Lily Eskelsen García
Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association, a major partner of Colorín Colorado. The first Latina to lead the NEA, Lily began her career in education as a school lunch lady. In this interview, Lily recalls her mother's reluctance to teach her daughter Spanish based on the discrimination she faced, talks about the ways in which teachers are embracing and supporting their English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students, and highlights NEA's work on behalf of ELLs.
Recovering a Lost Language
I am a very proud Army brat. So my dad was a soldier on the Canal Zone when my parents got married. That's how they got married and, you know, moved to the states. My mom was the Army bride. And so we lived on — we lived on Army posts all over the country. Every two years, you'd move, and so we come from a military family culture, which is a culture in and of itself, and a very diverse culture.
My mother is from Panama and born and raised there. My grandfather is from Nicaragua. His mother's from Chile, so we have all of this Central and South American roots in my family. And when my mother moved to the United States, she made a decision that I didn't know about until I was an adult and I was teaching. And I said, “Ma, look at all the students that are coming to my classroom who are Spanish speakers. Why didn’t you teach me Spanish when my brain worked?”
And I looked over and she was crying. She had tears in her eyes, and she said, "You don't understand. When I moved here, I thought it would hurt you to speak Spanish. People here didn't like listening to someone speaking Spanish; so I stopped speaking Spanish, and I decided I wouldn't teach my children. And now I know it was a mistake and that I've taken part of your culture away from you." And then she started relentlessly nagging us to take Spanish lessons.
So with my mom, she went, "And I made a mistake, and you can fix that, and you can be bilingual.” Y ahora, yo puedo hablar bastante bien para engañar a los que no hablen. I can speak well enough to fool people, if they don't actually speak Spanish. But I am a Spanish language learner and very proud of it.
Welcoming Spanish-Speaking Parents
When I first started teaching in 1980, I decided that I would bring cultural diversity into my classroom, which was not particularly culturally diverse. But as the years went on, more and more of our kids would come in speaking Spanish or having parents who were very, very shy about coming to parent-teacher conference, where they weren't sure that the teacher was going to understand them or that they were going to understand the teacher.
And so little by little, I took my mom's advice, started studying Spanish myself, and the little that I could speak, the parents would be so appreciative. And they would help me. They would become my teachers. You invite them, “Please correct me when I say it incorrectly.” And they could see that someone appreciated them, that someone valued who they were and that wanted to celebrate their culture. It makes all the difference in the world.
Being culturally competent is something that every teacher aspires to because we know that we're going to be serving those kids that come into our classroom, and we want to see each and every one of them as that gem that they are.
As I travel the country now and I talk to my NEA members — these are teachers, support staff, school-building principals all over the country saying, “We're seeing a greater diversity, especially in languages, amongst our students, more and more Latino families moving, and, and we want ideas about how to serve them.”
I've been impressed that people are not seeing Spanish-speaking students as a deficit that somehow needs to be repaired. They see it as something to build on. They're saying look at this incredible gift. These kids already have a native language that's rich and wonderful, and we want to nurture that and we want to add English to it.
We would love to have truly bi-literate students. We think that is how the rest of their lives are going to be even more successful. And there's an excitement. There's an excitement in those educators looking for the best ways to build that welcoming school, to say, “Okay, how do I involve los abuelos? How do I get the grandparents to come? How do I get the little kids involved? How do I make fiesta night instead of some bureaucratic back-to-school night? How do you make everything sing, the poetry, the dance, the culture, the language?”
And it's coming to life, and it's deliberate, it's planned, and the best professionals I know are excited to make it happen.
Success in Two Languages
For a lot of educators, especially in my generation that started teaching in the '80s and '90s, it was nothing in our teacher preparation that prepared us for the language diversity that practically every school enjoys right now. We want to do the best for our students possible, and for us, it means building on language.
You do not have to erase someone's native language to teach them English. We want them successful in two languages. We want every child, including kids who are not from immigrant families, every student should have the benefit of at least two languages.
And so the growing population of immigrant students simply helped us make this point and make it very powerfully, that if what we wanted with our Spanish-language or our second-language students was to give them two languages, why not all students? Why not benefit all students with that? And it's an argument that's easy to make.
What we know the global community is building is a bilingual, trilingual, or more, educated work force. The more languages you know, the more employable you are, but the better a global citizen you are, as well.
You have an appreciation for diversity. It's something that you're excited about, you want to know more about, you want to participate in. It's not an us and them. It's all of us. It's the whole world.
Teachers Are Ready to Learn How to Teach ELLs
I have seen some of the hardest working, most compassionate, creative educators who just do a “deer in the headlights” when, within a very short time period, they go from one or two English language learner students in their school, and all of a sudden, there's a hefty population. If they're in my generation, many of them were never trained in the special way that you want to help English language learners succeed and feel confident that they can succeed.
They are absolutely desperate for training. They want very badly to make sure that these kids get what they need, and they're not always sure they have the training that will do that. So they're going, "Put me in, coach. Give me what I need. If it's online, I'll go online. If it's on TV, I'll watch it on TV. If it's a training I can go to after school — whatever it is.”
So NEA has been working like crazy to do what we can do. We have online courses in cultural competency for our members. We have convenings on school district levels where you can just get in your car and drive there. And we have national conferences to talk about how we do roll out something that can be institutionalized because now we know. Now we know that this growing, rich, diverse population is here to stay, and they can be the brightest future this country has ever seen.
We are building a bilingual population that will be as globally competitive, not just on an economic level, but globally aware and appreciative of different cultures. And they're going to be products of public schools. If we do this right, this is a new level of success for an American public school.
Professional Development — My Life's Blood
For an educator, or I can speak personally, for me as a sixth-grade teacher, professional development is my life's blood. Every teacher believes in education, including our own education. And although I didn't receive the kind of training I needed to be the most effective teacher of English language learners, that was not something back in the '80s that was on the radar.
And now it's — it — there's a rich diversity in every community, and so we work very hard to make sure pre-service or post-graduation, that every teacher, support staff, even principals have what they need in professional development.
It's what the National Education Association has fought for probably as long as we've been around — and that's 150 years — to make sure that all teachers can learn as well. We are here ready, willing, and able, and we're working very hard to get the training and the funding for the training that we need to serve our students.
Building a Culturally-Competent School
We have a school in Milwaukee that's run by the teachers, the support staff, the parents, and the advocacy groups in the community, called ALBA. It stands for Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes, so the Academy of Language and Fine Arts. And this is a group of very talented educators that came to the school district with an idea.
Two of the three teachers that started it were English language learners as little children, as students themselves. And they said when we see our, our colleagues, when we see how a lot of schools are handling the greater language diversity, many of them are taking it from a deficit model. They're saying, “Oh, look at these pobrecitos. Look at these little kids. We have to help them and fix them,” as if they had a disability.
This is a gift. A second language is a gift, and these teachers came together and said, “We're going to build a school with support staff, with educators, with parents, and with the community, all around culture, music, poetry, dance, plays, theater, puppet theater.”
Whatever it is, whether they're learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, there's some way they can build culture and language into this. The families feel so respected. They feel so honored, and we've been using the ALBA school model as an example all over the country that you can do in any public school.
How Educators Are Advocating for Immigrant Students
I have a very special place in my heart for our dreamers. These are our undocumented students who were brought here as children. Some of them are young adults now, and in the whole immigration debate, when we know the names of those students, it takes on something very real.
I can get very emotional over this very quickly. But what we have insisted as an organization, as the National Education Association, representing 3 million hardworking professionals who work in America's public schools, colleges, and universities, we've said immigration reform, as complicated as that will be, for us to support it, we need three things: you cannot punish children, you cannot separate families, and you have to have a reasonable path to citizenship. You can't institutionalize a permanent underclass that will never actually belong here. So you have to make people aspire to being great Americans. That means a lot to us.
There's another category of student, and those are the students who are asking not just for immigration papers. They are fleeing violence. They are fleeing for their lives, and they are asking for refugee status, which is a whole different set of issues and set of bureaucracies that they have to go through.
I think what we're seeing with our educators and the advocates that raise their hand and say, you know, "I'll help NEA. I'll help my union. I want you to fight for my students." And they come into this building. They call me. They e-mail.
And the stories they have of their students that they adore, they are heartbreaking stories. And for our members, they want their association, they want the NEA to be on the front lines of protecting all children, especially our most vulnerable, whether they're fleeing violence in Honduras or whether they came with Mom and Dad to the United States hoping for a better life, hoping to be able to aspire to go to college. So whatever it is for our kids, those kids are the center of our universe.
When you hear the stories that our members, these educators — some of them are teaching assistants. They're bilingual aides. Some of them are third-grade teachers and chemistry teachers. The face that they put on their students — it doesn't matter what culture, race, color, creed the educator is — these students are theirs.
These are their kids, and the passion and compassion that they have for these kids is what opens the doors of the National Education Association every morning. And we're going to fight for the kids who sometimes can't fight for themselves. If we've got the power in our hands to organize and do something for them, then we're going to do it.
The False Economy of Excluding Immigrant Children
For a teacher like me, you don't see a child's immigration status. It's irrelevant. I know for a whole lot of people, it's the first thing they want to see. They would deny that immigrant child an education. But we know that it's a false economy when you say, "But look at what it costs to educate this child whose parents came here without the proper piece of paper."
We look, and we say, “What's the cost of not educating that child?” We look at the kinds of incredible minds — the writers, the scientists, the advocates, the future lawyers.
When you educate a child regardless of whether or not they have the right piece of paper in their back pocket, you have strengthened the Unites States of America. Any time you deny a child a good education, you have weakened the United States of America.
Any time you give a child that great public school, you've strengthened all of us. That is a young person who will grow up to be that whole, happy adult ready to take his or her place in society and ready to love this country for the gift of education.
Education as a Civil Right
For an educator, the greatest civil right is the right to an education. And we know we're not alone because for people who wanted to keep certain people down, they used education. They denied them an education. So let's hold women down, and we won't let women go to college. Look at the segregated schools in the south. Whenever you wanted to keep people in a certain underclass, you denied them an education.
So for us, making sure that every single blessed human being has the right to go to that great public school, that's what keeps us going. When you look at what's happening in schools today, which students in which ZIP codes get everything they need, but then we see kids in a different ZIP code, who don't have a theater department, who — they disbanded the band, who don't have recess. They have test prep. And we know that these are children in the most challenged communities, and a lot of those communities are immigrant communities.
And so what we fight for is we're fighting for that entire community. The future of that community will be based on the education of those little guys, of those kids. A lot of those kids are going to stay in that community, and if we've educated them well, they will build it. And if we haven't, then we have done a disservice to the entire country.
Building a Bridge Between School and Home
One of the things that we've seen is in the institution of public education, there's certain things that are taken for granted that shouldn't be taken for granted. For instance, that Mom and Dad can come to back-to-school night at three o’clock in the afternoon, or can come to a parent-teacher conference; that a child that's absent without an excuse should be in school. “What's wrong with parents who are keeping their kids home?”
And when you find out that at times, a family doesn't have daycare, when you find out that a grandparent has passed away and they have to go a long way to a funeral, and there's no question but that the family is going to sacrifice and be there for some kind of family tragedy or happy event, you need to understand how that family works, what their hours of operation are.
We can't take it for granted that there's two parents, that one can be at school on a moment's notice. There are some times where a single mom is going to lose her job if she just drops everything and runs to school. So we have to know about the whole lives of these families. And more and more, teachers are finding that when they know more about how the family and the community works, they can accommodate that.
They can make a respectful bridge between home and school. They just have to be a very deliberate, very purposeful, and very knowledgeable about what that family is like.
Visiting Parents at Home
NEA, through our foundation, funded several projects a few years ago. One in Seattle was a project that would take a look at what happens when teams of teachers actually visit the home, as opposed to the other way around. And a lot of times if a teacher's knocking on your door, you might think your kid's in trouble.
This time, parents are aware these visits are going to happen around the parents' schedule, so if that's in the evening or early in the morning. They happen throughout the summer, and a team of teachers sitting down with Mom and Dad. If there is a second language in the home or if Spanish or Korean or whatever the primary language is, they bring someone along who can make that connection. And the entire conversation is, "What are your dreams for your child this year? What is it that you'd like to see? How can we help make that happen?"
Overwhelmingly, the parents and the teachers that went through this project came back saying it was life-changing for those educators, first of all to see the families, to see how the kids, all the kids in the living room, with the teacher there, smiling for a good thing, and the parents actually talking about their dreams for their kids.
Those teachers walked away going, "How am I not going to help make that dream come true?" Their hair was on fire. They couldn't wait to get started. It makes a huge difference when you can connect home and school.
NEA’s Partnership with Colorín Colorado
One of our best partnerships that we could ever invest in is our partnership with Colorín Colorado. This program that connects families, students, educators, everybody coming together saying how do we make learning fun? How do we give each other this kind of support and these ideas? It works. It's a simple program that does this profound outreach and touches so many lives. So this is a partnership that NEA values.
Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association, which represents 3 million educators. She is the first Latina to lead the NEA. Prior to assuming the top post at the NEA, Lily served two terms as NEA Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer. Lily began her career in education as a school lunch lady, and later as a teacher, she was named Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989 after nine years in the classroom. She also worked with homeless children and gifted children, as a mentor for student teachers, and as a peer assistance team leader at Orchard Elementary School in the suburbs of Salt Lake City.
She has been featured by a number of news outlets and she blogs at "Lily’s Blackboard," bringing a teacher’s voice to topical education issues.