This month we published Teacher Leadership for Social Change in Bilingual and Bicultural Education by Deborah K. Palmer. In this post she explains how teachers give her hope during the political struggle over immigration along the US southern border.
I believe that in the United States we will look back upon these years as a dark time in our history. The political struggle over immigration along our southern border has led to more and more direct and blatant attacks on human rights, not only from angry reactionary citizens but from the government and its institutions. Since 2016 there has been an uptick in scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, Latinas/os, and people of color. At this point, documented neo-Nazis and White Supremacists occupy official roles in the Trump White House and are running for public office in the upcoming election, and President Trump’s appointed attorney general Jeff Sessions – the official charged with protecting civil rights – has a long history of racist stances.
At the same time, for many years US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America has contributed to increases in gang- and drug-related violence, which in turn continues to drive more and more people – often unaccompanied youth and families with young children – to seek safety in the United States. Mr. Sessions and the Trump administration have moved toward a “zero tolerance” policy toward these immigrants and refugees.
I find this concept, “zero tolerance”, to be emblematic of Trump’s era in our country. Why would so many Americans, most of whose ancestors came into the country as religious or economic refugees, embrace an ideology of intolerance?
As a teacher educator and former bilingual teacher, I constantly ask myself what is the role of teachers – particularly bilingual teachers – in the face of “zero tolerance”? In truth, elementary bilingual education and ESL teachers offer me hope. These are professionals on the front lines of our immigration crisis, working every day with the children and families who are the target of the worst attacks. Critically conscious teachers engaging in culturally sustaining pedagogies, give their students a safe and welcoming space every day where they can learn and grow, where they are not merely “tolerated” but fully embraced and welcomed in the United States.
Teachers have long inspired me. Whenever I am concerned about the state of the world, I turn to critically-engaged teachers, and draw inspiration from their work. The work of teachers is complex and multi-faceted; teaching well, and teaching diverse multilingual communities of children, requires a wide range of skills and dispositions. In my work with experienced teachers seeking their master’s degrees, I’ve begun to notice some patterns: teachers who are successful at creating and enacting curriculum that will support diverse students’ identities and build their academic skills all seem to share at least the following characteristics: they are willing to take risks and take stands; they are deeply reflective and aware of larger systems of oppression and the tools to counter oppression; and they network and connect with other teachers, families and communities to find the resources they need.
For example, a pair of fourth grade teachers in Austin, Texas developed a curricular unit on the topic of immigration that integrates high quality multilingual/multicultural children’s literature with their students’ own families’ stories to engage students and their families in a month-long exploration of history/language arts/geography. One of these teachers, working with her school librarian, has developed a webpage offering resources for locating and using culturally-relevant literature for the elementary classroom. Another former pre-kindergarten teacher from Austin has moved into full-time activism as a union organizer and has organized resources to put on periodic citizenship drives for the immigrant community. A team of dual language bilingual teacher coaches from Round Rock, Texas (outside Austin) worked together within the leadership structures of their traditionally English-dominant school district to offer all their growing population of Spanish-speaking students – and many of their English-speaking students too – a strong, enriching dual language bilingual education program.
Teachers are so often the ones who build systems both within and beyond their classrooms to ensure their students can adapt and grow in their new homes. Bilingual teachers in particular are bridges; they are advocates for their immigrant students, and they are among our best ambassadors.