Understanding and Outreach in a Border Community

Posted September 2004: The participants in Natalie Hess's graduate courses open the classroom door to explore the values and expectations of their bicultural community on the U.S.-Mexico border. See Judie Haynes' Circle Time column, "Behind the Closed Door of an ESL Classroom," Essential Teacher, Autumn 2004 (pp. 6-7).

The practicing teachers come to my graduate classes in the late afternoon or early evening, after a day of teaching in the border community of Yuma, Arizona, in the United States. They often arrive tired, frustrated, and discouraged, and I have found that my classes work better if I open with activities that allow them to vent their frustration.

"The parents of these kids just don't seem to care!" is a frequent complaint. "They never show up at parent-teacher conferences. They couldn't care less whether or not their kids finish school. They just want them out in the lettuce fields to make more money for the family."

Bicultural Town, Anglo Teachers

Yuma is a bilingual/bicultural town on the U.S.-Mexico border. On the streets and in the stores, you hear as much Spanish as you do English. Many churches function bilingually.

About 65% of the school population consists of students whose primary language is Spanish. However, until quite recently, the teachers were mainly Anglos imported from other states. The picture changed considerably with the arrival of Northern Arizona University, which, through its statewide outreach program and its partnership with Arizona Western College, began offering undergraduate and graduate programs to local teachers. Even today, however, many of the participants in my classes are "imports," and they frequently voice their discontent with what they see as educational and cultural unsuitability.

Hidden Truths

We started talking about the problem in bicultural groups. We invited school principals and bilingual parents to join us. Some of the Mexican class participants spoke movingly about their experiences as children in migrant families. Eventually, we reached some conclusions that, I am told, reverberate in many U.S. classrooms.

Lack of Interference Is Not Lack of Interest

Mexican parents put an enormous value on education. They have great respect for teachers and will always back them up. They will not interfere with the school curriculum because they see the teachers as the experts on educational issues, and they feel that it would be presumptuous to obstruct the instructive process. Such respect is often misinterpreted as lack of interest, which it definitely is not.

Lack of Time Is Not Lack of Interest

Mexican parents, who work in the fields from early morning to late afternoon and even evening, simply cannot show up at regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences, but they will show up unscheduled in the classroom at times that are possible for them.

Judicious teachers will welcome parents whenever they can come. They will set the class to work on quiet individual activity while they talk with the parents and will have students' files ready and accessible.

A great many teachers have facilitated outreach by giving parents their cell phone numbers and accepting calls of concern whenever parents find it convenient to call. A participant in my class confided that she frequently conducted conferences with parents as she shopped for groceries. "The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open," she noted.

Extended Family Counts

Mexican families favor an extended family structure that allows many family members to take an interest in the children's education. For this reason, an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or cousin of the student may show up for a conference in place of the parents. The wise teacher will greet such relatives with the same concern and respect accorded to the parents.

The Home Language Is a Valid Medium

It is important to let Mexican parents in on school rules and school culture. One school in our community created a school video entirely in Spanish, with Spanish-speaking students as chief actors and explainers of school policy. Copies of the video were sent out to every Spanish-speaking household in the school community.

Open Hearts, Open Minds

The teachers in Yuma and the families we serve have to continue opening hearts and minds as our bicultural community grows. Our lives together and the future of our children will be brighter as we listen to each other and continue searching for avenues of mutual understanding.

Natalie Hess (natalie.hess@nau.edu) is a teacher educator at Northern Arizona University, in the United States.