Our Undocumented Students Need Champions

10/30/2017 09:51 am ET

By Sarah TeKolste

Each morning, I stand in the hall and greet my students with a chipper “Buenos días, ¿cómo estás?” The day after the Presidential election, Mauricio said to me in English, with as much teenage aggression as he could muster: “What are you greeting us in Spanish for? We speak English. And besides, what do you care? We’re all gonna be gone soon anyways.”

When did saying “good morning” in Spanish become a political statement? What had I done to make Mauricio believe I was not on his side?

I teach Spanish to many kids who already speak the language at home. My students range from recent immigrants from Guatemala who are multilingual speakers of Spanish and various Mayan languages to Honduran, Mexican, and Nicaraguan American students whose families have been in the United States for generations. Unsurprisingly, my students who were raised here hesitate to speak Spanish at school more often than their peers who are recent immigrants. Whereas students who are recent immigrants are often used to speaking Spanish to their teachers in their countries of origin, students who only know U.S. schools are accustomed to an English-only environment with their teachers. For much of their lives, they have been told that it is not appropriate to speak Spanish in school, that it is somehow better to address their teachers in English. If they were reluctant to speak Spanish before, what must they be feeling now with anti-immigrant rhetoric so prominent in the national discourse?

At Emmerich Manual High School where I teach, we celebrate diversity with cultural dress days, shared meals, and the performing arts. We want all of our students, and especially our immigrant and refugee students, to know that their culture is an asset to the community. Our halls are decorated with a multitude of flags representing the nationalities of our immigrant and refugee students—from Mexico to Myanmar to Syria – and our department-wide theme of “world changers” promotes global citizenship and ambassadorship.

Yet, Mauricio made me realize that I would have to do more than hang flags and speak Spanish to really earn my students’ trust. I learned in the last year that in order to build relationships with some of my most marginalized students, I could no longer be apolitical on issues of immigration.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status. Yet English language learners, who are often immigrants and sometimes undocumented, remain one of the most marginalized groups in our public school system, in part due to a lack of bilingual educators. In order to help these students achieve their fullest academic potential, it is paramount that we welcome all students and the languages they speak.

In September, many students who were brought to the U.S. as children were plunged into uncertainty. Should they still pursue a college degree? Will they be able to get a work permit? Does their education even matter? At Manual, my colleagues and I have tried to make sure that undocumented students understand their rights and know how to access the right resources. A local immigration attorney has come to our school to speak with students and families about the rescission of DACA, and we have provided students with informative literature on DACA, college access for undocumented students, and inalienable rights in the case of an immigration raid. If students are worried that they or their parents will be deported, it doesn’t much matter whether they can conjugate a verb or pass a test. If students feel unconditionally supported at school, however, they will strive to achieve the high expectations their teachers set for them.

I didn’t know how to respond to Mauricio the day after the election, but one thing has remained clear to me: I would not stop speaking Spanish to my students. Children should not feel that their identities are threatened in their home country because of the language they speak. By working to celebrate multilingualism and foster an appreciation of diversity, we as educators can build a safe, welcoming environment that leads to the best educational outcomes for all students.

Equity in public education means that every child gets what they need. Right now, our immigrant and refugee students, and especially our undocumented students, need champions to make sure that happens.

Sarah TeKolste teaches upper-level Spanish at Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis. She is a Teach Plus Indianapolis Teaching Policy Fellow.

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