Tag Archives: Teacher Preparation

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.

Choosing to Teach, Choosing to Move Out of the Classroom

As another school year comes to a close, education critics will lament teacher turnover while school leaders scramble to fill vacancies. Teachers who have been in the classroom for less than five years will be accused of abandoning their students and letting their schools down. Yet in many other careers, short-term, sequential roles are seen as building blocks to a lifelong, varied career. Why should the classroom teacher be expected to teach for a lifetime, especially when their impact may wane?

Photo via Gabriella Nelson

According to TNTP, teacher improvement is greatest early in their careers, with the most gain in teacher effectiveness occurring in year one. Between years three and five, teachers effectively peak, with little improvement in effectiveness over a career that might span 5 years or 35 years. In fact, some teachers actually decline in effectiveness. Meanwhile, they work within a system of pension structuring designed to only reward the longest tenured career, with more than half never seeing any pension benefits and only one in five staying long enough to receive full benefits.

In other career fields, we recognize the need for changing roles. Consultants in a fast-paced, travel-intensive role with never-ending hours receive understanding nods when they move into a more stable, less life-disruptive role for both personal and professional reasons. Tireless entrepreneurs who start a business and build success by working around the clock are applauded when they sell to a corporation or hand the business off to a junior partner. Teachers should be afforded similar opportunities to transition into more sustainable roles, particularly roles within schools where they can continue to impact student achievement by supporting classroom teachers.

I have seen this choice at play in the career trajectory of my daughter, a college-trained, secondary English educator who chose to teach in an urban high school through Teach For America (TFA). Even with college training, student teaching, and additional summer training prior to entering the classroom, the role demanded endless hours with total physical and emotional commitment before she could see student gains in achievement. After completing her second year, she knew this role was unsustainable in the long term and grabbed an opportunity to take a hybrid role split between teaching and curriculum oversight at the same school. This allowed her to continue to teach AP classes, coach sports teams, oversee student government, and teach ACT preparatory classes — in short, to still impact students with less impact on her. Continue reading

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

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Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

Teacher Shortage? That Depends on Your Definitions of “Supply” and “Demand”

Teachers wanted signI published a blog post late last month questioning the numbers in a recent paper on teacher shortages from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). After speaking with Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the report’s authors, and reading their written rebuttal, I have a clearer sense of what they did and why their numbers seemed off to me.

From what I can tell, our disagreement centers on their definition of the word “supply.” Their report says this:

In this report, we use a theoretical framework of supply and demand that defines a teacher shortage as an inadequate quantity of qualified individuals willing to offer their services under prevailing wages and conditions.

The last part is key. What they mean by “individuals willing to offer their services under prevailing wages” essentially means “people who will be hired as teachers.” They have no data on job applicants or anyone’s desire or willingness to teach. They do attempt to include people who delay entry into the teaching profession, but their assumptions lead them to exclude almost all of the people who train to become teachers who never land a teaching job.

This is a questionable definition, and it leads to some weird conclusions. Continue reading

What Does it Mean to “Raise the Bar” for Entry Into the Teaching Profession?

In a report last spring, Ashley LiBetti Mitchel and I wrote that there’s simply no magic cocktail of teacher preparation program requirements or personal characteristics that will guarantee someone becomes a great teacher.

Since we wrote that report, there’s been even more evidence showing the same thing. I like pictures, so I’m going to pull some key graphics to help illustrate one basic point: There’s really no definitive way to tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they start teaching. Continue reading