Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can I "relate?"

Of the many beautiful things about teaching in public schools is that students are learning in integrated classrooms where diversity isn't feared, but embraced.  Teachers I know engage diverse classrooms in real-world applications, with student-centered instruction driven by problem-solving and sound decision making.  For English Language Learners, this kind of academic instruction often challenges them in ways we are only beginning to systematically address.  Rachel Clausen reminds us that the real guts of teaching in a school with a growing Latino population lies in the relationships we build with them and the friendships we encourage and foster between them.  Not only that - Rachel also emphasizes the idea that focusing on similarities rather than differences goes a long way towards "relating." Enjoy Rachel's authentic voice!  

“Es más cómo nuestra tía, maestra Clausen.  Le vamos a llamar tía.”  (“You are more like our aunt, Miss Clausen.  We are going to call you aunt.”)

I fondly remember a recent conversation when a small group of young Latino students I worked with decided amongst themselves that they were going to give me the nickname “aunt,” rather than merely teacher.  Here I was, a young white female working closely with Latino students, finding myself bonded to them in ways that culture, race, or experience could not explain.  If anything, my background in comparison to that of this group of young people could have created boundaries between us, but for reasons I am still discovering it brought us together and created bridges, and continues to on many levels.

Undeniably, it is invaluable to have role models for young people that can identify with them from a cultural, racial, or experiential standpoint.  Especially for students of color, those more obvious connections like being of the same race or having a common native language can create an immediate bond, opportunity for influence, and often deeper level of respect between students and school staff.  Students are able to see and hopefully hear from adults who have overcome many of the obstacles they may face in their education.  Such inspiration is necessary for so many of our students who too often hear negative messages about what their future holds.  To reiterate, having role models that can directly identify with students is irreplaceable.

However, being in a position where many of the students and families I work with may not appear to be “like me,” I have found there is a necessary effort to be made on behalf of the educator or service provider to build trust, foster respect, and hopefully build connections that go beyond the typical denominators we see in most relationships.  In my case, that starts with acknowledging that maybe I can’t “relate” to many of the experiences our Latino ELL’s (English language learners) have had.  I have never had to move permanently to a foreign country and completely unfamiliar culture.  I have never felt the pressure of learning a new language in order to function in my everyday surroundings.  I have never had to interpret for my parents, even while still unsure of myself of what I was hearing and/or saying, merely because I knew more of the language than they did.  I have never known what it was like to see some of my beloved family members leave me suddenly due to the immediate threat of deportation.   The list goes on…

 Nevertheless, I cannot afford to keep my focus on our differences alone.  I can acknowledge and appreciate our differences, but I have to also recognize the common ground we stand on, and incorporate this into my work with Latino ELL’s (and their families).  After all, we share a common love for the Spanish language and incredibly diverse Latino cultures.  We share a common desire to excel, as these are students often have an untouched desire to succeed and defy many statistics confronting their ethnicity.  We share a deep-seeded value of family and recognize that, when the “going gets tough,” family is really at the core of what we have and who we are.  We often share a heavy reliance on our faith and belief in the virtue of perseverance.   We share a desire to feel important for who we are, and where we come from.

When I combine both the appreciation of our differences and recognition of our similarities, something pretty amazing starts to happen in my work with both Latino students and their families: we begin to converse from a mutual foundation of honor and respect.  We begin to laugh together at experiences we’ve both had at misspeaking in one another’s language.  We begin to choose to learn from one another rather than avoid the unknown.  We begin to make the other person feel valuable for what they add to our lives.  We begin to form trust, new levels of communication, and bridges that would not otherwise be there.  What ends up happening, is we find the ability to “relate,” so much so that I guess you could say we can almost become “relate”-ives.  Or so my sobrinos (nieces and nephews) have told me.

Rachel Clausen is a Bilingual Resource Specialist at Sherman Middle School, where she supports Spanish-speaking English language learners and their families.  Outside of school, Rachel can be found mentoring Madison area teens through 12:11 youth ministries, volunteering at her church, watching Badger sporting events, and spending as much time as she with her husband and daughter.

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