The Bilingual Bridges team recently conducted more than fifteen interviews with people from all over the world who moved to the United States during their K-12 school years. A variety of our questions prompted interviewees to describe the attitudes and actions displayed by teachers in their new schools – some were welcoming, and others… not so much.
Their responses have given us the chance to better understand what actions and attitudes facilitated their transitions into American schools and culture, and which they believed held them back. (*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ privacy.)
Translation: Our interviewees reported that the teachers who took extra steps to translate materials from English into Spanish, not only helped them feel more confident in learning English as a new language but prevented them from falling behind academically.
Some, like José’s teacher, called in Spanish translators to help newcomer students communicate with their teachers and peers, and understand assignments. On the other hand, Melisa’s teachers were all bilingual, so they translated her classwork themselves.
For these two students, the gradual transition of learning bilingually to learning solely in English absolutely paid off. Both shared that they made friends quickly, and acclimated to living and learning in English-speaking environments within only a semester.
Patience and Compassion: While teachers are expected to be patient and compassionate toward their students, we know this isn’t always the case. With dozens of students in front of them all day long, teachers’ tolerance can be quite limited at times. However, a few of our interviewees mentioned that having teachers who were patient and compassionate were primary factors in their academic success.
Yésica talked about how kind her teachers were with her. They explained assignments and lessons until she understood the material – no matter how long it took. Alonso shared that his teachers let him take his time to adjust and learn at his own pace. They created safe classroom environments where students were allowed to make mistakes without the fear of being punished, putting Alonso at ease.
Both Yésica and Alonso stated that the teachers who consistently displayed patience and compassion made them feel welcome, supported, and facilitated their formation of meaningful relationships among classmates and other teachers.
Negative Attitude: Our interviewees overwhelmingly agreed that teachers who displayed negative, unwelcoming attitudes toward them as newcomer students proved to be the biggest disservice as they transitioned into American schools.
Some teachers – like those who worked with Esperanza – didn’t assist her in translating any assignments or lessons and showed little regard for her academic progress. Luckily, she also had wonderful ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers who helped her improve her English comprehension and pronunciation skills.
Even so, Esperanza wishes there had been a bilingual teacher in her classroom who could’ve helped her communicate, and that the two years it took her to acclimate to the English language could have been shortened.
Further, Guillermo’s teachers didn’t take his background into account and initially failed him on every English assignment he attempted to complete. This, of course, negatively affected his confidence and posed an enormous obstacle in his ability to succeed in his new school. Guillermo told us that he couldn’t understand why they were failing him on English assignments when he had only just begun learning the basics of the language.
Thanks to our interviewees, we’ve had the opportunity to gain firsthand insight into the impact that influential teachers can have on the success of newcomer students – both positively and negatively.
The time and effort that teachers invest in creating safe, welcoming, and supportive learning environments for students who speak limited (or no) English, is absolutely crucial as they begin their journeys of acclimating to brand new cultures, foods, lifestyles, customs, and of course, language.