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Bi-directional Learning Through Relationship Building.

Teacher Preparation for Working With Families New to the United States

Now, more than ever, immigrants are arriving in the United States from many different countries (Clabaugh, 2000). In California, one in five residents are immigrants; one third of New York City's population has emigrated from outside the United States (Perkins, 2000). Given the diversity and numbers of immigrant families, prospective teachers need preparation to understand those practices, belief systems, and life experiences that may run counter to what teacher candidates traditionally have been taught about children and families (Bhavnagri & Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). To help partnerships with immigrant parents succeed, prospective teachers need cross-cultural skills (Simich-Dudgeon, 1993). This article describes one teacher education program's effort to help early childhood students learn about working with families who are new to the United States.

Immigrant Families and Teacher Preparation

Immigrants arrive in the United States for a variety of reasons. Many come to improve their economic situation, while others are political and/or religious refugees. Families immigrate to gain more freedom, more material goods, more knowledge, and better living conditions (Trueba, Cheng, & Ima, 1993). As a result, many immigrant family members have multiple obligations and long working hours. Adults also may need to devote time to their own schooling. Teacher preparation programs should help future teachers understand these aspects of many immigrant families' situations, and have realistic expectations.

Immigrant families experience a cultural transition that may include adjusting to new perceptions of children and schools. Inherent in this transition is a process of accepting some new values, adhering to some long-held ones, and modifying others (Bhavnagri & Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). School personnel, with their own ideas about children and schooling, can facilitate immigrant parents' entry into the school culture, or exacerbate their problems. Because images of schooling and children are socially constructed, parents who have grown up in a culture outside of the United States may find that their views of schools and children differ significantly from those of a teacher (Clabaugh, 2000; Valdes, 1996). For example, schools may ask parents to participate in their children's schooling in ways that seem incongruous to recent immigrants (Trueba et al., 1993; Valdes, 1996). Therefore, teacher preparation programs should help future teachers examine their images of children and schooling, and become aware of and respect images that differ from their own.

To establish and maintain communication with families who have immigrated to the United States, teachers can learn to combine information, assistance, and English language instruction--if the family comes from a country where English is not spoken--with a respect for the family's home language and culture (Perkins, 2000). This requires teachers to recognize the family's rich cultural context and to validate its strengths, while acknowledging differences. Teachers have to recognize, for example, that some families lack formal education (Holman, 1997), and help parents find ways to use their strengths to become part of their children's formal schooling. From the beginning, in their teacher preparation programs, teachers can learn to simultaneously assist and learn from immigrant families.

A general appreciation of cultural diversity, however, is not enough. Teachers and future teachers who do not know a family's experiences prior to arrival in a new country cannot guess how those experiences affect the child's and parents' reactions to school (Perkins, 2000). Teachers can educate themselves and lessen "the intimidation factor" (Holman, 1997, p. 37) by extending themselves to form personal, warm, and non-judgmental relationships with immigrant parents. Teachers can listen carefully for what is important to the parents; recognizing, for example, that economic survival is often a family's primary, immediate concern, or that there may be a culture clash between a family's values and those of mainstream society (Perkins, 2000). Teachers listening to parents as parents listen to teachers is one example of the bi-directional process to which Bhavnagri and Gonzalez-Mena (1997) refer, in which the immigrant family affects the ideas of the teachers just as the teachers affect the families' ideas.

Teacher preparation programs can help future teachers develop relationship-building skills. Unfortunately, they often are unsuccessful in preparing students to work with families (Brown & Brown, 1992; Foster & Loven, 1992). One successful strategy has been clinical experiences (Bermudez & Padron, 1987; Greenwood & Hickmann, 1991; Patton, Silva, & Myers, 1999). What follows is a description and discussion of a program one community college used to provide prospective teachers with a clinical experience with immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Egypt, and the former Soviet Union. In this program, students began to:

* Communicate with immigrant families and share perspectives

* Replace stereotypes of immigrant families with an understanding of individuals' experiences

* Question the "imbalance of power in favor of the professionals" (Vincent & Warren, 1999, p. 10) that can exist between immigrant families and schools.

The program, based on social constructivist principles, resulted in bi-directionality on two levels. First, the early childhood majors learned from immigrant students at the same time that the immigrant students learned from them. Second, the faculty adviser to the early childhood majors gained insights from the early childhood majors as they pooled their resources, learning from her and from one another. Some of those insights are shared here.

The Program

Early childhood majors at a community college convened weekly groups for fellow students who were immigrants. In these groups, the early childhood majors shared children's books, which served several functions. Books such as

The Snowman (Briggs, 1989) stimulated conversation about the immigrants' experiences before and after arriving in the United States. Others, such as Who Is the Beast? (Baker, 1991), provoked discussions about values and beliefs. The Little Red Hen (Galdone, 1985), for example, prompted an early childhood major to write:

We also discussed the meaning of the story.... actually, her meaning and interpretation. We spoke about family traditions--when mommy stayed home and did all of the hard work--and her role as a mommy and concerns of teaching her son to do chores around the house and participate and cooperate at home as well as in school. We also discussed family in today's society. For instance, how parents are too permissive with their children, and also because of this permissiveness we end up with children [who] want things done for them, not cooperative, and not wanting to participate at home. Because of this book, The Little Red Hen, a lot of issues were discussed.

As the early childhood students and the immigrant students read aloud to each other, they talked about language and pronunciation and other issues related to the experience of being immigrants who speak a language other than the majority one. After the immigrant students took the books home and read them aloud to children, they reported to their groups about that experience and about raising children in a new country. Meanwhile, the early childhood majors, most of whom were born in the United States, learned about working with adults who were new to the country.

Once a week, the early childhood majors met with a faculty adviser, and discussed what they were learning. Field notes kept during these sessions and the early childhood majors' reflective writing samples provided data sources that could be triangulated to understand this teacher preparation effort better. The discussion below draws examples from these sources.

Communicating and Sharing Perspectives

Through their talks over children's books, the early childhood majors and immigrant students listened to each other and shared parts of their lives. As they shared experiences and feelings, the immigrant students provided the early childhood majors with perspectives to which they otherwise had no access. One early childhood major, for example, reported, "I've found out information on how it feels to work in a supermarket and [not have] English [be] your first language."

One early childhood major wrote about an immigrant mother's experience reading Tell Me a Story, Mama (Johnson, 1992) to her son. Typical of many immigrant family members' busy lives, this mother was a student and a worker, as well. Her son wished she could spend more time with him, and she felt the same. After listening to the immigrant student, the early childhood major wrote:

Isabel's son took this opportunity to tell his mom that she does not spend a lot of time with him. He also told her that the mother in the story was a better mom than she because the mom in the story seemed to spend more time with her daughter. As you can see, Isabel's son was always linking the stories to his life and his mom. I also remembered that Isabel was afraid to read this story to him because she knew he was going to bring it up. She felt bad for not spending enough time with him.

The issue that arose here--an immigrant who is juggling many roles and has too little time--is one that early childhood teachers will often encounter. The communication that developed with Isabel enabled this early childhood major to understand and support her, instead of jumping to conclusions about Isabel's use of her time. In fact, this early childhood major wrote often about listening to Isabel and providing an outlet for her to express her feelings.

Using the books as conversation starters gave the immigrant students a chance to share some of their experiences, and gain the respect and admiration of the early childhood majors. One student, after using Bread, Bread, Bread (Morris, 1993) with his group, wrote:

Since she had traveled to more than one place the book spoke of, she really enjoyed it and found it to be very interesting. And [she] felt that her daughter would also be very enthusiastic about reading the book because she, the student, said she had always told her daughter about these places that she had been and she had pictures, "Oh, what beautiful pictures," to show her of the places she had been.

Dispelling Stereotypes

Through their work with immigrant students and through group reflection, the early childhood students in this program began to uncover and dispel some of the stereotypes they held about immigrants. In some cases, an immigrant student was able to correct misconceptions an early childhood major held about the immigrant's country of origin. In other cases, they told of the discrimination they endured upon arrival to their new country, revealing some similarities between their experiences and those of native-born early childhood majors of color.

At the beginning of the semester, one student questioned how he could work with immigrants who spoke languages other than English. As he asked his faculty adviser and his peers more and more questions, his anxiety was obvious. He worried that there might be no common language in the group and that members would refuse to participate. His questions persisted until he met with his group. Later in the semester, he argued against correcting students' pronunciation by telling a peer that an immigrant's accent is a reflection of his or her culture and part of freedom of expression. By the end of the semester, he told another student in an interview that he had "learned that regardless of any language barrier that may exist between two people ... they will find some way to communicate."

Another student, who ended up working with only one immigrant student, wrote in a final reflective journal, "Thinking back, I realized that the sessions [with other early childhood majors] helped me deal with the negative expectations that I may have had back then. I was able to get along with my student, understand her, and get my ideas across smoothly."

Questioning the "Imbalance of Power"

The early childhood majors consistently said they joined the project because they wanted to help immigrant families. As the project progressed, however, and they began to replace stereotypes of immigrants with truer images based on relationships, the early childhood majors' views of their role as the teacher changed, too. They began to regard themselves less as experts who could dispense advice to the immigrant students in their groups and more as members of a team, all of them working on behalf of children. At the end of the semester, one student wrote:

[The project] also met my expectations because I've learned what I expected from my students (they have taught me to read slower and made me feel more comfortable reading aloud). It was different than what I expected because I felt part of the time that I was not just the leader, but more of a puzzle piece making it complete. Well, the reason I was successful in the leadership role is because the students made me feel comfortable.... I've learned so many things that I'll never forget.

Through the experience of getting to know people from different backgrounds, the early childhood majors learned about working as equals with immigrant parents. They achieved these understandings in part through their direct work with the students, but that was not enough. The early childhood major who conducted Isabel's group wrote:

The experience with Isabel was wonderful and I would not change a thing. In the process of listening to her problems and discussing the reading strategies I was able to focus on myself as a professional and [on] my limits as a professional. I also learned that as ... professional[s], we must talk about our work so that we may obtain different ideas and gain a lot of information and know some resources.

In addition to their discussions with the immigrant students about children's books and children's reactions to them, the early childhood majors needed to talk with each other and their faculty adviser. It was in these weekly sessions that they raised questions, argued, disagreed, and came to new conclusions themselves.

Implications for Other Teacher Preparation Programs

In this particular program, early childhood majors read children's books with (and lent children's books to) immigrant students from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Egypt, and the former Soviet Union. The lessons the program offers are applicable to other teacher preparation programs, even if they use different means to teach prospective teachers about working with immigrant families.

Children's books are one effective vehicle for generating conversations that can lead prospective teachers to understand different practices, belief systems, and life experiences--especially those that may run counter to what teacher candidates traditionally have been taught about children and families (Bhavnagri & Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). What was important to this program--and will be to others--is the opportunity for future teachers to generate conversations about such issues and then analyze them with each other, so that they can develop the cross-cultural skills that make for successful partnerships with immigrant parents (Simich-Dudgeon, 1993). Early childhood majors in this program, in talking to each other about their groups, learned that they could not generalize about the immigrant experience, given the great variety of backgrounds and experiences of the students in their groups (Clabaugh, 2000).

In this program, early childhood majors came to understand some of the pressures on immigrant families, as well as something about their cultural transitions: accepting some new values, adhering to some long-held ones, and modifying others (Bhavnagri & Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). This process occurred as they interacted authentically with immigrant students. Two-way relationships, such as those formed in this program, can be developed in a variety of ways in teacher education programs. The essence is bi-directionality, a learning from and about each other that results from relationships that are sincerely warm and nonjudgmental (Holman, 1997). Then, when perceptions and expectations of children and schooling differ (Clabaugh, 2000; Valdes, 1996), communication can lead to mutual understanding, if not agreement.

With the opportunity to develop real relationships with immigrants, students in teacher preparation programs can learn to question an imbalance of power between teachers and families that places teachers in the position of experts. They can, instead (as the early childhood majors in this program did), try to offer assistance and information while developing their understanding of immigrant families' situations and respect for their strengths (Perkins, 2000).

Since many teacher preparation programs are unsuccessful in readying their students to work with families (Brown & Brown, 1992; Foster & Loven, 1992), a program such as the one described here has implications worth noting. It involves a clinical experience: a strategy that has been effective elsewhere in helping prospective teachers learn about families (Bermudez & Padron, 1987; Greenwood & Hickmann, 1991; Patton, Silva, & Myers, 1999). It specifically addresses immigrant families by creating two forums, one in which early childhood majors developed relationships with immigrants where they could communicate and share perspectives. The second forum allowed them to think together about those relationships. According to the early childhood majors, talking with each other and a faculty adviser helped them to replace stereotypes of immigrant families with an understanding of individuals: In the reflective writing they did in conjunction with their discussions, the preservice students began to question the "imbalance of power in favor of the professionals" (Vincent & Warren, 1999, p. 10) that can exist between immigrant families and schools.

Clearly, the relationships that formed between the early childhood majors and the immigrant students were at the core of this program's success. The early childhood majors' bi-directional relationships with immigrant students were nested in the context of their bi-directional interactions with each other and their faculty adviser. As a result, the early childhood majors learned about immigrant families. They also learned about themselves as future teachers.


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Bermudez, A. B., & Padron, Y. N. (1987). Integrating parental education into teacher training programs: A workable model for minority parents. Journal of Educational Equity and Leadership, 7(3), 235-244.

Bhavnagri, N. P., & Gonzalez-Mena, J. (1997). The cultural context of infant caregiving. Childhood Education, 74, 2-8.

Briggs, R. (1989). The snowman. New York: Random House.

Brown, L. J., & Brown, J. R. (1992, April). Assessment of preservice elementary teacher education practices in parent-teacher conferencing. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Childhood Education International, Chicago, IL.

Clabaugh, G. K. (2000). Teaching the new immigrants: How "multicultural" an educator are you prepared to be? Educational Horizons, 78(2), 55-57.

Foster, J. E., & Loven, R. G. (1992). The need and directions for parent involvement in the 90's: Undergraduate perspectives and expectations. Action in Teacher Education, 14(3), 13-18.

Galdone, P. (1985). The little red hen. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Greenwood, G. E., & Hickmann, C. E. (1991). Research and practice in parent involvement: Implications for teacher education. The Elementary School Journal, 91(3), 279-288.

Holman, L. J. (1997). Meeting the needs of Hispanic immigrants. Educational Leadership, 54(7), 37-38.

Johnson, A. (1992). Tell me a story, Mama. New York: Orchard Books.

Morris, A. (1993). Bread, bread, bread. New York: Mulberry Books.

Patton, M. M., Silva, C., & Myers, S. (1999). Teachers and family literacy: Bridging theory to practice. Journal of Teacher Education, 50(20), 140-146.

Perkins, L. M. (2000). The new immigrants and education: Challenges and issues. Educational Horizons, 78(2), 67-71.

Simich-Dudgeon, C. (1993). Increasing student achievement through teacher knowledge about parent involvement. In N. F. Chavkin (Ed.), Families and schools in a pluralistic society (pp. 189-203). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Trueba, H. T., Cheng, L., & Ima, K. (1993). Myth or reality: Adaptive strategies of Asian Americans in California. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.

Valdes, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distance between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. New York: Teachers College Press.

Vincent, C., & Warren, S. (1999, April). Responding to diversity? Refugee families and schools. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada.

Author's Note: The project described in this article was made possible by funding from the Bowne Foundation and the Astor Foundation, and by a gift of books from Barnes and Noble. Many people were important to the success of the project, particularly the students who participated in it over the five years of its duration, as well as faculty members Elizabeth Upton, Althea Hall, and Lillian Oxtoby, who helped to conceptualize and reconceptualize the project. Ellen Goldsmith provided invaluable consultation. Special thanks to Christopher Brown and Kate Puckett for research assistance. The author also thanks Navaz Bhavnagri for her thoughtful editorial assistance and kind support.

Rachel Theilheimer is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, New York.
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Author:Theilheimer, Rachel
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 6, 2001
Previous Article:New Immigrants and Refugees in American Schools.
Next Article:From Playing With Guns to Playing With Rice: The Challenges of Working With Refugee Children.

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