Sustained change in how Americans think about and treat immigrants and asylum seekers requires not only immediate action but also strategic, long-term response from concerned citizens. If you are alarmed by the current treatment of individuals and families at the U.S.-Mexico border and in detention camps around the country, consider becoming a Spanish teacher.
Responding to citizens’ outrage at the treatment of immigrants (particularly children, such as those in Mississippi who last week came home from their first day of school to find their parents and other family members had been taken in a round of carefully planned I.C.E. raids), many news and humanitarian organizations have published articles describing ways people can take action. As these outlets have reported, there are numerous ways to help, including volunteering time or expertise, contributing money to organizations like R.A.I.C.E.S. that post bail for families and then support their next legal steps and contacting elected officials.
While immediate actions are necessary, it is also relevant to consider what proactive steps we can take to prevent the further escalation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and worsening treatment of asylum seekers in the near and distant future. In other words, what can you do as the wheels of justice slowly turn? Become a Spanish teacher.
One of the most important settings for democratic education is the world language classroom, particularly the Spanish classroom. After English, Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the United States, and nearly all U.S. high schools include it in their curricular offerings. Despite an increase during the 1990s, Spanish instruction in elementary and middle grades has contracted since the turn of the century. Why? There simply aren’t enough Spanish teachers. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has consistently ranked world languages (including Spanish) alongside math and science as a critical teacher shortage area across the country, including here in Virginia.
A host of research confirms the benefits of learning a new language in and out of school. Learning a new language supports student achievement across disciplines: students who learn a new language have been shown to be better readers, perform better in math and science classes, and, later, outperform their monolingual peers in college. Beyond the classroom, new language acquisition may help offset age-related cognitive losses and improve intelligence, memory, and problem-solving skills. Importantly, numerous studies also demonstrate that learning a new language changes how students view speakers of that language, leading to more positive attitudes toward of speakers of the target language and the cultures in which it is spoken.
Moreover, as a former Spanish teacher, I say without hesitation: Teaching a world language is the best job in a typical U.S. school. Relatively free from the strictures of standardized testing, my Spanish class could truly be student-centered. Without the pacing guides and imposed benchmark assessments my colleagues in language arts and math contended with, I could adjust the speed and trajectory of instruction based on my students and their needs. My administrators — seldom experienced in teaching a foreign language — trusted my expertise as a highly-qualified professional in my field, an increasingly uncommon experience for teachers. And most importantly, through our exploration of language and culture, I could invite my students to consider new perspectives and new ways of seeing their own culture.
Republican and right-leaning readers might assume I recommend this course of action in order to fill more classrooms with liberal teachers ready to overtly pressure students to adopt similar beliefs, but this simply isn’t true. As researchers Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy describe in their well-regarded book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, classrooms are—and should remain — sites of critical discussion about current events, including politics. But political doesn’t mean partisan: teacher educators and teacher candidates (that is, people studying to become teachers) invest significant time and energy into learning to facilitate meaningful discussion among students from a range of political leanings (or ambivalence) about provocative political issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, and institutional racism. Helping students talk and listen to others with whom they disagree is vital if we are to raise reflective and informed citizens ready to sustain our democracy. At few times has this need been more evident than today, a point upon which Democrats and Republicans agree.
Teachers around the country are organizing, demanding better pay, benefits, and funding for programs that benefit students, here in the commonwealth and in my home state of West Virginia. Join their ranks. Fight for students and their families. Fight for families at the border. Fight for the soul of our democracy. Become a Spanish teacher.
Howell is an assistant professor in the education department of Randolph College. She wrote this column for The News & Advance.