Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, Colorín Colorado's founding partner. Formerly the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, Randi is the also the granddaughter of Russian immigrants who came to this country fleeing persecution.
In this interview, Randi talks about the importance of welcoming immigrants and supporting immigrant students in schools; discusses the need to support teachers' professional development and expertise; and advocates for common-sense policy regarding the education of ELLs.
How AFT Is Helping Immigrants
We are a nation of immigrants. When you come to the shores of New York Harbor, you see the Statue of Liberty. The statue has a poem by Emma Lazarus that says, "Give me your tired, your poor." That has become more of an exception than a rule. With the number of refugees in the world, with the number of unaccompanied minors, we should be opening our arms like this country has in much of its history.
But instead, because of what has happened to us economically, we see that kind of division as displayed a lot by certain presidential candidates, Donald Trump being one of them. So when a presidential candidate starts talking about policing Muslim neighborhoods or building a wall between Mexico and the United States, it creates a pall. It — it's a detriment. It creates security issues. It creates safety issues for children who are either refugees or, you know, first-generation immigrants or unaccompanied minors, and that's something that we need to do a lot more about.
So the AFT has been very involved in all of the civil rights, economic, and social justice issues around immigration to try to ensure that we have, you know, a comprehensive plan for immigration, to ensure that kids who are dreamers and their parents are able to go to college or to ensure that the — our parents actually, you know, are with our kids, not deported, not pulled from kids, things like that.
So there's that whole level of advocacy ensuring that we help refugees and we have a comprehensive plan for immigration and we fight against both this bigotry, as well as this notion of deportation and things like that. That's number one. Number two, when we get to schools, we have two things we have to do. First, we have to make sure that our English language learners have the professionals they need to help them through their pathway to learn English.
Since English is the language of our country, we need to create the kind of pathways that kids need and the supports that kids need. That means a whole lot more professional development, particularly for mainstream teachers. It means a whole lot more dual language schools. It means a whole lot more bilingual education, English immersion.
It means making sure that our federal policies are such that English language learners have the time to take content in their native languages before they're forced to take content in English languages, but it also means schools need to celebrate multiple languages, see them as a asset, not as a liability. That's number one. Number two, we have to do for English language learners like we have to do for all kids.
So when we fight to have high standards that are aligned with what kids need to know and be able to do in the 21st century, that's as much for ELLs as for every other child. When we fight for English — for early childhood, it's as much for English language learners as for every other child. When we fight for community schools, it's for English language learners and their families as much as it is for every other child.
So I would say we have to do all three of these things, fight for comprehensive immigration and fight against the kind of biases against immigrants, and particularly against refugees and unaccompanied minors. We have to make sure that we have the supports that English language learners need, particularly in terms of professional development for teachers, lower class sizes, the other kinds of supports, particularly in the mainstream, and three, we have to make sure that we have the kind of resources and strategies, like early childhood, like high standards, like community schools that we need for all kids.
Educating English Language Learners
Spanish-speaking ELLs are the fastest growing demographic in U.S. education. Soon we will become a country that is more diverse than not, and if we don't actually focus on how we make English language learners an asset, we're not going to do very well in this country.
Our country is becoming culturally and linguistically diverse, and it's really, really important to ensure that we actually help prepare our English language learners in the way that I was prepared when I went to public school and public high school.
One of the things that's most important is that we have to make sure that kids feel safe, secure, and that they have the teachers they need, the supports they need to have access to the American dream.
So frankly, we need to do the same for ELLs as we do for every other child, and ultimately that means having the supports in place so that an English language learner can not just learn English but the other content that she needs as thoroughly and as deeply as someone who starts as a native English learner.
Teachers Making a Difference
We are first and foremost people who live within our communities. First and foremost, we are about making a difference in the lives of children, families, and communities. We've become educators because we want to make a difference in the lives of folks.
And at the end of the day, particularly someone whose grandparents left Russia because of repression, because of anti-Semitism, we have an obligation after we climb a ladder of economic and educational opportunity not to pull that ladder up from us.
We need to plant it to ensure that generations after us are able to climb that ladder, and you can just imagine, as we saw in Alabama, where teachers were, several years ago, asked to snitch on kids who were immigrants instead of being the safe keepers — they were asked to snitch on them. How dare any state or federal government do that to a teacher whose job it is to help create a safe environment for kids?
So at the end of the day, it feels, to us, synonymous, that if you believe in education, if you believe in helping children get to their rightful place in society, you have to fight for civil rights and justice as much as you fight for any particular economic or educational strategy.
We should celebrate that we are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation that is culturally and linguistically diverse. That's an asset, not a liability, and in so many schools throughout the country, there are hundreds of languages spoken — not just two or three languages spoken, but hundreds of languages spoken.
And part of our challenge in public education is to take and embrace all children where they start, and then help them become the dreamers and the doers of the next generation. So I think it's more about how we tell the story of who's in our schools and how we celebrate it.
And often, unfortunately, we tell it through the lens of poverty or deprivation. You know, half the kids in the United States public schools these days are poor, but instead of talking about that through a deprivation lens, we need to talk about that through an opportunity lens and through a sense of what do we do to help all kids succeed?
Throughout America, there is still a sense that public schooling is really important as an enabler, as an opportunity agent, as an opportunity equalizer. What we need to teach people is that all children are not identical, and that we need to actually have the supports that each child needs so — to achieve his or her dreams.
International High Schools in New York City
One of the things that we did when I was the president of the teacher's union in New York City is that we expanded the international high schools, which were high schools that were used, that were created, that were envisioned for kids for whom English was not only not their first language, but who really struggled with English.
And kids from lots of different countries, speaking lots of different languages would come to these schools and where we would really spend a lot of time helping to not just immerse them in English, but also teach, you know, project-based instruction and really engage them in a different kind of way.
And you — you know, it was terrific to watch how year after year after year, as these schools grew, that we would see kids graduate from high school. Sometimes it took them five or six years, but they would graduate from high school, go on to college, and really go through that transition of struggling with English to being not just proficient in English but seizing their own opportunities.
So how do you create a kind of environment like that, a collaborative, welcoming environment? How do you build the capacity of your teaching force? How do you engage kids, and how do you address student well-being? And what the international high schools did was all of the above. They developed the capacity of their teaching force. They spent a lot of time in terms of professional development, meeting teachers where they were, and how to give them the supports that they needed.
They spent a lot of time engaging kids through project-based instruction and other kinds of rigorous curriculum that kids really enjoyed, that created a joy for kids. They spent some time addressing kids’ well-being. They did all of those things. That's the lesson for schools across America.
What Teachers Need
What any teacher needs is to be able to say, "I need X," and X is provided. They need to feel the safety and confidence that when they've asked for support, support will be there.
And so what we — so when we start talking about professional development, it has to be genuine. It has to be school-based. It has to give the teacher the time to actually use the tools that the teacher's asking for. Tools, trust, and time.
If you talk to teachers across the country in the mainstream, whether it is how they approach kids whose language is not native English or whether they are an elementary school teacher confronted with the Common Core, you're going to hear the same things.
If there's something that I haven't learned or that I'm not comfortable with, I need both the research and the practice and some mentoring and some peer work to really have a — to get my arms around it, and then to practice, practice, practice. People want to do different things. They want to ensure that they can make a difference in the lives of all kids, but we are very bad in America, unlike in Finland and other countries, to give people the time and the tools that they need to do the job that they want to do.
We still believe in the approach that we just throw people the keys and just let them sink or swim, and it just doesn't work in terms of education. We don't do it in other professions, but we do it in education.
AFT’s Collaboration with Colorín Colorado
One of the tools that we worked on many, many years ago with WETA was Colorín Colorado, was envisioning an online foundation, a website that could actually help in places where people may not have had help before, and it — and this partnership that started, you know, more than a decade ago has not just blossomed.
It started with conversations. It became a website, and now has 5,000 resources on it, 2 million people using it in a very interactive way, a way that actually celebrates English language learners, a way that celebrates teachers who teach English language learners, a way that people can share their craft, and it's just a joy to watch how the partnership has blossomed to — in the way it has.
A community school is a school that, first and foremost, is a welcoming, safe environment for children, that wraps services beyond instruction, that addresses a child's well-being and the well-being of family, and hopefully is a neighborhood school that becomes the center of the community.
There are different community schools throughout the country, but more and more and more we're starting to see schools throughout the country start developing these kind of wraparound services and align services that would have traditionally been done through a county or through a city to a school directly, like health clinics, dental clinics, English immersion programs for parents, community college programs for parents, social services for parents and for kids, early childhood education, tutoring programs, after school programs, and the like.
Community schools are great for English language learners because what community schools can do is address the other social-emotional instructional needs of English language learners. They can help create the supports for English language learners, whether it's after-school instruction or tutorials or programs for parents or some programs for recent immigrants or some program for recent refugees, it can do all of these things if the services are available.
A Nation of Immigrants
So we are a nation of immigrants, and at the end of the day, we have to make sure that kids feel that they belong here and that America is their home; and school is the first place where we do that. It's not the last place, but it's the first place we do that. And part of doing that is making sure that kids see themselves and their cultures and the diversity as something that we celebrate.
And one of the ways of doing that is to ensure that our English language learners, who will become more and more and more a majority of our students throughout our public schools in America because we are a nation of immigrants, feel welcome, feel embraced, and feel like their native tongue is something that should be celebrated. Something that is important.
Cultural and linguistic diversity is an asset in this country. Yes, of course we need to find the pathways in America's public schools to ensure that we are teaching all ELLs English and to give them the supports and resources they need so that they can climb that ladder of opportunity. But we also need to do something even more profound, which is to celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity in this country.
The Importance of Teachers
Teaching is really, really, really important. It's not the only thing that's important in terms of children, but it's really important. It — a teacher connects with kids, builds relationships. The teacher's expertise can be profound. The teacher's influence on a child can be profound. It's one of the things that teachers love about teaching, and it's one of the things that children love about their teachers — that connection and that relationship, as well as that knowledge.
So good teaching is really, really important. We have a shortage of bilingual and ESL teachers, just like we have a shortage of science teachers, and we have a shortage of math teachers, and we have — and so we have a real shortage, and we need to address that shortage, not pretend it doesn't exist.
And so that requires doing what we need to do to make teaching as a profession more attractive. How are we going to recruit, retain, support great bilingual and ESL teachers? We have to pay them more. We have to make sure that they're mentored. We have to make sure that they are — that there's a real induction process. We have to give them the tools and conditions for success.
And we have to treat their expertise as a valuable commodity. Teachers who are bilingual and ESL teachers, they know what they're talking about. We see this with our ELL cadre of teachers that we've had for a decade or so. They care about teaching ELL children, but they also have a real expertise about the practices, the research, the strategies that are important.
If you could be a fly on a wall listening to ELL teachers speak, you could learn so much. Listening to teachers are — is a really, really important thing. Acting on what they say is even more important.
Challenges for ELL Children
You know, there's such a vulnerability for ELL kids coming in a lot of different ways — one, as a language barrier that creates division and sometimes real tension if you don't know the language that other people around you know. It creates an opportunity for bullying, which is horrible.
There's a vulnerability in terms of family barrier when a child or a family is — has a native language that's not English, and the family can't get the supports or can't communicate in English; and that creates all sorts of different struggles and difficulties.
And many schools don't have things even written in many different languages, so that communication becomes an obstacle for a family; and that creates a second vulnerability. And then there's a third vulnerability in terms of someone's a recent immigrant or if someone is an unaccompanied minor or someone is a recent refugee, and every bit of that insecurity gets relived every day, where you don't know whether your parents are going to be deported or you're reliving what happened in terms of getting to America safety.
So you have that whole set of barriers and vulnerabilities, and I think that schools should be places where we understand that deeply and embrace those vulnerabilities and make the school even more of a safe place and a safe haven, as opposed to exacerbating those difficulties.
Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. Prior to her election as AFT president in 2008, Weingarten served for 12 years as president of the United Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2, representing approximately 200,000 educators in the New York City public school system, as well as home child care providers and other workers in health, law and education. In 2013, the New York Observer named Weingarten one of the most influential New Yorkers of the past 25 years. Washington Life magazine included Weingarten on its 2013 Power 100 list of influential leaders.
Weingarten’s column “What Matters Most” appears in the New York Times’ Sunday Review the third Sunday of each month. You can follow her on Twitter at @rweingarten or on Facebook.