Spanish Community Service Learning Students Interpreting at Parent-Teacher Conferences

What would you do if you couldn't talk to you children's teacher?
by Ann Abbott

Parent-Teacher conferences are a crucial opportunity for families to communicate with the teachers and make concrete plans for their children's academic success. As a parent myself, I sometimes think of parent-teacher conferences as a way for us to influence how the teachers see and interact with our children: they know that behind each of children are two parents who are interested in their children's success, engaged in supporting their success at home, respectful of the teachers' work, and committed to advocating for our children.

Imagine if you couldn't talk to your kids' teachers because you didn't speak the same language.

What information about your child would you miss out on? What consequences might that have for your child? How might you be judged as a parent?

Each semester, several of my students help at Central High School's parent-teacher conference. It's really important that someone be there to help bridge the language gap.

Here's a note from the person at the school who organizes my students' work on those days:
Dear Dr. Abbott,
I just wanted to drop you a note to say thank you (again) for all your help in hooking us up with your students.  They came through with flying colors again for us this year!  I would hate to see what our conferences would have been like without them.  They are such a help to us.
I hope you are planning on doing something wonderful during break and I look forward to working with you in the fall for our conferences then.
I'm very proud of my students. But some of them don't participate because they are afraid that their Spanish isn't good enough. I won't lie: you do need a minimum level of Spanish proficiency to be able to handle these situations.

However, even for students whose Spanish is good enough, it's intimidating to know that you have the responsibility of conveying the information for the teachers and parents.

So one of my former students--Jenna Kandah, who is a codirector of the tutoring program Vis-a-Vis--is working on an independent project to provide more support to students who work at these parent-teacher conferences. This is how she explained the project and asked permission to gather information:

My name is Jenna Kandah, I'm a past student of Ann Abbott's at the University of Illinois. This semester I'm doing an independent research project with her to figure out the most helpful resources for U of I students who help interpret for Spanish speaking parents at Parent-Teacher Conferences.

I was wondering if there is any chance I can sit-in on as many PTCs as possible that have U of I Spanish speaking volunteers signed up to translate? During the sit-in, I would simply be typing the most frequently used words I hear from the teachers and a few other observations (educational target words, possible vocabulary used to indicate problems with students, questions that Spanish speaking parents might ask, proper etiquette to make a good environment for the interpretors/parents/students, etc). After as many conferences as I can sit-in on, I would make a refined list that would be included in a website of many resources I will collect for U of I students to reference before going to be interpretors at the PTCs next semester and so-on.
My goal is to help make future Spanish interpreter volunteers feel more comfortable and prepared for what they will be experiencing, because I did help translate last semester at Central and remember how worried I felt beforehand.
I'm available all of Thursday from 5-8 pm. If my sitting-in would be possible, could you let me know what times/room numbers have been designated for Spanish translators to attend? I would love to get a wide range of vocabulary for my list, so the bigger variety of subjects/teachers/grade levels I can attend the better. I know this is a lot to ask, but I thank you so much for your time and consideration! I would have no problem explaining in Spanish my role to every Spanish speaking partner whose PTC I sit-in on. I'm available to talk through phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx if you have any questions.
Here is the webpage she produced: Parent Teacher Conference Volunteer Tips. And here is more helpful information:
I'm aware that professional interpreters should do the job that my students are currently volunteering to do. However, when you work with a community and their needs are not being addressed by professionals, it's not a black or white issue. I'll address that issue in a future blog post.

Here are some tips from Fall 2018 students:
  • Tener confianza en tus habilidades.
  • Buscar una conexión personal con la familia.
  • Practicr tu español tanto como sea possible.
  • Si es necesario, diles a la maestra y a los padres que hablen lentamente y en oraciones breves.
  • Puedes resumir las ideas; no necesitas traducir todas las palabras.
  • Si no sabes una palabra exactamente, explicar de otra manera
  • Siéntate a un lado; deja que se sienten de frente las familias y maestros para que sea una conversación entre ellos.
  • Los maestros y los padres son pacientes, por eso no estés nervioso. 
  • No pasa nada si necesitas un poco tiempo para pensar.
  • Acuérdate que algunas familias el español no es su lengua materna entonces ten paciencia con esas familias. 
  • Las familias son muy simpáticas entonces no tienes miedo. 
  •  Si tienes tiempo, ve a los 2 días de conferencia. Necesitan mucha ayuda.
  • Es normal sentir muchos sentimientos.


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