Tag Archives: Professional Development

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.

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.

Student Learning Should Matter for Teacher Evaluation Ratings, But It Still Doesn’t

Students are not learning, but teachers are told they’re doing their jobs effectively. This oxymoron is not new in American education, but recent teacher evaluation laws were supposed to demolish it by better aligning teacher evaluation scores and student learning outcomes.

NCTQ Report PicThe problem is: the laws aren’t working as intended. Even with new laws in place, the vast majority of teachers across the country continue to receive a rating equivalent to effective or higher. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides a new explanation for the phenomenon.

The report reveals that in almost all states, there are teachers who receive an overall evaluation score of “effective” or “highly effective” despite receiving a low score for leading students to academic achievement. This is possible because these teachers receive high scores on other parts of the evaluation such as principal and peer observations, student and parent surveys, and other district and state measures. As NCTQ’s new report details, the guidance and rules that structure states’ evaluation laws allow teachers who receive uneven scores throughout their evaluation to still be rated as effective practitioners — even when data show their students are not learning.

NCTQ’s report provides a new opportunity to discuss the negative consequences of misalignment between teacher evaluation and student learning outcomes. The following are a few damaging outcomes of such misalignment: Continue reading

You Think You Know about Teacher Professional Development, But You Have No Idea

Conversations about teacher professional development are rarely uplifting: professional development largely does not meet teachers’ needs, few teachers are satisfied with professional development offerings, and principals are concerned about the efficacy of professional development. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, TNTP’s new reportThe Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development—does little to bring optimism to the discussion.

The Mirage details an uncomfortable truth: as much as everyone from Capitol Hill policymakers to school instructional coaches wishes they knew how to help teachers improve, they don’t. TNTP’s research squashes the widely-held belief that good professional development practices are known, they just haven’t been put to scale. It’s a shocking point that many will be talking about in the days and weeks to come. If you want to sound smart joining in on conversations about The Mirage, here are some helpful talking points that scratch its surface:

Districts spend a lot on teacher development. The districts in The Mirage spend an average of nearly $18,000 per teacher, per year, or six to nine percent of the districts’ annual operating budget, on development efforts (the charter management organization in the report spends an average of $33,000 per teacher or 15 percent of its annual budget). This figure includes staff time and resources that are intended to improve instruction either directly or indirectly. At this rate, TNTP calculates that the largest 50 school districts in the U.S. devote at least $8 billion to teacher development.

But money isn’t resulting in improvement. As measured by evaluation scores, most teachers do not improve substantially year to year. Only 30 percent of teachers that TNTP studied improved their performance substantially over a two to three year period.  TNTP could not find anything that distinguished teachers who improved from teachers who did not improve. The professional development activities they participated in and the frequency with which they participated in them were virtually identical between teachers who improved and those who didn’t improve. These two groups of teachers also had strikingly similar perceptions and beliefs about development.

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