For most school districts in the United States, the new school year has begun. Schools are enrolling an increasing population of immigrant and refugee children in their classrooms. Classroom and content-area teachers will need to meet the challenge of communicating with and engaging the families of their English learners (ELs).
One of our roles as ESL teachers is to facilitate the communication between our school and the family members who are responsible for the care and education of the ELs. EL families may not be familiar with the practice of meeting with their child’s teacher and do not know what is expected of them during such a meeting. Many classroom teachers do not know how to communicate with family members who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices.
It is important for teachers to contact the parents of ELs at the beginning of the school year instead of waiting until formal parent-teacher conferences are held. Teachers need to engage families of ELs right from the beginning.
Meetings with families of ELs require preparation in order to have a productive discussion. Here are six ideas that will help teachers of ELs form productive meetings with parents.
1. Determine whether an interpreter is needed.
Many families of ELs do not speak English well enough to understand what you are saying, so it is important to the success of a meeting to contact an interpreter for parents who need one. If your school does not provide this service, ask parents to bring a bilingual family member or friend. In my opinion, siblings, or worse yet, the child him- or herself, should never be used to interpret for the parents. Young children do not make good interpreters and important information will not be conveyed. When an interpreter is needed, the meeting should be longer to ensure that there is enough time for the teacher to provide information and answer questions.
2. Prepare for meetings in advance.
Notices to families to request a meeting should be made in their home language. If possible, meetings should be scheduled so that both parents can attend. In some cultures, the father must be included because no important decisions are made without his agreement. Teachers should assemble samples of the student’s work to share with the family. The teachers who are meeting with the parents need to have a solid understanding of the student’s current English proficiency level and need to provide samples of this during the meeting. School staff needs to remember that the purpose of the meeting is to discover more about the student. It’s the perfect opportunity to engage parents in their child’s education.
3. Understand differing attitudes toward time.
An important area for misunderstandings between the school and the families of ELs is in the attitude of different cultures toward time. The United States, Canada, and northern European countries see time as being highly structured, logical, exact, and sequential. We are monochronic. People from South and Central America, Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, Middle East, Southern Europe, and Africa like to keep their time unstructured. They are polychronic. To a monochron, time is exact and being late is both rude and disrespectful. To a polychron, the time set for a meeting is just an approximation. If parents arrive at a meeting 45 minutes after the appointed time, it may be because arriving up to 45 minutes after the designated time is not considered late in their culture. If you have families from Asia in your school, you also need to know about their cyclic approach to time. Avoid misunderstandings by sending meeting notices in the family’s native language and asking your interpreter to call parents to explain the time that they need to be at the meeting and how long the meeting will last.
4. Convey a receptive attitude.
Greet parents the same way that you would welcome guests to your home—by walking to the door of your classroom. Consider the physical set-up of your conference space. A face-to-face setting may be too confrontational for the family members from some cultures. Arrange chairs so that your body is at a 45-degree angle to the parents. Place the parent between yourself and the interpreter. Don’t misinterpret parents’ meaning if they don’t make eye contact. In the United States, we feel that someone who doesn’t look us in the eye is untrustworthy. People from some cultures consider making eye contact confrontational. Sitting at a 45-degree angle to the parent helps minimize the amount of eye contact, possibly putting him or her at ease.
5. Use simplified language.
At the meeting, you should speak in short, uncomplicated sentences and stop so that the interpreter can convey your message to the parents after every few sentences. If you don’t allow breaks for your words to be interpreted, your whole message may not be conveyed. Do not use educational jargon, even if there is an interpreter is present. Many fluent speakers of English will not know the specialized language of education. Avoid speaking directly to the interpreter and be sure to include parents in the conversation. When you ask the parent questions, give the interpreter time to speak to them. I was once in a meeting where the teacher was speaking directly to the interpreter. The parent got up to answer a phone call, and the meeting continued without her.
6. Listen to what parents say.
Teachers need to go beyond the one-way conversation that exists in many parent-teacher relationships. Encourage parents to ask questions and communicate their experiences and concerns. Ask them to share their expertise, cultural information, and time to become involved in school projects. Include parents in decisions made about their child’s education. When parents are actively engaged in the education of their children, those children are more likely to make more progress in school. They will attend school more regularly and be less likely to drop out. This is a worthy goal that teachers can strive for when they have effective communications with the families of ELs.
Zacarian, D., & Haynes, J. (2012). The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners.