“So…what is your name?” Jennifer Navarro-Butler, a teacher at Lyman Hall Elementary in Gainseville, Georgia asks her fifth grade student, Yahaira Sotoa. It takes Yahaira at least five seconds to finally reply at a barely audible volume, “Yahaira Soto.”
“How do you think you were in the beginning of the year?” Ms. Butler asks.
“I was a little bit more shy…”
“I kind of didn’t raise my hand…”
Yahaira Soto is first-generation Mexican-American. Her “shyness” can be described as an internalized behavior.
“Which are behaviors that are directed more inwards. So anxiety, depression, anxiousness,” says Brian Collins, an assistant professor of bilingual education at Hunter College. He draws a distinction between internalized behaviors and externalized ones: aggression, conflict, hyperactivity.
Professor Collins says that different cultures tend to see similar rates of these behaviors across the board.
“However, there are other considerations and factors that you have to consider. Because many of the Latinos in the United States are facing many other barriers and struggles that could contribute to higher instances of internalizing, externalizing behaviors.”
So it’s not that these students are shy by nature. There are series of factors that can make it difficult for Latino students to feel comfortable participating in class.
“Latinos have been shown to have unique sets of values that they bring with them from their home countries,” says Collins.
Values like being able to work well collectively. But in the U.S. school system where individual achievement and test results are emphasized it can be difficult.
Bulter is focused on measuring her students’ reading comprehension but she says her students are happy when they get to work in groups.
“They were excited about the activity and they were talking. They were really talking. I mean you can hear an ‘orale’ or little things like that and I’m like ‘oh my god,'” says Butler.
So working well collectively with peers is a value that may or may not translate into the U.S. classroom. But it’s a whole other deal with authority figures.
Many Latino families value respect for authority. Ms. Butler grew up in a Colombian and Honduran household in New York City and says that like her students – she too held back from participating in class.
“I think in the beginning it was more, just to be respectful of your teachers. I may have been loud with my friends but once I was in class, no way, it was just quiet,” says Butler.
Collins says he recognized this back when he was a teacher,
“I could recognize that fairly quickly from the parents’ attitudes of really handing over the responsibility of educations, entrusting educations towards the teacher,” says Collins.
So these parents aren’t like some overactive P.T.A. moms, always cued into what their children are learning.
“American families play this active role and it’s almost expected in the american education system for parent involvement,” says Collins.
For many of the parents of Latino children, especially undocumented immigrants, taking time to talk to their kids’ teachers is just about impossible. Butler has experienced this with the parents of her students.
“Because most of my parents, some of them are illegal, they’re afraid to ask for the day off because if they don’t go to work they’ll be fired. They’re constantly afraid,” Butler syas.
But that doesn’t mean that these parents don’t care about their childrens’ education.
“They want the teachers’ help because they do respect the teachers a lot. They look for advice on how to raise their kids. They have questions they want to ask, they want to know what’s going on,” says Butler.
According to Vanessa Rodriguez, former middle school teacher and author of The Teaching Brain, ‘knowing what’s going on’ is key to students and teachers’ success.
“So I often talk about having an awareness of the learner and an awareness of yourself. For me, teaching is really an interaction and the way you create successful interactions is by really working on the relationship,” says Rodriguez.
For Ms. Butler, opening up to her students was a way to invite them to open up to her.
“I’m very honest with them. And I think that’s why my girls can open up. I tell them listen, I didn’t live in this big house when I was a kid. I lived in a little apartment. My father worked in a factory too,” Butler says. “I don’t know if me being Hispanic too makes them feel more comfortable…I don’t know.”
According to Rodriguez, a good teacher-student relationship does not have to be based on sharing a similar cultural background.
“In any interaction it’s really about understanding yourself, so you can understand the other. We might argue that that’s easier when you’re more alike and so in that context it may seem like people teaching one and another of the same race, culture or socioeconomic class seems like a really great idea. But there’s also a great loss. The diversity also helps us to manage difficult relationships,” says Rodriguez.
There are cultural barriers in the classroom, but there is another major factor that goes beyond these differences that makes it difficult for many Latino students to speak up in the class: language.
“The issue of shyness is related to typical patterns of learning a second langauge,” says Collins. “So you can imagine if you were plopped down in China, for example, and you needed to eat and you knew no Chinese – you’d try to communicate in English in order to eat. And if no one understood you, you’d need to step back and reassess and recognize, they’re not understanding English and how am I gonna communicate? And this happens to immigrant children as well. When they’re immersed into a new linguistic setting, the school, they go through what’s sometimes referred to as a silent period.
Pretty much all second language learners go through a silent period, including Yahaira.
“She didn’t really talk at all, and she can speak English, but she really had a silent period,” says Butler.
Most of Butler’s students are second language learners.
“In my class alone I have 28 students and I believe 14 of them are ESL students.”
ESL stands for English as a Second Language.
“The ESL program wouldn’t be like a bilingual program. It’s teaching them English as a second language. If they’re so lucky they have a teacher that speaks Spanish, they will use Spanish. But they really don’t want the teachers to do that because they feel that then they’re not being really immersed in the english language,” says Butler.
In 2011, Collins and his colleagues published some research that showed that bilingual children were coming into elementary school with average to above-average inter and intra personal skills.
“We found that these strengths that kids come into school with that are sometimes above and beyond what the average monolingual has are attributed in separate ways to their English ability and their Spanish ability,” says Collins.
In other words – students can’t use their skills as well in a language that is less familiar to them.
“Your ability to interject and act independently – to express your opinion, those abilities are valued in the american situation,” says Collins.
And doing that, obviously, can be very hard if you don’t speak the language.
“I use my Spanish every day. Because if they don’t get it in English… Oh yeah, I go back and forth all day long,” says Butler.
Butler says the alternative is worse.
“What happens is they become non-lingual.”
And Butler is incredibly dedicated to her students succeeding. She often encourages Yahaira.
“What does Ms. Butler always try to tell you guys?”
“To speak up,” Yahaira says.
“Why? Why do you think I’m always telling you to speak up?”
“Because when you go to middle school the teachers are gonna fail you if you don’t raise your hand to speak up.”
Butler is an example of a teacher who has built an individual relationship with her student. She knows Yahaira’s family and school history and that let’s her address her specific issues.
But there isn’t a Ms. Butler for every Latino student out there.
Brian Collins believes there needs to be more bilingual programs to address the needs of a changing student population.
“Because our nation, school system, is becoming more Latino – it’s upon us as educators working in the school systems to better understand this population,” says Collins.
Photo credit: ELMER MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images