In this blog, California preschool teacher Elena Vera discusses the complications and frustrations she faces in providing support to immigrant children and families in her school district. She shares what she has learned about inequities faced by immigrant families and what she can do as an individual to help address some of the challenges they face at the classroom level.
by Elena Vera, State Preschool Teacher, Fremont Unified School District, California
In our early childhood education program, connecting families to available community resources is one of the most important things we do. I consider it an essential responsibility in my role as a preschool teacher. But building that bridge is often complicated and frustrating. In my classroom, we are fortunate to have a diverse population of children and families, with at least 10 primary languages spoken. Many of these families who have immigrated are engaged with the education system for the first time and are unsure of where to start, whether it’s registering their child for kindergarten or securing services for their child who has special needs. Many are under the misunderstanding that they must pay for the services available to them, which usually is not the case. In addition, some of our parents are undocumented so they fear that if they reach out, something will happen to them. We need to support these families and recognize that our systems are not well organized to be easily accessible to them.
Offering support is important, but it isn’t always easy. Policies, programs, and services have made some effort to reduce barriers to opportunity to some families. Spanish speakers, for example, have a lot of resources available to them in the form of written handouts, online tools, websites in Spanish, and many Spanish speakers and interpreters in California to whom they can be referred. Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking parents also have many resources available to them. But there has yet to be such an effort to support the other parents I work with. For speakers of Hindu, Urdu, and Farsi (and the many dialects of each of these), few materials exist, and translators are not always available. I am left to ask them if they have a family member who can translate for them and that isn’t always possible nor should it be necessary.
More outreach needs to be done by the district to change this system, and to create equitable access for all communities. Outreach is practically non-existent because our system can be blind to the populations they are intended to serve. We are just waiting for people to appear from nowhere to help and unless our priorities are re-evaluated, that’s just not going to happen. While I may not be able to change the district to a great extent, I can ensure that my voice is one of advocacy, and that my classroom practice is equitable.
Fixing What I Can as an Individual
While I can and do speak up about the outreach problem, I know I can’t change it on my own. However, I do have the power to enact changes in my own approach to the families and children with whom I work in order to better support them. Through my participation in the Alameda County Emerging Leaders Fellowship in Early Care and Education, I realized I had preconceived notions about the families with whom I worked and that this carried over into my relationships with them. As a Mexican, I assumed, for example, that all Mexicans in my class shared the same culture and customs that I have. I assumed that other minority groups fit a certain script as well. I realized my own bias was preventing them from feeling that my classroom was a “safe place” for their children and for themselves. It was critical to change my own responses to them and ensure, to the extent possible, that resources are available to them in their native language, their families are represented, at least in my classroom, and that they are made visible.
I now make a conscious effort every day to not make assumptions and to treat every parent and child as an individual. This change in me, as well as being proactive in reaching out and welcoming all families, has resulted in the increased rate at which parents volunteer in my class. Learning to change through actions and not just “talking the talk” has increased the rate of those who feel safe to participate in their children’s learning in my classroom to nearly 100 percent. My colleagues still complain about low participation rates but getting parents to come help out in my classroom is no longer a problem. I hope through my example these colleagues will rethink their own practices. I think all teachers would benefit from a deep-level program focusing on racial and cultural equity, such as the one I attended.
Inequities that exist in preschool classrooms can have long-lasting effects on parents and children. As individual teachers, we can speak up about these inequities, thereby playing a role in remedying them. But we also can effect change within ourselves that will have a ripple effect on our children and families. My change in attitude and actions made all the difference in my classroom. Whereas I used to believe that I didn’t have a problem with my relationship with my parents, I now am making a conscious effort to build an individual relationship with each one. I have become more genuine, and the atmosphere in my class has completely changed. I use my inner voice to remind me of implicit bias. I realized that I may not be able to fix every problem single-handedly, but also that I should not be part of the problem. The families and children with whom I work deserve better.
After completing Alameda County Emerging Leaders Fellowship in Early Care and Education, I now understand the importance of:
- Making the invisible visible, starting with children and families in my classroom.
- Building individual relationships with families.
- Understanding my blind spots and implicit bias.
- Not participating in and contributing to a system with institutionalized barriers.
- Providing support and resources to all families, especially those from populations that are furthest from opportunity and that face many barriers to accessing supports.
Many changes need to happen at the structural and institutional levels, but I can help make some changes at the classroom level; this is where I can make the greatest change and impact in the ecosystem of care and education to our youngest learners.
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