A couple weeks ago I was tutoring a few parents through Carolina Swim Clinic, an organization at UNC that partners with the community to provide free swim lessons to families that may not have the opportunity to afford these lessons otherwise. Many of these families are Hispanic and primarily speak Spanish in the home. If the children have started kindergarten, most have been exposed to English and speak it proficiently due to the resources within their schools. These programs that help students to learn English necessary to being successful in school include English Language Learner (ELL) classrooms and English tutors. Since student’s brains are very plastic at this young age, they are able to pick up a second language in an incredibly short amount of time.
This opportunity isn’t as readily available for parents and many are grateful for the English tutoring available while their child is taking swim lessons. I realized the impact of this language boundary between parents and teachers when I asked about day-to-day phrases that they would like to learn. Being that we tutor on a weekly basis, we have found it best that when working in a group setting to discuss common English phrases and re-occurring conversation topics opposed to arbitrary vocabulary. After finishing a review of introductory communication, I asked one mother about what she wanted to work on personally. She mentioned two things. The first was a list of times to describe when the word “things” was applicable, which was challenging as we use this very general word in a variety of settings: to describe items we are going to purchase from the store, to reference items that we don’t know the name of, to describe series, and so on. This list could go on forever. And the second request was to learn common phrases that will help her communicate with her son’s teacher.
Hearing this immediately broke my heart. I remembered the involvement that my parents had in my classrooms and the constant communication that they had with my teachers during my early grades of elementary school. This parent mentioned simple requests such as wanting to be able to ask,
“How is my son doing in class?”
“What can I do to help my son do better in school?”
“How can I help my son at home?”
To which we discussed how to further ask about assignments, grades, homework, and behavior. With these phrases, the hope is that the the parents we are working with will be able to engage in basic and essential communication with their children’s school teachers without enlisting the help of their children.
Reading Rockets provides teachers with tips for parent-teacher conferences with bilingual families. This includes advice such as encouraging parent attendance to school-wide events, making personal contacts, coordinating individual appointments with parents, sending reminder calls/emails, and educating teachers on cultural differences. During the conference it may be essential to enlist the help of an interpreter (although it is advised that the educator still faces and engages with the parents), discusses educational plans, and offers school-wide resources and other local support. Reading Rockets also emphasized the importance of allowing the parents to ask questions, which was the experience that I encountered with the Spanish-speaking families that I tutor.
In all, it is essential to recognize that there may be barriers between communicating with parents who speak a language different from your own, although this doesn’t lessen the need for parent-teacher communication. Any way that a teacher can be creative when involving parents in the classroom, using a translator to share information, or updating parents on the progress of their child is an idea that I foresee as being extremely beneficial for both the involvement of the parents and the support of a student’s growth.