I find myself reflecting after a parent/teacher night spent at a school where, instead of being the teacher, I was both a parent and a foreigner. The entire meeting was in German, of which I understood roughly 3 words. I’ve participated in a lot of open house/back-to-school/parent/teacher nights where I was the one responsible for welcoming parents into my learning environment. I’ve spent countless hours planning these evenings and making sure that every detail was covered. Unfortunately after my German parent/teacher night experience, it became apparent that I may have missed some things.
Fortunately for me, my child’s teacher did something I’ve never done for a parent.
During the grade-level meeting led by another teacher, this thoughtful educator whispered the translation to me, careful not to disturb the other parents who were listening to the German instructions. She would pause and check for my understanding, making sure that I knew about library check-out procedures and the upcoming bicycle safety course for 3rd graders.
As that portion of the meeting concluded and parents dispersed to their respective homeroom teachers’ classrooms, she did something else that I’ve never thought to do for someone who doesn’t speak the language taught in my class: she asked another parent to translate for me during her entire presentation. This parent happily relayed the information to me while also taking notes for herself.
While walking home, I realized the German back-to-school night didn’t have interactive stations, a digital presentation for parents to self-guide on their own devices, or cute little goodies distributed at the end of the night: all things that have been included in my back-to-school nights or recommendations that I have made to fellow teachers when asked what to do on parent nights. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with any of these tools, but after my experience as the foreigner, unfamiliar with the culture or language, I would do things differently.
Now I know that a non-native English speaker or someone unfamiliar with American school culture would have felt completely lost during my “well-planned” parent/teacher nights. Though I don’t personally speak any other languages, I never even considered other options for making non-native English speaking parents more comfortable in my classroom during these nights.
I’ve made accommodations for their children, so why haven’t I made accommodations for them?
Even parents born and raised in America may not have had the best school experiences in the past. Now I wonder, did I do everything I could to make them feel comfortable in the school setting? I’m not so sure.
If you have an upcoming parent/teacher night, take a moment to make sure that your students’ parents feel welcomed. Do you have any parents who might not speak English, or speak it as a second language? Might there be parents that do not feel comfortable in the school setting? What can you do to make them feel like they are important part of their child’s education?
Ideas might be as simple as using Google Translate or a bilingual colleague to translate written information into other languages. You may wish to contact a non-native English-speaking parent prior to the school night with someone who is able to translate a conversation. Ask the parents if they would like to receive the information over the phone or at a smaller meeting with you and a translator. Have signs posted in multiple languages (I didn’t know which room to go to when I first got there because all the posted signs for the meeting were in German!). You could also invite parents to bring along someone who is able to translate during the meeting or inquire if other parents in your classroom might be bilingual and willing to facilitate getting information to that parent or parents throughout the school year.
In my experience, sometimes we put a lot of time and effort into the bells and whistles. I feel, for the most part, that time and effort could be better channeled into deeper, more meaningful experiences that make those sitting in our classrooms value learning. They might not be as fun as a Nearpod or water bottles with cute sayings (which I am not suggesting that teachers ditch!), but if your time is limited, use it to put yourself in the position of a parent who is intimidated by your back-to-school night.
Strategically use your energy to make sure that every parent in attendance to these meetings is as supported as every student is within your classroom.
I noticed during my time at the German school’s meeting, many of the other parents already knew each other. I wonder what I could do to help facilitate familiarity between parents in my classroom in the future.
I noticed that my child’s teacher knew exactly who to ask to translate information for me. How can I know my students’ parents better so that I can ask for their help?
Resources to Explore
Here is a great blog about using Google Translate and Google Voice to support English-as-a-second-language parents:
Talking Points is a program that will help to translate text messages. It includes education-specific translations, which are often lost when you are using education jargon.