The Benefits of Teaching in Two Languages

From New York to Utah, U.S. schools have seen a steady rise in bilingual education. Dual-language immersion programs first appeared in the U.S. in the 1960s to serve Spanish-speaking students in Florida. Since then, the demand—and controversy—surrounding these programs has been widespread, and they now address the needs of more than 5 million students who are English-language learners in the country’s public-school system.

Teresa Chávez has been a teacher for almost 20 years, and is currently the lead teacher for Little Canada Elementary’s Dual Language Immersion program in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I spoke to Chávez about the implementation of the Spanish-language program and how bilingual education facilitates connections beyond the confines of a classroom. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

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Valeria Pelet: How did you get into teaching?

Teresa Chávez: My first passion was poetry. When I was in college, I was also working as a teacher, but as a volunteer. After that, since I was trying to improve my Spanish and I was also clinging to the idea of studying the humanities, I decided to move to Costa Rica. I began to teach, and then I taught in Lima, in Peru, and then in Minneapolis. It was quite a long process to discover that I liked the field of teaching and education.

Pelet: Why do you think bilingual education is important?

Chávez: I believe that it’s important because we are more connected than before.There are many places in the world where people have to speak at the very least two languages. I think that it’s wonderful to learn how to express oneself in more than one language, to be able to travel, work, have friends … I believe that it’s important for children, for example, in the United States, because many families that speak English at home have not thought about the importance of [speaking Spanish]. The ones that speak Spanish at home sometimes want to speak their home language [at school], their first language, and it’s very sad [when it cannot happen].

Pelet: Why did Minneapolis begin to offer bilingual Spanish and English education?

Chávez: The number of different bilingual programs, immersion programs, has already been growing. There’s a population of ESL speakers who are mostly native Spanish speakers. We were thinking about equality and what would be most just. [The program] was conceived so that children would not lose their home language and that they would learn to read and communicate in Spanish, and that they would feel good or proud about their culture. Also, we started it for the kids who speak English at home. There are more families that are interested in this and are asking schools to have more programs like this.

Pelet: What is the toughest aspect of teaching?

Chávez: I believe that our state tests are very difficult because they take up a lot of time. English as a second language takes a lot of time, too. These kids also need to take the normal state exams, and it is time that they are not receiving instruction. These exams are awful because they affect how resources are managed and how time is managed when children should be receiving more instruction instead of taking tests.

Pelet: What is a normal day for you like?

Chávez: There’s almost no day that is exactly like another. Today, for example, in the morning, I met up with teachers from another school who are trying to improve their pedagogy program. A bit earlier, before you called, I was crafting emails to certain teachers; I was also sending emails to families about which students want to enter the program … In my work, even on a day-to-day basis, I need to establish my priorities. Sometimes I’m coaching other teachers, training them, and sometimes I’m with kids or with families … I’m always thinking: What is my focus? What’s coming the next day? Things like that. It’s important to be a bit flexible, but at the same time be very clear about what one can do for the kids. My job is very diverse, very broad, but I believe that, more than anything, it’s about identifying what we need in terms of resources while we’re forming this program. The days when I’m teaching, I maintain kids’ education as the goal.

Pelet: Do you have to manage students who are already bilingual differently than those who aren’t?

Chávez: I have to be conscious of this pedagogy. I’m aware that when they’re starting, I might have to repeat or provide another word, do more with visual cues, or know that, suddenly, there will be cultural shocks. I have high expectations, but at the same time, it’s important to consider that this group of kids is more broad and diverse. It also depends on who their teachers are. There are teachers who want their classes to be more silent, there are others who don’t care if one interrupts a little bit, there are others that become more dynamic in the classroom, and there are others who might want to teach a different way. If one group behaves in a particular way, it’s mostly because of the classroom culture that the teacher fosters.

Pelet: How do you, as a teacher, balance all of these students who grew up with different versions of Spanish—say, Mexican Spanish or Ecuadorian Spanish—or kids who have learned Spanish in the states?

Chávez: It has a lot to do with the books we’re using. We use language books and have standards in terms of what we teach, but when we’re talking about certain vocabulary or an idiomatic situation—“avocado,” for example, is “aguacate” in certain countries, while in others it’s “palta”—then it depends on the teacher. I can’t manage vernacular translations too much because I teach English to kids who are older and also support and coordinate certain aspects of this program. It depends on the teacher’s level of Spanish. Some are very conscious of the differences between words like “plátano” (“plantain”) and “banano,” et cetera. We don’t have a formal document to say, “In this country you say it like this …”