Teachers Crossing Borders and Building Bridges

Sonia Nieto will present the opening keynote, titled “Teachers’ Roles in Crossing Borders and Building Bridges,” at the TESOL 2015 International Convention & English Language Expo, 5:30 pm, Wednesday, 25 March 2015.

“I like to have parent conferences in laundromats,” declared Roger Wallace, a 6th-grade teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts. He continued, “If I know a parent goes to a laundromat on Thursdays, I show up with clean hands and a willingness to fold everything but the underwear! I’ll say, ‘Just sit down and look through the papers while I fold your clothes.’ It’s what I do. That’s why I think I thrive.”

When I interviewed Roger for my book, Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds (2013), he had been teaching for 38 years. An exceptionally talented teacher, he was loved by students, parents, and colleagues alike. Meeting parents in laundromats was one of the many strategies he had developed over the years to cross borders and build bridges with students and their parents because, as he said, “To teach kids of diverse backgrounds, you have to be someone who can shuffle a lot of cards.”

Angeles Pérez, a 22-year old bilingual teacher in the Sheldon ISD in Texas when I interviewed her, agreed that connecting with students is crucial. Without loving and respectful relationships, she said, teaching would be impossible. Yet young teachers like Angeles are often warned, “Don’t smile until Christmas!” If they smile, the conventional wisdom goes, they will lose the respect of their charges. But Angeles, wise beyond her years, was indignant at this advice, saying, “Don’t smile until Christmas?! That means you never really made a connection with them until Christmas!”

Angeles also instituted what she called “Hanging out time with Ms. Pérez,” a short 10-minute period at the end of the day where she and the students simply talked with one another about their dreams, or painted their nails, or complained about siblings. It was a time to get to know one another more a fondo, more deeply and personally. These are good reminders that teaching is always about relationships and about being oneself, whether on the first day of school or the last.

This is a lesson I learned when I was a young teacher and, later, teacher educator because whether one is teaching 3-year-olds or doctoral students, relationships are at the heart of the matter. The best piece of advice I received during my teacher preparation program many years ago was “start where the kids are at.” This advice almost seems redundant. Where else would we start? At the same time, I was urged to leave my “cultural baggage at the door.” That these pieces of advice were contradictory didn’t seem to occur to my professors, yet soon after beginning my teaching career in an intermediate school in Brooklyn, New York, it became clear that leaving my cultural baggage at the door—in essence, leaving my identity behind—was not only difficult but also impossible, because my identity, knowledge, and experiences were the best ways to connect with my students. This is true of all teachers, not just teachers working with students of their own cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. But for the connection to take place, all teachers need to truly get to know their students.

The question of crossing borders and building bridges becomes a particularly relevant one in multicultural and multilingual societies. In my research with teachers, I have tried to focus on the various ways they enact critical multicultural practices to overcome obstacles of difference, bureaucracy, and the current sociopolitical context of education, particularly because those contexts often contradict the very values teachers are trying to create in their classrooms (Nieto, 2013, 2014). Mary Jade Haney, an elementary school teacher in rural South Carolina, in her essay for my latest book, Why We Teach Now (2014), writes, “I want to inspire growth, creativity and inquiry each moment in the lives of [my] students, always beginning by getting to know the students and their families.” But Mary Jade also realizes that even if she connects with her students, some policies and practices are outside her control. What does she do? She focuses on what she can control, saying,

In my classroom, my world, the most important people are not the policymakers and textbook companies; they are my students and their families. This is how I navigate the stormy seas as I try to calm the national storm that rages against teachers like me.

Another example of creating strong bonds with students in the face of obstacles that make it difficult comes from Berta Berriz, a recently retired bilingual and ESL teacher from the Boston Public Schools. Reminiscing about her gratifying 30 plus years in the classroom, Berta was also acutely aware of the damaging context of public education in the United States (and elsewhere) today, saying,

Along with all these sweet moments that only teachers know, I am also reminded of the raw reality facing teachers today: ever-changing administrative mandates; bureaucrats who render teachers’ knowledge invisible in the policymaking process; the continuing marginalization of students in under-resourced, segregated classrooms; and whatever may be the latest “magic bullet,” which inevitably proves unresponsive and ineffective, with all of these chipping away at the time for quality teaching.

Building bridges and crossing borders is a tricky business, but absolutely essential if teachers working with students of diverse backgrounds are to make a difference. From holding parent conferences in laundromats to having “hanging out time” with students to the many other strategies and values teachers develop over the years, they remind us that, as Mary Jade Haney declares, teaching is “a profession that balances the universe.”


Nieto, S. (2013). Finding joy in teaching students of diverse backgrounds: Culturally responsive and socially just practices in U.S. classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Nieto, S. (Ed.). (2014). Why we teach now. New York, New York: Teachers College Press.

Dr. Sonia Nieto
is professor emerita of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has taught students from elementary school through doctoral studies, and her research focuses on multicultural education, teacher education, and the education of Latinos, immigrants, and other students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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