Dislocation and Compassion

To empathize with and advocate for students, teachers may need to overcome their own "compassion fatigue," says Monica Harari Schnee. See Judie Haynes' Circle Time column, "Parents as Partners," Essential Teacher, June 2005 (pp. 6-7).

One of the hardest lessons I have learned from working with parents of English learners is that, no matter how successful and wanted a move to a new country is, it comes with a great deal of pain and heartache.

As an ESL teacher and an immigrant, I have experienced dislocation myself. When adult newcomers enter U.S. society and culture, this sense of dislocation is very unsettling. Having lost their frame of reference, newcomers find that they can no longer take familiar ways, such as driving on the left-hand side of the road or eating dinner at 10:00 p.m., for granted.

Why Can't She Think Like an American Mom?

Mrs. Choi, mother of Dae Wong, a newcomer to my elementary school class, felt a tremendous sense of cultural dislocation. As one of only a few Korean children at the lunch table, Dae Wong was teased and laughed at for his "smelly food."

At a parent-teacher meeting, I asked Mrs. Choi to prepare peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for her son to eat at school. Of course, the idea of making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches was completely alien to Mrs. Choi. She had no frame of reference, no background knowledge of the U.S. elementary school lunch menu. She knew what children in Korea ate for lunch, so she sent her child to school with kimchi and fishcakes. In explaining the mundane U.S. meal, I had to deal with a language barrier and, more importantly, I had to ask Mrs. Choi to make the jump from her culture to U.S. culture. In a sense, Mrs. Choi had to think like an American mom.

As I spoke to Mrs. Choi, something clicked inside my brain. I realized that we not only ate different foods but also thought and did things very differently.

Fighting Compassion Fatigue

Teachers, who must deal with their own frustrations in the classroom, may find it difficult to deal with parents' frustrations. They may find themselves suffering from compassion fatigue: Just as journalists who have covered many wars and disasters build a protective shield around their emotions, teachers build up a certain immunity to the plight of newly arrived, dislocated parents.

With planners to hand in, meetings to attend, and reports to write, it's hard to empathize with Mrs. Choi when she walks in meekly to discuss her painful lunch story in broken English. Forgetting how deeply ingrained her culture is and how dislocated she feels, a teacher might expect her to change her behavior immediately to fit within U.S. cultural norms. As the world becomes a smaller place and cultural differences seem to blend, people tend to forget that moving is always accompanied by a sense of displacement and dislocation.

Part of our jobs as teachers is to be compassionate with new parents and serve as advocates for those who have yet to learn to speak the language. Empathy makes us more caring and makes us better teachers to their children.

Monica Harari Schnee (mygaucho@aol.com) is a content editior for ESL programs and the director of ESL Parent Connection, an advocacy parent group.