Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Parent-Teacher Conferences : Does Not Translate

Students, with serious expressions clutched their small manila envelopes and followed their parents silently through the halls of the local public school. It was that time of year again, report card time and time for the parent-teacher conferences.

On a personal level, my meeting with the teacher went well. I like la MapucheRican's teacher. She's honest, open-minded and gets where I'm coming from, even when I'm complaining about how poorly the 37 1/2 minute extra period is being run or how conservative and useless the new HIV/AIDS curriculum will be. La Mapu is doing well. She is slowly learning to enjoy writing and her mouth in class is catching up with he speed her mouth has here at home.

Every time parent-teacher conferences kick into gear , I am kicked into service. The NYC Department of (mis)Education woefully neglects its non-English dominant parents. Besides translating notices of meetings into Spanish, throwing to side all sense of confidentiality, I translate for Spanish dominant families at the meetings. This means that before and way after meeting with my child's own teacher , I run around the school to where I am most needed.

I was called to a kindergarten class last night to translate between a parent and an old-school teacher.
"Your son should be reading at B level and he's reading at A level. You don't speak English so obviously no one can sit down and read the books I send home every Monday. If no one can help him read in English then I don't know why I should bother sending the books home with your son who is going to have to repeat kindergarten anyway". The teacher began and then looked at me to translate.

The mother explained she was trying. That she enlisted the help of her sister who spoke better English. The teacher responded by reading word by word to the mother a kindergarten level book as an example.
"Oh and your son doesn't know how to clean himself when he goes to the bathroom"

The mother's eyes filled with tears. A younger child sitting happily on his mother's lap grabbed a pen from the table. The pen was promptly grabbed back from the child by the teacher who sternly said, "Don't do that".
"Maybe you should take English classes. You can take class at a college or something." No specifics were given as to where these programs were or just as importantly , how much they cost. The family and I were quickly led out so another family could come in and I was left apologizing to the mother because I too had no resources to offer her.

This morning I inquired if teachers went through any sort of professional development or training specifically dealing with how to work with non-English speaking parents. Not surprisingly I was told they did not.

So much lip service is played to the diversity of the NYC public school system but no one is talking about how poorly non-English speaking parents are dealt with. No one talks about the way economic, race (because most of these are parents of color), and national privilege play out in the hallowed halls of education.

Yes this is an angry mami post...and my mind is spinning with how to turn it into action.


Anonymous Jennifer Woodard Maderazo said...

That teacher should be fired, plain and simple. What good does diversity do when parents, a critical element in a child's education is all but ignored? God, this anecdote really pissed me off.

3/22/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Elenamary said...

that upsets me too.

public libraries often have evening and weekend reading programs were volunteers read books to children and here in ohio they even read them aloud in spanish too. plus here in columbus, ohio there are a free english classes at the library and from the columbus literacy council...i wonder if NYC has something like that?

3/22/2006 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

There are programs like that. I'm probably going to make a list of local programs so that the parents can have the information.

3/22/2006 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger gitupgitout said...

so incredibly effed up. while these kinds of programs are helpful for parents the point is that non-english speaking folks shouldn't be berated for it. besided, free programs are great but after working all day, dealing with the kids, etc. attendance to these programs might be low.

3/22/2006 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

Exactly...which is where economics and class and a whole fucking mess of other issues come into play. I'm not s focused on getting the parents to learn english as I am on making sure they get the info they need regardless of the damn language.

3/22/2006 04:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Angela (fusion atomica) said...

It's probably a matter of time, but very recently the mayor was forced by many activist organizations to sign a legislation that makes schools provide information to parents in their own language... i hope the school you talk about implements that new condition really soon.
Also, if you need information about FREE english classes for Spanish speakers, I can send you some. There are many non-profit organizations that help immigrants learn english at no cost. Your participation in the school is really significant... go Mala!

3/22/2006 11:08:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

Sounds like a burned-out teacher resentful she has to add to her repertoire to help ESL children, babies, really, considering it’s kindergarten. And it didn't sound like she felt she had to talk to the parents at all, that translation would smooth out the edges. I agree with Jennifer--she should be fired for that kind of insensitivity and inferential racism (her ugly and nastily blatant assumptions). One thing you can do is complain to the principal on that family's behalf. You can be pretty sure they won’t.

Sometimes you have to DIY--any friends who can help out a night or 2 a week and join you for conference nights? (It's all DIY here--Katrina shot our shit to pieces.)

3/23/2006 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

G-Bitch: It's all been DIY here too, unfortunately it's been super hard to get other peeps to step in the school community.

3/24/2006 09:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NYCDOE Translation & Interpretation Unit.

3/26/2006 11:50:00 PM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

The school has been in contact with the DOE translation unit and A: they are extremely understaffed and B) I think they were created in an attempt to shut up community members who were complaining meaning this new department seems to be more window dressing than a real commitment to serving non-English dominant families.

3/27/2006 08:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would you consider adequate staffing? On-call interpretation services at every school in the system would cost an astronomical amount of money.

3/27/2006 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

As much money as the State owes NYC? As much money being spent on the ridiculous 37 1/2 minutes to the school day for some children? As much money as the bullshit HIV/AIDS Education program? I agree that on-call services would not only be expensive but not practical. But is it too much to ask for interpreters at Parent-teacher conferences? If a parent or guardian does not speak english and therefore is denied information who does that hurt?

3/27/2006 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: I am an employee of the DOE Translation Unit, but these views are my personal views and are not to be considered the views of any part of the NYCDOE.

I'm with you on getting the money the state owes NYC.

I will not defend the HIV/AIDS program, given that I personally disagree with a lot of the science. I also don't have figures on how much money is in that program.

To put one interpreter at each of 1400 schools for one six-hour day would cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000. That's two months of the Translation Unit's budget.

It's just not practical. Even if you were to eliminate some schools, there are others that would require a half-dozen or more interpreters in several languages.

This ignores the fact that qualified interpreters are fairly scarce to begin with, especially in some of the languages that the DOE is obligated to cover.

On the other hand, over-the-phone interpretation services are available for all parent-teacher conferences. If they are not being used, it is the fault of the individual school - the services are available to the school for free.

There is no doubt that the DOE faces a huge task in attempting to bring non-English communications up to even a bare minimal level. The Translation Unit has been in existence only a little over a year, but in that time it has made some strides in making written materials available to non-English speaking parents.

I sympathize with your anger and frustration, but the sort of change required at the DOE is going to take a lot of time and effort - I applaud the time and effort that you yourself have put in.

3/28/2006 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

I appreciate you coming here and sharing the information you have. My question is, can you direct me to information regarding the phone translation services especially in terms of how that works logistically.

3/28/2006 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over-the-phone Intepretation Services.

3/28/2006 03:34:00 PM  
Blogger MsAbcMom said...


What in the heck is wrong with that teacher and others like her? It is just so rude and disrespectful to treat others that way. How can the child ever expect to succeed when the teacher doesn't even believe in them and has an obvious dislike for the family?

Our school is lucky in the respect that we always make sure that there are plenty of translators available for parent conferences, all parent events and at least one person in the office at all times that speaks Spanish.

A child's success is so dependent on a strong parent-teacher communication. Being bilingual, this is an easy task for me but I have seen other English only teachers who are successful too. It all boils down to being respectful of other cultures, honoring the child for who they are and accepting the child wherever they may be emotionally, academically or physically.

I don't know if your child's school knows about this but the US Dept. of Ed publishes lots of FREE pamphlets and booklets on a wide range of topics such as homework, literacy, math, etc in both English and Spanish. (maybe in other languages too) I think that this is the URL:

I always order a ton of these FREE materials and have them on hand to pass out during parent conferences. When I give helpful hints to parents at these meetings, I always accompany it with a handout in the language that they are literate in. They can refer to it whenever they want and it is also a way of empowering parents too.

3/28/2006 09:05:00 PM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

Thanks for the tip about the pubs. I will check them out.

3/29/2006 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Ms.Maegan said...

Anon: Thanks for the link about the phone translation services. I honestly was not aware of this option.

3/29/2006 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger Mrs. S said...

First off, that teacher was really rude and just unprofessional ... WTF is her problem?! How can she conduct herself in this manner, she is suppose to be a teacher and aren't they suppose to be loving and nuturing from the get-go? Dayum!

This is upsetting girl ... how about if the school can get involved by having some type of program available for these types of situations, I know Public Libraries have programs for reading and such, maybe the school can combine both things and work together w/the Library to address the needs of these parents ...

3/29/2006 01:25:00 PM  

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