Keep Asking Until Someone Responds: How a Small Question Had a Big Impact

When we posted our recent survey about how schools are supporting immigrant students and families, we received a response from a teacher in a suburban district in Minnesota who said she wanted more guidance from her school district on what teachers could do for their students and what kinds of information they could share. We reached out to her to learn more about the kinds of information she was seeking and she responded by telling us that she had asked so many questions to various people in the district that she had gotten a meeting with her superintendent!  Their initial conversation and those that have followed have already had an important impact on clarifying the district policy and approach on this important issue.

In the following Q&A, we ask her to share more about her experience, her role as an advocate for her students, and what she has learned during this process. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, she requested that we not share her name or school district.

What is your role?

I am a teacher and a coordinator in my building – both programs I work with focus on culture, equity and rigor for all students. 

What are some of the primary questions and concerns that your students and families have had during the past few months?

My classroom is made up of a large number of first and second-generation immigrant students. Students have been focused on the messages they're hearing – they talk a lot about feeling the anti-immigration rhetoric very personally.  Some are worried – constantly -  about the most fundamental things in their lives: whether their parents and siblings will still be there when they get home from school that day, or if they'll have been deported.  Families are working to identify someone who will have power of attorney, so they know their children can be cared for if they were to be deported.  Families are also stressing to their children that the reason they came to this country is so that their children can receive an excellent education, and they're concerned that their children are coming to school and staying focused on learning.  I've heard students express more determination and gratitude for their education, based on these conversations with their parents. 

What were your questions in terms of what schools could / should be doing to support families in the current climate? What were your concerns?

I knew that our school board and superintendent were unwilling to make a public statement in support of our immigrant and undocumented families, but the effect of that was that building leaders and teachers had almost no guidance about how to respond to students and families who were affected.  I needed to know what teachers and buildings could say and do, and what we could share with families or offer to students as resources.  I felt it was essential for buildings working directly with affected students and families to know the basics of the law, and whether it was appropriate to share that with families. 

What kinds of questions were you hearing from your colleagues? What kinds of pressure or stress are teachers under in this time of uncertainty?

I think almost more concerning than hearing questions from my colleagues was realizing that most teachers weren't aware of how the executive order and the political rhetoric were affecting our students.  I actually had teachers express surprise that they might have students who were undocumented in their classrooms, and who hadn't considered how our Muslim students and their families might be affected by the executive order.   What I witnessed was that teachers tended to shy away from topics or lessons that might raise these issues in the classroom, because they didn't feel equipped to navigate the emotions or opinions that may arise.  Some teachers, for example, had eliminated the "current events" portion of their curriculum, because they felt it was too fraught and were concerned that students with polarizing opinions may make the classroom feel unsafe for others.  The pressure and stress arise from trying to ensure that we're not further victimizing vulnerable students, but in avoiding all conversations about the current climate, we further isolate those students who most need to feel safe. 

How did your inquiries lead to a meeting with the superintendent?

I had reached out to every leader in my building and many in our district, from counseling staff to every administrator to the union representatives, and done a lot of research about how neighboring districts were responding.  Because my classroom is made up of primarily immigrant students, I had stories and first-hand knowledge about how our students were struggling, and I shared those stories with everyone I spoke with.  The universal response was that without a statement from the board and/or the superintendent, there really wasn't much we could do, so eventually I considered directly emailing the superintendent with my questions.  I was advised against this, but I was offered a meeting with the superintendent and my principal to address my questions.  I give my principal and superintendent a lot of credit for carving out the time and listening to my questions and concerns. 

What did you discuss and learn at the first meeting? Did anything surprise you?

I was pleased that the superintendent started the meeting by listening to my concerns, and especially to some of the student stories.  We talked about some of the reasons for the decision not to make a public statement, but also discussed the fundamental mandate we have as educators to be responsive to the students in our classrooms and their families.  It became clear that the superintendent had not realized how the lack of a district-level statement had made teachers feel limited in their ability to respond and share information.  Because I had done quite a bit of research, including participating in a webinar offered by one of the national teacher's unions, I had a lot of information at my fingertips about the legal information and resources available to families, and I was able to share that with the superintendent.

What was the result of that meeting?

The superintendent was clear, with me and with my principal, that teachers and building leaders were absolutely free to offer support and share resources with students and families; he said that he absolutely trusted the professionals in the district would always act to respond to the needs of children and families in our community, and that a lack of formal statement should not constrain us as professionals.  This was the information I needed to feel free to share more information and resources with the staff in my building, as well as with students.

Some of the information and resources I was able to share with the superintendent led him to make a phone call to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to ask for clarification about whether and how they might interact with schools.  He also requested that someone from ICE share that information with all of the district leadership. 

What have you learned during this process so far?

I was affirmed in my instinct that I had to keep talking to everyone I could in any kind of leadership position in order to try to serve my students well.  Everyone knew that I was acting out of concern for my students, so they were open to talking with me.  My persistence eventually got me both the audience, and information, I needed.  I also learned that arming myself with information before I had these conversations was really useful – I needed to feel confident in what I knew and clear about what I was asking for.  It helped to rehearse what I wanted to say to the superintendent before the meeting – so I could share the stories and information in a clear, concise way and link those stories to my requests for clarification and information. 

What would you say to teachers who want to do more for their students but don't know where to start?

Access all of the resources and information available to you online first, so you're clear about the facts that students and families might need to know.  Center your students and their needs as you engage in conversations with other teachers and district leadership.  Finally, be persistent.  You may be one important voice for students and families who may not be able to speak up for themselves. 

Do you have any suggestions for teachers who may be more isolated in their districts?

I have been heartened to find a larger community of people online– teachers and community members – who are doing this work around the country and the world.  The stories, resources, and encouragement have helped me feel like I'm part of a larger movement, instead of a lone voice. 

What suggestions do you have for working with colleagues who may not know much about these issues or agree with the new immigration enforcement policies?

This is where teachers talking to each other – in the staff workroom, over lunches, in conversations about curriculum, can really have an impact.  One conversation I had with a well-meaning teacher as we made copies one morning turned into a total awakening for her; she said it had never occurred to her that she had students who were struggling with anti-Muslim sentiment or whose families might be undocumented, but once she thought about it, she realized she needed to intentionally put some things up on her classroom walls that affirmed that all were welcome in her room, and to express to them that they could approach her for support.  These simple conversations can have big ripple effects.  As for teachers who agree with the new immigration policies – that's harder.  As long as there are other teachers in the building who are creating safe spaces and intentionally reaching out to students, they will feel that support.  Sometimes, even a teacher who agrees with the new policies does so in theory, but when they hear a story about or from an individual student they actually know, they will be supportive. 

This is an amazing example of advocacy on behalf of kids, although your district leaders are hesitant to use the term "advocacy." Why do you think it's becoming a sensitive term? Why is important for educators of ELLs to embrace their role as advocates?

Superintendents and district leadership are always sensitive to how the district is represented in the press.  "Advocacy" can become politicized or equated with more disruptive actions like non-violent walk-outs or protests, and actions like these can become hot news items.  As we talked about a more nuanced definition of "advocacy" in our meeting, the superintendent was very supportive of sharing information, offering resources, and raising awareness about the issues facing our students and families, as long as it was done locally and in direct response to student needs.  

I think it's essential for educators of ELLs to embrace their roles because it's the only way we can truly create a safe space for students to learn.  Without information, support, and teachers who are responsive to their actual needs, students won't feel safe in classrooms, or take the risks they must take to learn and grow. 

Can you talk about the importance of starting the conversation?

I think it's vital not only to start the conversation, but to keep it going until someone responds.  Just because a district hasn't taken a public stand doesn't mean it isn't quietly supportive of its students and families.  It would be hard to argue that a professional in a classroom shouldn't be responsive to a student who is in distress, so asking for help, resources and guidance in responding to a student is always appropriate.  I also started the conversation with friends, with people from my church, and with any other group who would listen – telling student stories (without names, of course).  Most people expressed both surprise and dismay when they realized that the stories they were hearing in the news were playing out in real ways in classrooms around their own community.  It feels essential, at this time where everything feels political, to humanize the conversation and stay focused on the people who need our support and understanding. 

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Share My Lesson. For teachers, by teachers.

National Education Association. How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.

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