropriate.
Don’t give up on them! Have patience and understanding and know that families who don't speak English are just as concerned about and interested in their child’s education as the PTA president who you see at school all the time. Keep reaching out.
2. Get help.
Of course, communicating with someone who doesn’t speak English is difficult. So get some help.
First look in your school community. Are there other teachers, paraprofessionals or families that speak the same language as your students and their families? Use them! Invite a group of parents who all speak the same language to come in at the same time. This will foster communication and they can help clarify things for each other and build some community.
Second, look to outside agencies and volunteers. In this beautiful melting pot that is the United States of America, you WILL be able to find someone to help you. You just may need to get creative. Also know, that help is just a phone call away with a telephone translation service.
When you do get someone to help you, use the translator wisely. The best possible thing you can do is connect with the families personally. Don’t jump straight into the school handbook! Instead build a foundation of trust and understanding. Remember to ask them questions in addition to giving them information.
And remember, although you want help with language translation, what you really want is a cultural ambassador. Navigating verb tense is only about 10% of what these families are struggling with. Adapting to a new culture, learning a new school system, navigating a new city—all under the haze of homesickness--is hard. So work to give them the support they need. (To read more about how to enlist other parents, read here)
3. Get trained.
Working with refugee families is a particular challenge. Laura Conrad has an online workshop that will will help you learn some of the basics with working with refugee families. (Read about our conversation of how to get started if you’re new to working with English Language Learner families here) And her colleague at English Learner Portal, Kelly Reider, has an online course of targeted strategies, just for beginners. Check out more resources here.
4. Create multi-lingual classroom and school.
Make your classroom and your school a place where multiple languages are celebrated. You don’t have to have kids in your classroom who speak Chinese in order to learn a Chinese song. You only need one courageous and curious teacher who likes to teach her kids that learning languages is magical.
As with everything, you can be a model. If you don’t already speak another language, start learning one. Research the language or culture of your ancestors and share with your students you journey as you try to reclaim some of your heritage. (Here’s an excellent book about this Noa’s Ark by David Schwarzer.)
If you want some help with this, you must check out Christina Thuli’s Language Learning classrooms. “Culture and Language Integration” She has so many great ideas! I will highlight just two.
Post words in different languages around the school.
Ms. Thuli says, “It is so important for students and families to see their languages written in the school. In my school, we learned how to say good morning in each language our families spoke and for 2 weeks we would say good morning in this language...it went so far with all students, and truly embracing the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students and families. One family came to visit our school when our morning greeting was Bengali, and they spoke Bengali! This was what made them choose our school, they said. They felt so welcomed there that we would take the time to not only learn it, but include their language in our school.”
Host an Intercambio where families and staff can practice speaking each other’s languages. Create a warm, welcoming and low risk environment where everyone can be a language learner.