What We Learned About Teacher-Family Language Barriers…And How One District Is Doing Something About It

Kyle Crater is the principal of Amanda E. Stout Elementary in Pennsylvania’s Reading School District. Many of the families in Kyle’s district don’t speak English – which makes it harder for them to be involved in what’s happening in the classroom and school.

It’s a challenge that many teachers and principals face across the U.S. – as well as around the world. Today, more than 15 percent of adults in the U.S. don’t speak English at home. For one in four school-aged students, either they or their parents were not born in the U.S.

We developed Translate over three years ago to help solve this problem. And the idea came from you! (Like all the best ideas do, ha!) But when we created it – in 36 hours no less – we had no idea how impactful it could be. Every week, over 270,000 (yes, a quarter of a million!) messages are translated through ClassDojo in the U.S. Translate may feel like a small thing, but it’s been making a big difference.

We’d been hearing stories like Kyle’s over the years and wanted to learn more about the impact language barriers were having on teachers. So this October we did a survey to find out more.

Close to 3 in 4 teachers (71 percent) told us they had taught children who speak English as a second language in the past three years. No surprise if you’re a teacher yourself – but definitely surprising to those who aren’t. Something not at all surprising? Over half of the teachers we surveyed said they worry that parents whose native language isn’t English aren’t able to fully engage with school life – not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have sufficient language skills to be able to do so.

That is something we should all be working to change.

Kyle talked to us about this: “as a school we knew we needed to do more. There was a disconnect between the school and our student’s families. There was a disengagement. The parents didn’t feel like they belonged here. We had to make the school a part of the community.”

After a handful of teachers began using ClassDojo at Kyle’s school, they started to realize how big a difference it was making. Two years ago, they decided to go district-wide, across all of Reading’s 19 schools. Now, thousands of families can now directly communicate with their children’s teachers and receive updates on how their children are doing. Teachers also post videos on ClassDojo giving teaching strategy tips that families can use at home.

If you’re impressed, so were we! 😉

According to our recent survey, the good news is that half (55 percent) of teachers say their schools translate parent correspondence into other languages. But, of these schools, 36 percent rely on a teacher who speaks the language to do it and 16% use a professional translation service – all of which costs a lot of time and money. That’s not great news. The worst news, though, is that more than one-quarter (28 percent) don’t do any translations at all.

We think there should be a better way. Which is exactly why we developed Translate.

There are so many schools like Kyle’s, who are putting relationships first and finding ways to make sure EVERYONE feels welcome and involved in the school community. If you want to get inspired more, follow Kyle and his district on Twitter at @RDGschools and @MrCraterRSD! And if you have a story of your own you’d like to share, please let us know as well. We love hearing from you 🙂 You can tweet us or share on Instagram and Facebook.

Want to know more about what we learned? Here are some more results of our survey:

The top challenges teachers are most concerned about when it comes to communicating with the parents of English Language Learners:
> 71 percent of teachers said parents not being able to help their children with their homework or at-home projects;
> 50 percent of teachers worried parents have trouble comprehending special education needs or other learning difficulties;
> 58 percent of teachers are concerned about parents understanding any particular praise for, or worries, about their child;
> 40 percent of teachers worry about whether parents will attend teacher-parent conferences; and
> 45 percent of teachers worried that language barriers prevent parents from offering to volunteer on class trips.

In addition, close to half of teachers say that they have had to talk to a parent of an English Language Learner (ELL) about a school matter through their child (46 percent) or an older sibling (49 percent) rather than with the parent directly. It might be why 52 percent of teachers say that parents of ELL learners are sometimes unaware that their child had important tests on certain days.

Research was commissioned by ClassDojo and carried amongst a random sample of 563 U.S. K-12 teachers by SurveyMonkey between October 25-26, 2018.