Here we are in Valencia, Spain, on a bus heading for the airport (we hoped). I’m making a face because our adventure in Spain this summer was exactly that– an adventure. Although I am a native Spanish speaker, I have definitely lost a lot of language as I’ve grown up; luckily, my husband studied in Argentina and Ecuador during college and speaks Spanish well, so between the two of us, we assumed Spain was going to be free of awkward communication and difficulty in navigation.
Apparently it looked like we could stand to be knocked down a peg or two, because even though we had the language under our belts, we still had trouble with many of the Spanish accents (there are 9 variant languages spoken in Spain). I struggled with a lot of the vocabulary the Spanish had to offer (we use a lot of different nouns in Peru), and sometimes it was just more comfortable to walk rather than take a cab ride with an almost unintelligible driver. I hated to see my husband feel embarrassed when people asked him to repeat himself, over and over, only to tell him finally that “maybe this will be easier for you in English,” especially when he was making such an effort to use Spanish. It was definitely an experience that was uncomfortable, but as educators know, usually those experiences are the ones that make you learn and make you stronger.
At our Back to School night, I was so happy to see past Spanish-speaking families walk into my classroom, questioning me about their child’s new teacher, wondering how to sign up for free lunch, and asking how to find bus routes. My heart was so full knowing that these families come to our school every year feeling like their questions will be answered and their voices will be heard. But I let my ego over-inflate, I’m afraid, because a new family walked in amidst the crowd, and asked if anyone could help her translate her greeting to me, her son’s new teacher. I immediately greeted her in Spanish and assured her that we would be able to communicate just fine, but she seemed concerned. “They called me today. Some people from the office with a date for me. But I didn’t understand and I didn’t know how to answer them, so I just said yes and hung up. I am so sorry,” she pleaded. “I just didn’t understand.” And then another family came with a similar story: that they had been called with the date of a conference but hadn’t understood what for. And another—that someone left a message about calling back, but that they didn’t want to because their English wasn’t very good. And another, and another…
I know how stupid I felt when I was traveling and I didn’t understand (what I consider to be) my own language. I felt jittery and awkward and anxious every time my husband asked me to direct the taxi driver, because he was done feeling like the stupid one.
No one likes struggling to read signs. No one likes struggling to get from place to place. No one likes when their kids see them in an incompetent light. For these new families that came in to my classroom feeling sorry, and probably feeling inadequate, it was their first interaction with school. Sure, we have translators that can be scheduled. Sure, we have an interpreter phone line that can be used when remembered. But are we doing enough? Are we truly exerting every effort and tool we have at our disposal to make families feel connected and understood?
I’ll leave you with this: My go-getter assistant principal has recently taken to surveying ELL families about how our school can serve them better. She hangs butcher paper in the hallways for parents to comment on, has passed out fliers, and has asked with the assistance of translators. Above all else, our families are asking for a Spanish-speaking person to be available in the office. With the number of obstacles preventing us from hiring someone like this, it would be easy to simply turn our backs to these families and say, “Sorry, that’s not a possibility.” But do we have the choice? Can we really afford to turn our backs on those families with the most struggling students? It’s really a pickle we’re trying to solve.
I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: what is your school doing to make every effort to reach ALL families?
For more about connecting with bilingual families, be sure to check out:
4 Fun Ways to Engage ELL Families http://corelaboratewa.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=9634&action=edit
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy