Author Archives: Kirsten Schmitz

Assets, Not Barriers: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect With and Empower Families Across Language Barriers

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We know that parent engagement makes a difference. Students whose family members are involved in their education, regardless of their background or income, have better attendance, higher grades, and more rigorous course schedules.

But what if a language barrier keeps schools from fully connecting with parents and families?  English Language Learners are the fastest growing segment of the student population — in 2014, 11.8 million students spoke a language other than English at home. It’s imperative for schools and teachers to collaborate in support of students and families across languages. Not only that, but embracing and encouraging multiple languages and cultures (in the classroom) can be an educational asset. In order to get there, teachers must be willing to engage.

Christian Martínez-Canchola, photo via author

I spoke with my friend and former colleague, Christian Martínez-Canchola, about the best strategies teachers can employ to connect across language barriers. Christian currently serves as the Primary Years Programme Dean at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. As a classroom teacher, Christian led her bilingual students to outstanding outcomes — they consistently outperformed district averages by 30-point margins on district, state, and national assessments.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Christian suggests five ways teachers — regardless of their language abilities — can engage multilingual families and communities in a partnership for student success:

  1. Establish trust: Speaking in a language you aren’t comfortable with is a vulnerable experience; building a trusting relationship with students and families should be one of a teacher’s first priorities. To foster this, Christian is a proponent of starting the year off with a bilingual parent survey. The outreach effort signals immediate investment to parents, and allows teachers an early look into their students’ lives. Questions range from basic contact information, to more personal inquiries. “I ask parents to describe their child’s strengths, their weaknesses, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Christian. “These are the people who know their children best.”
  2. Listen and then act: It can be easy for teachers and school staff to make well-intentioned assumptions even without a language barrier — when communication is challenging, the danger for misdiagnosis intensifies. Make conscious contact with parents and community members to identify needs.“There are always parents talking to one another. Leverage conversations with those key stakeholders — you may think parents would benefit most from a car seat drive, but in reality, they may need assistance calling the electric company or accessing dental care instead.”
  3. Redefine what engagement looks like: A narrow definition of family engagement can lead otherwise interested parents to count themselves out. Says Christian, “the parents who typically volunteer in classrooms can afford the time. For most parents though, that’s a privilege. I found that there was this misconception that parents had to physically be in the school to help, when that wasn’t the case at all.” Family members, regardless of language, can assist teachers in other ways. Classroom support can happen at home, from cutting out math manipulatives to assembling packets and leveled books. Christian adds: “Parents want to be involved. Even something small, like sending home classroom materials to be cut out, allows them to have a role in the success of their kids.”
  4. Prioritize intentionality and structure: Home visits and back-to-school nights can provide opportunities to establish trust and build partnerships. At the same time, Christian stresses the importance of planning these interactions and of not allowing them to be too ad-hoc. “If they’re intentional, [home visits] can be really impactful, but they lose all power when flimsily done,” she says. “I like when they’re structured, when schools or even outside agencies provide [teachers with] training on their actual impact and the logistical needs a bilingual home visit requires.”
  5. Empower teachers with existing resources: Districts and school leaders can connect their teaching staff with free and low-cost tools to make translation easier. Many large districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Dallas Independent School District, have translation hotlines, where teachers can reach interpreters and teams dedicated to translating documents. In addition, the Google Translate app has text translation for over 100 languages, and can translate bilingual conversations for 32 others. While not a true replacement for face-to-face translation, these tools can serve as a point of entry.


Christian’s work is fueled by a fervent desire to exemplify the strength and power of her students and their families. As one of the few Latinx and bilingual school leaders in her network, Christian says she is passionate about building a pipeline of educators who both reflect the communities that they serve and driving transformational, sustainable change. We can borrow lessons from her work empowering teachers to connect across lines of differences in the pursuit of positive outcomes for all children.

Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal

Want a positive financial return on your degree? Try electrical engineering or computer programming. Maybe advertising, or even drama. But don’t become a teacher.

Michigan State University’s annual report on starting salaries by college major show the average middle school math and science education major can expect to earn around $38,706 upon graduation. Pre-k and kindergarten teachers take the bottom spot, at $35,626. While it isn’t terribly surprising to see a chemical engineering major starting around $61,125, even music/drama/visual arts majors beat out teachers, averaging $40,681.

Michigan State University Recruiting Trends 2016-17

But it gets worse: When compared to similarly educated workers in other developed nations, American teachers are exceptionally underpaid.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Education at a Glance 2016

In developed countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the average middle school teacher makes around 85 percent of what other college-educated workers earn. But in the United States, teachers fare even worse. In 2014, the average American middle school teacher earned just 69 percent of what her similarly educated peers made. This gap is disheartening, to say the least, and doesn’t speak particularly well of national priorities.

These gaps are even worse for the 76 percent of American teachers who are female. Most strikingly, we know that when women enter male-dominated fields, average salaries drop. We know that despite making up the majority of the teacher workforce, and thus often the principal and superintendent hiring pool, women are less likely to become school administrators. We know that it is especially bad out here for women of color. We’ve debunked argument after argument used to explain away low educator wages, arguments which cite everything from summer vacations and pension benefits to innate altruism and family flexibility.

We need to pay teachers more, because we need to pay women more.  We know that high-quality teachers have lasting, positive effects on their students’ future earnings.

All that said, this discussion is nuanced. Teacher accountability and professional development matter while we must reexamine abysmal starting salaries, I’m not suggesting we simply raise wages and then stand back and wait for greatness. But I am suggesting that we consistently devalue the work women do, and when considering Equal Pay Day, we should start with teachers.

Read my colleague Marnie’s Equal Pay Day post here.

Where Are All The Female Superintendents?

From Randi Weingarten to Betsy DeVos, to Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, some of the biggest names in education policy on both sides of the aisle are women. The majority of teachers (76 percent), too, identify as female. But new survey results from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) show that about 77 percent of school superintendents identify as male. So while women make up the majority of the teacher workforce, they are vastly underrepresented in higher-paying leadership roles.

Today is International Women’s Day, and while these survey results show progress from previous years, there’s significant room to grow in closing the school leadership gender gap. This disparity reinforces gender wage gaps, and, as we’ve covered previously, this inequity of earnings follows female teachers into retirement.

It’s important to note that, while we can dig into these findings broadly, the AASA survey’s 15 percent response rate suggests it may not be fully representative. Additionally, while the federal government collects representative stats on teachers and principals, it does not do so on school district superintendents. Still, state-based work, like this October Houston Chronicle piece as well as a November Education Week article delve into these trends further, with similar findings.

Here are three takeaways on the state of female superintendents we can glean from the AASA’s 2016 survey: Continue reading