Bilingual Jobs: How Teachers Use Language To Connect In The Classroom

Two bilingual teachers share stories and explain how they use their Spanish skills to make an impact.
Bilingual Jobs teacher

There’s a regularly quoted Japanese proverb that makes a big statement on the importance of good teachers: “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” The message here is that no matter how hard you work to learn new things, it will never be as effective as learning from a teacher who inspires you and is able to connect with you on a personal level.

It can be challenging to connect with someone if you don’t speak their native language, which makes it especially useful for teachers of non-native English speakers to be bilingual. We spoke with two teachers who work in very different teaching environments, but who both use their ability to speak Spanish to make a positive impact on their students.

Bilingual Jobs Improving The Lives Of Migrant Workers And Their Children

Nicole Mance spent the summer working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor for a program at the State University of New York at Cortland. The aim of the Migrant Education Tutorial and Support Services Program is to assist school districts in meeting the needs of migrant children.
In her role, Mance traveled daily to farms in Tompkins County, New York, where she taught English to students ranging in age from 3 to 22. Some of the students were the children of migrant workers, while others were workers themselves.

“ESL students worked mainly on vocab and conversational usage of English in order to be able to go to work, the store, the doctor, and participate and engage in conversation,” Mance explained.

Mance describes herself as somewhere between proficient and fluent in Spanish. While bilingualism wasn’t required for the job, she said it was certainly preferred because of the deeper connections it creates between teachers and students.

If Mance’s students weren’t grasping a concept in English, she could use her knowledge of Spanish to explain it in a way they could understand. The positive impact of speaking Spanish went beyond the lessons themselves, however.

“My ability to use Spanish also let me connect with my students on a personal level because they did not feel distant due to a language barrier,” Mance said. “This open line of communication facilitated better instruction and relationship-building, which is very important.”

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

Mance’s lessons were not in a traditional school setting, so the biggest obstacle was getting students to adhere to a consistent schedule.

“Making sure I saw the students for their scheduled lessons each week could be hard at times because if they were asked to work an extra day to make more money, they would take that opportunity; if they were offered to play soccer with their friends, they would jump on it,” Mance said, acknowledging that these decisions were understandable.

Most of the children came to the farms to work and support their families. Mance said they would often work six days each week with extremely long hours.

“The fact that they want English lessons on their one day off a week is an admirable effort in itself,” Mance remarked.

And The Most Rewarding Part?

For teachers, the reward is intrinsic to the job: educating children and helping them reach their full potential in life.

“Knowing that I was helping these students navigate their daily lives, and having them tell me about experiences where something we had done together had benefited them made me more than happy to go to work every day,” Mance said.

Bilingual Jobs Building Bonds With High Schoolers And Their Parents

Josh Stillman teaches 9th and 12th grade English at a high school in New York City. A majority of his students are the children of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, so many of the students speak Spanish fluently. Their parents are often native Spanish speakers and speak limited, if any, English.

“They appreciate that I’m making the effort, which helps to build trust.”

Stillman’s primary use for his Spanish skills, which he learned while living in Ecuador for a year, is communicating with parents over the phone, during parent-teacher conferences and in other meetings.

“If I didn’t speak Spanish, I would have to use a translator, which would diminish the intimacy of my relationship with the parents,” Stillman said.

Stillman teaches at a Title I high school, which means it receives federal financial assistance because a large percentage of its students come from low-income families. He said this makes his ability to connect with parents even more vital.

“Communication with parents is very important for a low-income student population, and it helps that I can do so on their terms,” Stillman said. “They appreciate that I’m making the effort, which helps to build trust.”

In addition to speaking with parents, Stillman sometimes uses Spanish in the classroom. When students are cursing or criticizing his class in Spanish, not expecting him to understand what they’re saying, he can call them out on it.

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

Because Spanish has so many dialects that differ by country, it can occasionally be difficult to communicate even if you know the standard form of the language. Stillman sometimes struggles with the various regional dialects his students and their parents use.

“Spanish speakers from different countries tend to use different words and phrases, or use different inflections, or speak more rapidly than I’m used to,” Stillman said. “If they use too much slang I’m not familiar with, I get a little lost.”

And The Most Rewarding Part?

For Stillman, his ability to speak Spanish enables him to form invaluable bonds with his students and their parents.

“It’s great to connect with kids and their parents in their native language,” Stillman said. “It helps to build trust, and it makes you into more of a human being in their eyes, and not just an authority figure.”

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