In the classes I teach for preservice teachers on English instruction for speakers of other languages, we cover both instructional strategies to aid English-language learners and communication strategies to reach their parents. We talk through navigating cultural differences and reflect on our own assumptions about ELLs’ families. We role-play parent-teacher interactions and brainstorm responses to miscommunications. And as a Burmese-language interpreter for my local school district, I’ve seen hundreds of interactions between parents and school personnel.
I thought I had a good grasp of ELL families’ struggles to adapt to unfamiliar school systems. Then my husband got a six-month research fellowship in Germany.
When we decided to put our 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in public schools in Berlin, I suddenly was the one poring over notices sent home with the aid of the dictionary. I was the one puzzling over cultural differences (2nd graders go on a weeklong class trip without their parents?) and trying to decode school supply lists (why does my son need a rock with his name hand-painted on it?). It was a crash course in empathy for the English-learner families I’ve been teaching my students about for years.
We were lucky that our children’s new teachers were experienced with language-learners and spoke some English themselves. Nonetheless, we faced difficulties adapting to the school system. These experiences left me humbled and with a few lessons to share with teachers who want to form strong relationships with ELL families:
1. Take time before school starts to orient kids and their families. We were able to visit our kids’ classrooms and introduce them to their teachers before the first day of school, and this preparation helped us all feel comfortable. My daughter lit up when she saw a desk labeled with her name—and she knew just where to go on the first day.
This initial meeting can happen at school or at the family’s home. Being able to have a relaxed conversation, with the aid of an interpreter if necessary, helps teachers find out how they need to prepare for the student’s arrival. It’s a good time to explain supply lists or go over school rules and routines.
It’s also a great opportunity for a teacher to learn which adults are important in the child’s life (without assuming a nuclear-family structure), to gain insights into their background, and to learn about their goals for the student’s education. It is crucial to clarify lines of communication: Explain how the family can contact you and ask how they would like you to reach out to them.
2. Check in with families after the first day, week, and month. Having established a relationship with the family, keep it up with regular check-ins. Our daughter was not a particularly reliable source of information. For instance, she was afraid she’d get in trouble if anyone discovered she couldn’t find the cafeteria, so she lied and told me she was eating lunch. Though we had fortunately figured this out by the end of the first week, we had a list of other questions that needed answering. Direct contact with her teacher was essential. After a month, teachers are likely to have some successes to report—don’t miss the chance to make a parent’s day.
3. Learn about students’ first-language literacy skills and encourage families to maintain them. One classic mistake teachers make is assuming that ELLs’ language level reflects their intellectual capacities. In doing that, we shortchange kids who have strong content knowledge and first-language literacy skills.
Knowing that my daughter’s teacher valued her first-language skills built family-school trust.
I was thrilled when my daughter’s teacher asked her to bring in an English book she was reading to get a sense of her abilities. Even if teachers can’t read a word of students’ first language, they can tell the difference between See Spot Run and Harry Potter. My daughter’s copy of How to Train Your Dragon helped her teacher guide her toward beginning-level, fantasy-oriented German books. Moreover, knowing that my daughter’s teacher valued her first-language skills built family-school trust. We were encouraged to keep reading together in English, which allowed me to continue to participate in my daughter’s literacy development even when her German surpassed mine (which did not take long).
4. Convey information about the child’s social as well as academic progress. Because teachers are often assessed according to students’ test scores, they tend to focus on academics when sharing progress with parents. We wanted our daughter to learn, but in those first weeks, we cared more about whether she was comfortable in school. When she said tearfully at the end of her first week, “The kids are nice, but no one plays with me,” I felt sad not only because she was lonely, but also because I knew her language-learning process wouldn’t start in earnest until she dove into social exchanges with her peers.
Teachers can help by assigning a supportive peer buddy and communicating with colleagues monitoring lunch and recess. They can also teach kids phrases to kick-start their social lives, such as, “That’s (not) cool,” “I (don’t) like that,” and “Can I play?” These phrases allow students to exercise some agency and assure families that their children are becoming part of the community.
5. Solicit questions about the information you send home. We got plenty of notices from my daughter’s school, but they often left me confused. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t have the cultural context. For instance, every school year begins with an “Einschulung,” a ceremony for incoming students. I researched online, but I still didn’t understand what I was supposed to put in the “Schultutte,” a sort of goody bag that kids were presented with afterward, and my daughter ended up rather dissatisfied when she compared my measly offering to what her classmates had gotten. One good practice is to attach a cover sheet to fliers, asking (in parents’ first languages) if they have questions and would like the teacher or an interpreter to follow up.
We left Germany in late 2019, right before COVID-19 hit. As schools sent out complicated hybrid schedules and hastily written instructions for logging onto Zoom, I thought of all the families struggling to understand what was often incomprehensible even to primary English speakers. When I reached out to the Burmese-speaking families in our district to help them understand what was happening, I thought back on my experiences in Germany. I was glad for that reminder that whether in the midst of a crisis or on a totally normal day, it is so important for educators to proactively create connections with English-learners’ families.