Working with Bilingual Parent Volunteers
by Judie Haynes
Develop a resource of parents who can help translate, interpret, and communicate
Envisage a classroom where you have bilingual parent helpers for each of your non-English speakers! Imagine that your school has a resource of parents who can help translate, interpret, and communicate. This dream can become a reality if you begin a "Bilingual Parent Volunteers" program. Bilingual parent volunteers are school and community members who speak the languages of your ESL/bilingual population. They are a wonderful asset to classroom and ESL teachers. Starting this program is work. But in the end, your school will reap the benefits in years to come.
Start a bilingual volunteer program
Bilingual parent volunteers can work in the mainstream classroom with all first- year ESL students. Start by recruiting a few approachable parents. They do not have to be parents whose children are in ESL. In fact, more established bilingual parents will probably be more able to help. Ask them to help a new second language learner in the mainstream classroom for an hour a few times a week. Arrange for the volunteer and the classroom teacher to meet and set a time convenient for both. Once your have a few volunteers working with students successfully, the word will spread.
Invite parents who are limited English speakers to help also. These parents can be an extra pair of hands in a large class. They can help with special projects, make photocopies of work, put up bulletin boards and complete other jobs.
Train bilingual parent volunteers
Consider training your parent volunteers. It is worth the time. An administrator, ESL, or bilingual teachers would be obvious choice to train them. Classroom teachers need to be prepared for the volunteers. Set up a schedule so that the classroom teacher knows when a volunteer is coming. He/she should identify specific tasks they want done. Provide the volunteer with interesting and varied materials to use with the newcomers. Give the volunteer concrete feedback during the first few sessions. If you want them to use positive rather than negative reinforcers, for example, let him or her know right away. If it is too distracting to have the volunteer work in your classroom find a quiet place for the pair to work. Teachers of students in grades 4 and up should ask that volunteers work outside the classroom; newcomers at this age are very self-conscious about receiving extra help. Be sure the volunteer knows what to do in the event of a fire drill.
Everyone gains from the participation of bilingual parent volunteers in a school. The school benefits from an increase in the quality of communications with the parents of their language-minority population. The classroom teacher gets extra help with her new students. The mainstream students benefit from the cultural input of the bilingual parents. Newcomers benefit both socially and academically, and their parents are relieved of much anxiety about their children. Bilingual volunteers have stated that they benefit from a growth of self-esteem and pride in their culture. They feel more comfortable in the school and often develop friendships with the teachers they help.
Bilingual parent volunteers can help:
- Become a liaison between a new family and the school
If you have information you want to make sure the parents of your ESL students understand, one way is to ask the volunteers to call them and introduce themselves. They can explain that they are working with the child in the school and give their home telephone numbers to the newly-arrived parents. In the future you will only have to write a note to the volunteers or call them on the phone to make contact with new parents. Many bilingual parents work and cannot participate in svchool the way they would like. These parents can be asked to translate school correspondence and help interpret during evening parent-teacher conferences. Be cautious, however, about confidentiality. Parents are sensitive about other parents knowing their children's difficulties in school.
- Explain American schools
The schools in the United States may be very different from schools in the native countries, of your new families. Bilingual Parent volunteers can explain to new parents in the same language group what these differences are. Parents have a difficult time understanding whole language, invented spelling, thinking skills activities, cooperative learning and manipulatives in math. They may have a hard time with school expectations. They certainly won't understand the partnership role that American parents have with schools in their child's education. Registration in sports and music programs, can also be explained. The volunteers in my school in New Jersey made Korean/English and Japanese/English School Handbooks about all school programs which we hand out to new families.
- Establish a telephone chain
Bilingual parent volunteers can establish a telephone chain for emergency school closings and to pass important messages from the school to the home. This is another way to keep in touch with parents. Try to have a "key" parent for each language group. If you have a message for that group you only need to call the key parent. They can also help recruit new volunteers. This is especially important for emergency school closings. We invite parents to form chains so that the Parent-Teacher Organization volunteers need only call the first parent on each of the chains. If you've ever had a studentleft at school in a snowstorm while their parents go on to work, you will realize how important this is.
- Help with new arrivals during registration, a tour of the school, inoculation and health records
It is very difficult to register and correctly place new students if their parents do not speak any English. Ask your volunteers if they would be willing to come to school to translate for new families and help introduce them to the school. This enables the school make important decisions about placement if the child's school records are in another language and provides an opportunity to impart important information. It also allows the family to ask questions and to provide the school with information about their child.
- Support the classroom teacher both affectively and with instruction
Classroom teachers decide what work they want their volunteers to do. In the beginning most volunteers work with the ESL Learning Centers or at the computer. These volunteers become invaluable to the school as their role expands. Bilingual volunteers who speak the same languages as your newcomers can provide crucial help to you. New arrivals and their parents can be relieved of a lot of stress and anxiety by having an adult explain what is expected in American schools in their own language. Don't worry about accented English. Your students are exposed to a classroomful of good English-speaking models.
- Help with "sensitive" issues
Bilingual parent volunteers can help special-subject teachers, administrators, and the school nurse with "sensitive" issues: retention, referral, and social problems. They can answer questions about culture, explain the expectations of a particular teacher to parents, and call the parent on behalf of the principal or school nurse. Remember, however, about the confidentiality of your bilingual families. If you have something private to discuss with parents, you need to tell the parent volunteer to ask the family to bring their own interpreter. If they show up without anyone, your district may need to hire an interpreter from another district in order to safeguard the confidentiality of the family involved. This is especially important when discussing possible referrals by child study teams and retention of the child.
- Take an active role in the in-servicing
One of the best inservice days my school ever had was run by four bilingual parent volunteers who discussed a range of cultural and social behaviors and how those behaviors were seen by members of their culture. An ESL teacher can tell mainstream teachers not to expect parents to speak English at home, and it won't sink in. When the parents of highly successful students tell the entire staff that they speak native language in their homes 99 % of the time, it makes a big impression. At another inservice, two bilingual parent volunteers taught useful phrases to teachers in Japanese and Korean.
Second language parents can also help your school put on a multicultural day where they teach students about their cultures. Of course, parentscan also go into individual classrooms on special occasions at the invitation of the classroom teachers.
© 1998-2004 Judie Haynes, www.everythingESL.net