When families of English learners (ELs) are actively engaged in the education of their children, those children will attend school more regularly, be less likely to drop out, and be more successful academically. Many classroom teachers do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices. On the other hand, many families of ELs may not be familiar with the practice of meeting with their child’s teacher and do not know what is expected of them during a parent-teacher conference. The goal of this blog is to help teachers hold productive parent-teacher conferences.
Conferences with families of ELs require preparation
Teachers need to determine whether an interpreter is needed for the conference. Parents may not speak English well enough to understand the language of school. It’s important to the success of a conference to contact an interpreter for parents who need one.
Try to schedule the conference so that both parents can attend. In some cultures, the father must be included, because no important decisions are made without his agreement.
Lengthen the time allotted to the conference to ensure that there is enough time for you to provide information and answer questions. Assemble samples of the student’s work to share with parents. Have a solid understanding of the student’s current English proficiency level and prepare to provide samples of this during the meeting.
What to do during the conference
A face-to face setting may be too confrontational for parents of some cultures. Arrange chairs around a table so that your body is at a 45-degree angle to the parents. Place the parents between yourself and the interpreter. You want body language to reflect a receptive attitude. Walk to the door of your classroom to greet parents as they come into your room just as you would greet guests in your home. Do not greet them from across the room behind your desk.
How to hold a conference with an interpreter
During the conference, you should speak in short uncomplicated sentences and stop so that the interpreter can translate for parents every few sentences. Don’t use educational jargon. Avoid speaking directly to the translator and be sure to include the parent in the conversation. When you ask the parent questions, give the translator time to talk to the parents.
Learn about your students’ cultures
It is essential for teachers not to 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.
Don’t make assumption about the parents’ name. The U.S. custom of birth name, then family name is not universal. Learn how names are used in the cultures of your students. Korean and Chinese women do not take their husband’s name but retain their own family name. Children from Spanish-speaking families may have a given name followed by two surnames. The first surname is the father’s family name, and the second one is the mother’s family name. Some parents will hyphenate the double name. Others will Americanize their names, so you need to ask what name they want to be called.
Our goal should be to help ELs adjust to a new school environment as quickly as possible. This process is greatly enhanced when parents partner with the school.