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Parent: Welcoming Parents Who Don't Speak English

Welcoming Parents Who Don’t Speak English Into Your School Community


So let’s first talk about the why. Why would you want to reach out to families who don’t speak English?

It’s important that you know the “why” before you tackle the “how.” Knowing the reason you are doing something will help you persevere on the difficult path of actually doing it. (Side note: This is a nice mantra of life, isn’t it?)

Ok, so why? Why would you want to welcome parents who don’t speak English into your school community? Perhaps you’re thinking, it’s the nice thing to do, or well, the Golden Rule says I should. Those are great reasons, sure. But that’s not all.

There’s something in it for you, too.

Here at Building the Bridge, one of our core beliefs is that both educators AND families create the schools that children attend. It takes ALL the adults, in the schools and in homes working together to create a school where ALL children are seen for who they are, cared for, challenged, and supported.

Let’s look at how that might work in this situation by doing a thought-experiment (a la If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

YOU can help create that kind of school your child will be happy to attend by welcoming everyone into your community. If you make people feel welcomed, then they will probably come and participate in the school community. If people participate in the school community, they are will probably communicate with teachers. If they communicate with the teacher, they will probably form a better teacher/parent team. If they form a better education team, their kids will probably do better in school and feel successful. If their kids feel successful in school, they will probably be in a better mood. If all kids are in a good mood and like school--imagine the learning that can happen in that classroom? Your kid will literally skip to school!

OK, perhaps that thought cascade was a bit simplified but the point is, we create the kind of school communities we want. And the place you can start--with other families.

So HOW are you going to create the kind of school community where everyone is welcome?

1. Get your head right.

  • Build a little empathy. Read this letter to try and put yourself in the shoes of a parent who doesn’t speak English very well. Imagine what that might feel like.

  • Be relentlessly friendly. A smile and a hello translate in every language. (Here is a handy list of ways to say hello in different languages). Invite families to sit by you at school events or PTA meetings. Offer to meet them at the library or a cafe for a chat.   

  • Don’t take it personally. If someone politely declines your offer to grab a coffee or seems distracted when you are trying to say hello at drop-off, know it has nothing to do with you. Their hearts are straddling two worlds and it’s not easy. (Seriously, did you read the letter?)

2.  Talk to your child.

Help your child be the kind of kid who invites the new kid to sit with them at lunch. When my kids were new to a school (they’ve been the “new kids” twice (and counting) there were several brave and kind souls who wrote them welcome cards and invited them play at recess. I am forever grateful for those kids!

3. Make biligualism a journey everyone can take.

Lucky you! You have an awesome resource now available in your community. Start a parent intercambio where you can practice learning a new language. Want to bring more than your English speaking skills? Research where your family comes from and start to learn about your heritage. (I mean, how hard can learning Danish be??) Make it a potluck and your taste buds will thank you! Here’s some ideas to get you started.

4. Revamp the PTA.

  • Translate the meeting. If you want all parents to feel welcomed, you need to make sure they can understand what’s going on. There are likely bilingual parents or teachers in your school community. Find them and ask them to help you run a bilingual meeting.

  • Make sharing information about community resources a basic component of your PTA meetings. This one takes a bit of story. We moved into a new community a few years ago. My kids brought home a flyer that invited families to a local amusement park for a community day. However, there was no date or time listed.

I called the office to ask for more details and the very nice secretary acted like I was crazy.  “Well, everyone knows that Kennywood Day is always the day after the high school prom!”

Don’t let your school community fall into this “everyone knows” that trap! Here’s a small list of things not everyone knows (whether or not they speak English):

An affordable urgent care facility

When sign ups for basketball are

The best parks to go to

An affordable music teacher

Library programs

How to find out what the homework is

Where on the school website they list upcoming events

How to sign up for health care

The local garbage “large items” pick up day

  • Set up parent buddies. Invite volunteers from the PTA to be the person that anyone new to your school community can call or text when they have a question.

  • Make attendance optional. I know, I know--robust attendance is a vital part of a strong PTA. But there are many good reason that people don’t attend meetings. Instead, make the most essential information presented very easy to access--via a webpage or texting group or video message (translated, of course). Don’t let people get outside the loop.

5. Empower all families to be active participants.

The families in your school community who don’t speak English have skills and knowledge to share. Ask them to help!

But remember their barriers and obstacles might be a little different. For example, we were living Mexico and my son needed a costume for the upcoming classroom play. He needed a loincloth.

Ok, asking me to get a costume, seems easy enough. Run down to the local fabric store and pick up some fabric and make it at home. Order it online.

But here in Mexico, it took me several conversations with the teacher to figure out what kind of loin cloth we were talking about. I have no idea where the fabric store is. I don’t have a sewing machine or needle and thread of any of those things. I have no idea what the word for safety pin is. Amazon delivery is prohibitively expensive.

The point is--when you ask parents who don’t speak a language very fluently or who are new to town to step up, they may need some specialized help. Believe me, don’t underestimated their resourcefulness (you should have seen the loincloth we came up with! Boo-ya!) but also don’t underestimate the pile of challenges they have in front of them. If you can lighten the load a little, do it.

Start here: Make a point of introducing yourself to a parent who is new to your school community.

Challenge yourself: Organize a parent buddy system.

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