“My mom says she can come at 4:30. And also, can you fill out the permission slip for her?” I have heard this phrase and others like it many times over the years. Parents who speak minimal or no English often send messages through their child, and we frequently respond back in the same way, through the child. But is it fair? Is this the best way for us to communicate?
I work in Harlem at a school that has numerous West African immigrant families who speak many different languages and dialects. I have adapted the way I approach working with families over the past ten years to ensure that I am meeting the needs of all the families in my class.
I used to begin report card conferences by handing the parent the report card and giving them some time to read it over before making comments. One year, Julio’s mom looked at it, smiled, and handed it right back to me. Something inside told me to read it aloud. I did and have done so ever since. I realized I couldn’t assume that all parents can read in English (or read at all).
We often encounter parents for whom English is not their first language and feel like language is a barrier to us being able to help them and, in turn, help their child. Sometimes we are tempted to cut corners in these meetings, especially if the child is well behaved and are academically satisfactory. We want to nod and smile and send them on their way. But we owe it to all of our young people to break through any barriers and make our conferences as beneficial as possible.
Here are some tips for meeting with a parent who speaks minimal English:
1. Ask about their language preference for the conference. Don’t assume that, because English is their second language, they aren’t comfortable speaking it. If they prefer to speak in their first language, try to find an adult translator. Ask the parent if they know someone they would feel comfortable with.
2. Never ask the child to translate, no matter their age. It isn’t right to expect them to objectively relay information about their academics, especially their areas in need of improvement. Allow them to be the student, not the translator.
3. Get to know them and their culture. Let them know that while it is important to find a way to communicate, you also find it essential to know a little about their culture and language. If they come from another country, ask them about the landscape, the food, the sports teams. Find out how to properly say a few words in their language. Even if you have a translator, take your time to talk about a few things aside from school. Ask how their weekend was, whether they like pumpkin pie at this time of year, and if they’ve seen a picture of the new baby otter at the Bronx Zoo.
4. Always begin with positives. Always! This is the key to most good conferences. You build trust and develop a better relationship when you begin by talking about strengths.
5. Show, show, show. Visuals are key. Confusion with math homework is all the rage with families these days. It might be hard to explain common core math. But think about the parent’s point of view; learning about an academic concept in another language. I can explain how to compose and decompose numbers. But when I pull out a number bond and buttons, I can show the concept much better.
6. Provide real-life, authentic ways they can help their child. If a parent struggles to write in English, telling them to help their child with a writing assignment is not the optimal use of their time. But convey to them what they can do. If it is a science writing assignment on plants, they can take them to the botanical garden or the free Heather Gardens in Fort Tryon Park. Give them a list of curriculum topics. You can teach the academics. But they can help provide their child with real world experiences that they share and talk about together in their language.
7. Make sure they leave knowing that their culture and language are essential to the diversity of the class. Parents sometimes already try to hide the fact that they speak another language at home. However you feel about politics, the news doesn’t portray our country as the most welcoming to immigrants. Make sure all the families in your class know you celebrate and rejoice in having a culturally and linguistically diverse class.
Your conferences with parents who don’t speak much English might be a little different, you might be met with some resistance, and you will probably need to get creative. But doesn’t that sound like all of teaching? It’s time to meet everyone’s needs.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.