In May 2023, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) hosted a listening session during Teacher Appreciation Week that showcased multilingual K–12 educators. The discussion focused on the experiences and expertise of multilingual teachers in supporting English learners (ELs) and their families, along with resources to promote multilingual education and preserve Native languages.
Continuing from our previous post, this Q&A features Rodrigo Rodriguez from the Austin Independent School District in Texas and Rebecka Peterson from Union High School, Union Public School District in Oklahoma.
Tell us about your current role and background.
Rodrigo Rodriguez: I live in Austin, Texas. I am a dual-language literacy coach, working for the Austin Independent School District. I'm also an immigrant. I moved to the United States 20 years ago and became a U.S. citizen two years ago. Being in the United States has given me an opportunity to continue advocating for multilingual students and bilingual education. I provide interventions to babies that have dyslexia and dysgraphia in Spanish because there is a lot of support that we can provide to them in English, but not in Spanish.
Rebecka Peterson: I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I am not a bilingual teacher but an immigrant of Swedish-Iranian heritage to the United States. I am half Swedish, half Iranian, as well as the daughter of medical missionaries. By the time I was 16, I had lived in four different countries. I've gotten to teach at this culturally rich and diverse district called The Union, and we have 62 languages represented in our district. I'm also the 2023 National Teacher of the Year.
What does multilingualism mean to you?
Rebecka: At a basic level, multilingualism means to be able to engage in more than one language, but we know language depicts culture. There is certainly a scientific argument to be made for learning more than one language. We know that it improves functions like attention and mental alertness, but we're also learning that there may be a link to being multilingual and an empathetic person.
Rodrigo: As an educator and working in a dual-language setting, multilingualism, for me, is to make sure that I can promote academic excellence by supporting the linguistic and cultural diversity of our students in the classroom. So, instead of using language as a barrier, we can take advantage of those opportunities to ensure that we can integrate it within our classroom instruction.
I work in a Title I school in which 100% of the students are on a free- and reduced-price lunch program, and 85% of our kiddos are labeled as “emergent bilingual” students. They just represent a plethora of different opportunities for us to be able to continue making an impact on them.
What are some of the resources that you use on a daily basis to ensure multilingual students are served properly?
Rebecka: I am a math teacher, and there are some resources that my district uses, which my colleagues and I have really enjoyed. One of these resources is TalkingPoints, a platform that enables us to send messages to families, which are automatically translated into their home language. Additionally, we invested in a service called the LanguageLine, which allows us to connect with translators whenever we need to make a call home. This service is available 24/7, ensuring constant support.
Rodrigo: I think it's imperative to take a little bit of time to get to know our bilingual and multilingual students because that will give us a pinpoint regarding the different resources that we may be able to integrate during classroom instruction. I will use those opportunities to scaffold or differentiate the support that they may need in the classroom.
If I'm showing video content, I turn on the closed captioning (CC), displaying the text on the screen, to support their comprehension, because I want to make sure that they all feel like they are part of the community of learners. For my young students, who have more oral language but struggle with spelling and writing, we use voice typing in Google Docs.
What have been the most effective professional learning opportunities in your career as a multilingual educator?
Rebecka: It's been watching and talking to, and learning from my colleagues, particularly those who are multilingual and serve mostly, if not entirely, linguistically diverse students. To me, the very best professional development is learning from my fellow teachers, and teaching my fellow teachers who are not multilingual about our own lived experiences.
Rodrigo: I think that when I became a National Board Certified teacher, it helped me to be able to think outside of the box and not be afraid of continuing to advocate for our multilingual students. It’s helpful to talk with colleagues and administrators about different ways that we can collaborate with each other and create that space. I work with a wonderful principal that allows the opportunity during our professional learning communities to lift each other up.
What are you doing in your classroom to promote multilingualism?
Rodrigo: To ensure that my students can relate to the resources I provide, I incorporate culturally relevant materials that reflect their own stories and life experiences. By considering their backgrounds, I can create wonderful resources that truly resonate with them. Bringing their life experiences into the classroom makes a significant difference.
Even simple gestures can have a meaningful impact on students. For example, taking the time to learn and use their names can make a difference. Incorporating their names into activities like the "problem of the day" during math lessons makes a difference and they feel like superstars.
Rebecka: I completely agree that celebrating other languages and cultures is crucial in honoring our diverse students, their stories, and their backgrounds. To embrace this, at the beginning of the year, I provide my students with individual time slots during non-instructional periods, such as before school, after school, or during lunch, where they can come and share their stories with me. As a math teacher, another thing I do, if they want, is to have students sit with others who speak the same Native language.
What can be done to better retain effective multilingual teachers?
Rodrigo: I believe that the school district needs to offer professional development for teachers who are working with multilingual learners. When I listen to teachers’ frustrations during our conversations, it becomes evident that while they are enthusiastic about attending professional development sessions, they often feel a sense of frustration because the focus of those sessions tends to be on monolingual learners.
As an instructional coach, walking into different classrooms, learning from different teachers, and experiencing their diverse approaches have been amazing experiences. I take advantage of these opportunities and put them into practice as an additional resource. My teacher's union provides me with the chance to work with the National Educational Association (NEA). Together, we continue to develop targeted micro-credentials, specifically designed for multilingual learners. These micro-credentials focus on differentiating instruction in the classroom and creating various assessments. The aim is to provide opportunities for all multilingual learners to develop their competencies, not just in reading and writing, but also in listening and speaking.
Rebecka: I think this question of retaining multilingual students is so important. Because we know how important representation is, and I think that it's not just a retention issue, I think it's, first and foremost, a recruitment issue. I would advocate for grow your own programs, with a particular focus on recruiting multilingual students.
As Oklahoma Teacher of the Year this year, I've been fortunate to be in lots of classrooms throughout my state, and one classroom that I visited was a Spanish classroom taught by a Spanish native speaker. She came to the United States as a teenager, and then in high school, she was recruited to join a program for future bilingual teachers, and it was a partnership with a college and a local school district. She teaches kids who were born and raised in Oklahoma how to speak Spanish, and then she turns around and helps newcomers to the country with their English, and she's just such a valued part of her school and her community. We must foster more programs like that.
What last thoughts would you like to leave with the audience about your role as a multilingual teacher?
Rebecka: My last thoughts are simply just to elevate my multilingual students. I think one way we do that is to get serious about recruiting more bilingual, bicultural teachers. I was sharing my story as an immigrant to this country with my high schoolers, including both the joys and the struggles of my background. A student told me, “I've never known someone with a story like mine.” Our students are so diverse and that's why a diverse teaching workforce is something so worth fighting for.
Rodrigo: I would like to continue reiterating the importance of building relationships with students. Take the time just to get to know them and allow them to share their experiences with us. By highlighting the language skills that my students bring to the classroom, I not only acknowledge and appreciate their multilingual abilities but also celebrate the unique gift of multilingualism itself. This approach also provides an opportunity for other students to gain insight into what it's like to navigate a day of learning in different languages.