My sister is about to become the first college graduate in our family, and we were chatting recently about the things that our future holds as well as our childhood. We were looking through some old baby pictures—cringe-worthy ones, may I add—and we started talking a lot about our upbringing.
Both of my parents are Mexican immigrants. They came to the United States and met each other. Then they had my sister, and eventually, they had me. My parents didn't have the opportunities to get the same education that I am getting, and I will be getting. My mom only finished high school, and my dad dropped out of the seventh grade. They came to the United States to escape poverty in Mexico and their ultimate goal was to work and to provide for their families back home and to provide for their new family here in the States.
When my sister went to elementary school, she only knew how to speak Spanish. While she was learning to read and write, I was her guinea pig at home. She would sit me down, and in her broken English, would practice what she learned in school by reading to me. It’s one of the earliest memories I have of my exposure to school. For me, being that guinea pig was probably one of the greatest gifts that she could ever have given me. We became liaisons for our parents. We were the ones who were translating for them when they were paying bills or going to immigration appointments in downtown Portland. Did we have any idea what we were saying? Absolutely not.
But, the point is that we were getting that experience of real life situations, and now, as I am growing up, I find that my bilingualism, my heritage, and my background are some of the greatest strengths that I have to offer—both for myself and others, for future employers, and for my school. I'm so proud to have that. (I'm actually working on my third language right now. Je parle un peu Français.)
But, unfortunately, not a lot of people have seen that throughout my life. In school, a lot of teachers would judge me, because English wasn't my first language. People would judge me, because maybe my parents didn't have the same education as the upper-class, white families as my elementary school classmates. People judged me and never really thought that I could be as successful as any other student. Not a year went by that a teacher didn’t ask, "Oh, English isn't your first language, so this might be a little bit difficult for you.” I feel we really need to take a step back and look at what we're saying. We cannot continue to categorize our students simply because they have differences.
For me, like I said, the things that characterize me the most are also my biggest strengths. It’s the same way for many students. We must be able to look at our differences, accept them, and use them as our strengths.
We always talk about how we are the great American melting pot, and yet we don't really treat it that way. We always treat it as, "Oh, you know, the achievement gap is wider than ever." "Our lower-income students aren't performing as well." "Our students with disabilities are being put into different classes because of various reasons.” We cannot continue to do that to ourselves.
Look at it from business perspective. In business, you need to have diverse perspectives and people with different backgrounds to be able to create innovation. That is exactly what we need to do in our schools. We need to take the experience of all our students, no matter their background, and know that they have something to offer—because every single student in our school has a wonderful talent that they can offer to the world.
That is something that we need to embrace and something we cannot continue to disregard simply because they are different.
Our students will contribute more to the world when they feel valued. In the workforce, when you feel valued as an employee, you are willing to work harder. When someone makes you feel positive about yourself—such as when someone says, "Keep doing what you're doing," it’s a confidence builder, and that's exactly what we need to do for our students. We need to say, "Wow, you speak Spanish, good for you, that's going to be a wonderful strength for you throughout life. It is amazing what you can bring to the table."
The encouragement that our students need is what's going to help them thrive. We can be doing more than that, though. We need to make sure that we're looking at all of our resources and figuring out what we can fix to pinpoint the exact problem and get rid of it. We are taking the steps forward to really address the issues about dealing with our students who are "per se" different. But, it is that exact thinking that is going to propel us forward. It all begins with one analysis of a pattern, and doing something different about it, and with that, I truly believe that we can build up to have a prosperous education system that addresses every student and puts them on the path to success.
Shirley Araiza's blog post originated as a speech given to education leaders at the Oregon Leadership Network Spring Leadership Institute on April 21 in Salem, Oregon.