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September 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 1

Family Values: An Immigrant Teacher's Story

Drawing on her experiences as an immigrant, an educator shares how schools can better partner with immigrant families.

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I was 16 years old when I emigrated from Accra, Ghana, to Virginia with my mother and three sisters in February 2001. My father had moved to Virginia 10 years earlier in hopes of earning enough money to improve our living conditions back home and to prepare for us to join him one day. Needless to say, we were overjoyed when our Green Card petition was approved for us all to come to the United States. Two months later, we boarded a plane headed for America.
In America, we'd live in a finished single-family dwelling, a far cry from the one-room apartment in the compound houses where we lived just before leaving Ghana. In America, we'd have a lush green lawn with shrubbery and flowers, plus sidewalks, and street lights. We were on our way to a better life.
When we stepped off the plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, cool air met our faces and told us that something about this place would be different than Ghana (where the temperature doesn't fall below 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Tears rolled down our cheeks after we made our way through customs, picked up our luggage, and walked through the airport's exit doors. The air grew colder, and the frigid wind made our faces burn. My mother asked, "Enti nepa ti ha?" ("So do people live in this?")
Shrugging his shoulders, my dad responded, "Welcome to America!" We zipped up our hand-me-down jackets and followed my dad to his car—and to our new life.
For a few minutes, my sisters and I—and perhaps even my mother—forgot why we had immigrated to America. From childhood, my parents, along with extended family and neighbors in Ghana, had shared dreams of wanting their children to live better lives than they had. Education was the key to attaining this goal, and America was a place where it could happen. "We're going there so you can get a good education," my parents told us. "And if you choose not to, we will send you back!" Our charge was to take advantage of the opportunity by earning college degrees.

Adjustments at School

Within a week of our arrival, I found myself moving from one class to the next as a 10th grader at my new high school. Although the school was racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse, I felt foreign and alone for the first time in my life. For many reasons, my sense of normalcy faded away.
In Ghana, English was the official language, and I thought I was a fluent English speaker. But I quickly learned that the English I spoke was not really English by American standards. I pronounced every syllable in every word, which slowed down my speech. Often, classmates asked, "Are you speaking African?" and because of my accent, many claimed, "I don't understand what you're saying." Judgments about the inadequacy of my speech were accompanied by questions about my culture.
"Where are you from?"
"Is this your first time in school?"
"Did you live in trees in a jungle?"
"Did lions and tigers walk around your backyard?"
"Is there a war in your country?"
"Are you a refugee?"
As these slights accumulated, I became ashamed of being Ghanaian. My language, dark skin, kinky hair, and myths about my homeland set me apart as being different. I began to internalize the shame, which pushed me to withdraw, disengage, and develop a fear of initiating conversations and engaging with my peers and teachers. Often in class, daydreams took me back to Ghana, where I played with friends and attended a school where I loved learning.

A Deficit Lens on Parents

My parents also struggled to negotiate and navigate their place in our new world. I watched as their behaviors and moods shifted from one setting to the next. For instance, after Sunday church services, they joined other Ghanaian families, sharing memories of life in their homeland and their job experiences in abrochia (abroad). They talked over one another, pumped up the volume of mixed CDs of the latest Azonto and traditional highlife music, danced, and watched soccer games, all while feasting on Ghanaian dishes.
However, my parents' self-assuredness of their culture and identities waned in other settings, including the schools we attended. They didn't participate in school functions and had limited communication with our teachers. From a cultural standpoint, this was the norm in Ghana. Parents revered teachers and administrators and deferred to them regarding the children's education. In fact, the only communication parents had with teachers was through quarterly report cards. There was also now a language barrier added to the mix. My parents' absence from school protected them from potential embarrassment when communicating with native English-speaking teachers.
The sacrifices my parents made that enabled us to attend U.S. schools were another reason why they appeared disengaged from our school. They held multiple jobs and worked long hours for low wages to take care of our basic needs. My dad worked as a bellhop, a kitchen aide, and a custodian. My mom was a meat slicer at a grocery store and a cashier at a sandwich shop.
Unfortunately, teachers misinterpreted this lack of parental involvement as a lack of interest in our academic achievement. Once, after I told a teacher that my parents would not attend a parent-teacher conference, she responded, "If your parents don't respect our time and care enough to show up for a conference, then we can't help you." Because many of the teachers saw no reason to consider our way of life, they erroneously viewed my parents through a deficit lens and assumed they did not care about my education (Gutiérrez & Orellana, 2006).
Although these barriers made my high school and college days difficult, my family, teachers, mentors, and friends helped me to persevere and reminded me to follow my dreams. Within seven years of immigrating to the United States, I became an elementary public school teacher in Virginia.
I chose teaching as a profession because I wanted all students and their families to recognize that they had a voice and that their perspectives mattered. Because of what my family experienced, one of my primary goals as a teacher was to create more welcoming environments for immigrant parents and their children. I would afford them opportunities to share their stories and to be heard. In turn, I would use their knowledge and experiences to inform my instruction.
To my good fortune, I worked in schools where the principals required teachers to schedule home visits with all families before the first day of school. The students in these schools were racially, ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse. Pairs of educators visited each student's home, spending about 15–20 minutes with the family. We listened as parents shared aspirations for their children and their appreciation for what teachers do. My colleague and I shared information about our personal and professional backgrounds, the school, and our expectations for the upcoming year.
Upon returning to school after these visits, I was elated to learn that some of my colleagues shared my excitement for the year ahead. Unlike some of my own high school teachers, they viewed students' different cultures, languages, customs, and traditions from a strengths perspective. The teachers realized that parents' hopes for their children were similar to the ones they had for their own children. They discovered that multiple jobs and long hours made it difficult for parents to attend school events. They learned that absence was not synonymous with apathy and that parents were involved in the teaching and learning process at home. Many shared stories of how families code switched between their native languages and English and how many of the parents were educated professionals in their native countries but deemed unqualified to hold similar jobs in the United States.
To my dismay, however, I learned that other colleagues returned from home visits with impressions similar to those of my high school teachers. Stereotypes and biases persisted.
"Their homes are so disorganized."
"They are so loud, and they talk all over one another."
"How can they live in such cramped quarters?"
"They wouldn't even make eye contact with me."

A Different Paradigm

Such comments upset me, but they didn't quash the excitement I shared with other colleagues about how we would continue to include parents' voices in our classrooms. The home visits served as a springboard to invite parents to become partners in educating their children. I asked parents to visit our class monthly to celebrate their children's efforts and progress. In part, this helped me create a community where parents felt welcomed and comfortable, a setting where they weren't the only immigrants present.
The monthly celebrations led to opportunities for family members to share their experiences, values, and traditions inside the classroom. For instance, during a science unit on plants and farming, one mother taught a lesson about agriculture in South Sudan, where she had grown up in a family of farmers and herders. In her lesson, she shared how the climate, weather, and typography influenced the techniques and tools they used to cultivate cassava, maize, and millet. Afterward, she and I prompted students to compare her experiences with what they knew about farming in their native countries and the United States. This proved to be an effective way to teach skills such as comparing and contrasting and honoring the perspectives and experiences of others.
In addition to our monthly family celebrations, we held student-led conferences twice a year. These conferences allowed parents to see their children as students and allowed me to see my students as children. In these conferences, the students sat at the head of the table, and I sat next to the parents. This subtle shift in seating reinforced my belief in the parent-teacher partnership. With my help, students chose examples of their work to share with parents and led discussions about strengths and areas needing improvement. Influenced by my experiences as an immigrant student, these practices verified my belief that partnerships between parents and teachers could make a difference for students from immigrant backgrounds.

Recommendations for Teachers

Our students are becoming increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse. Scholars assert that the differences in race, ethnicity, culture, language, and socioeconomic status between teachers and students, coupled with a lack of cross-cultural experiences between teachers and their students and families, contribute to "cultural conflict" in the classroom. These gaps can lead to miscommunication and disagreements. The discontinuity between students and teachers can potentially interfere with students' academic and social outcomes (Delpit, 2006).
But these mismatches do not have to lead to negative experiences for students. As educators, we must work to ensure equity (addressing individual needs) rather than equality (treating everyone the same). In working with families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, here are a few recommendations:
  1. Teachers must critically reflect on their identities as educators and ask questions such as: What are my biases toward students from backgrounds different from my own? Do I believe I can teach these students effectively (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2001)? Do I see students, families, and communities through a deficit-based or an asset-based lens (Gay, 2010)? As a classroom teacher, I constantly reflected on my identities as a Ghanaian and an American, my schooling experiences, and how they informed my actions in the classroom.
2. Teachers should find multiple ways to communicate with families, including sharing positive stories verbally and in writing and providing translations in parents' native language. Remember: A lack of communication does not indicate that parents do not care. Teachers must explore alternate reasons why parents are not responsive and, in collaboration with them, create options that are more accommodating. One way I did this in my classroom was to have students write and draw positive stories about their week each Friday. Students shared their notes with their families over the weekend and then reported their families' feedback to the class during our Monday morning meetings.
3. Teachers can use students' families and communities' funds of knowledge to inform instruction. When parents feel valued, they see themselves as assets to their children's education and are more eager to partner with teachers. When parents wanted to volunteer in my classroom, I didn't restrict them to times of the day that were convenient for me. Rather, I allowed families to pick times that worked best with their work schedules.
An influx of immigrants has contributed to a more diverse student body in U.S. public schools. By following recommendations like these, educators can not only recognize this change, but also take steps to meet the needs of all students and to strengthen partnerships with all families.
References

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gutiérrez, K. D., & Orellana, M. F. (2006). At last: The "problem" of English learners: Constructing genres of difference. Research in the Teaching of English, 40(4), 502–507.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, A. W. (2001). Teacher efficacy: Capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(7), 783–805.

End Notes

Author's Note: Stanley C. Trent contributed to this article.

Abigail Akosua Kayser has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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