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Barriers in the classroom

January 29th, 2020     by Anthonella Alvarez     Comments

Illustration by Marlee Jennings

When was the last time you felt like you were not supposed to be part of something, but had to participate anyway? Did you feel pressure to do well? Did you feel like the people around you expected you to fail? Did you believe you would fail? Now think about feeling like that throughout your entire academic career. Latinx students feel that way every day, from elementary school to graduate school. This impostor syndrome has nothing to do with how classrooms and curriculums are built or what kind of education we have received before, but with the challenges we face on a daily basis.

One of the most obvious challenges Latinx students have in the classroom is the language barrier. Even when we have grown up in a place that predominately uses English in academia, most of us speak Spanish as a first or second language. That means that while most of us understand the concepts that are being taught to us, it might take a while for us to be able to put them in terms that others can understand. This happens even at the post-secondary level. During one of my first classes in college, one of my professors asked me if I knew the proper use of a semicolon. I didn’t know what a semicolon was because I had only referred to it by its name in Spanish, punto y coma. My hesitation while I tried to remember what a semicolon was marked me (maybe subconsciously) as less than my peers. It took me two years of hard work and constant improvement for the same professor to acknowledge I was not less than anyone — especially not because of my language barrier.

Because of the language barrier, a lot of Latinx students are assumed to be not as smart as their peers and many teachers give up on them. I have seen many of my professors overlook or shut down answers form Latinx students just because it took them longer to answer. In reality, they were trying to find the right words to express what they meant in English. The assumption that English language learners are not as smart makes it more unlikely that Latinx students will be considered for higher level courses or other advanced opportunities throughout their academic career.

Most public schools have English Language Learning programs, yet they are mostly underfunded or understaffed. This is true in the U.S. and the recent budget cuts to education in Ontario — cuts that will increase class sizes, eliminate many elective courses, cut teaching positions and more — are feared to maintain economic inequalities and effect low income communities first, communities that 28 percent of Latinx adults and 32 percent of Latinx children belong to. Inadequate education funding and economic inequalities make it more difficult for Spanish-speaking students to access programs that they would need to fully understand what is being taught.

Our challenges do not stop there. Our cultures play a role, too.

The pressure to assimilate and be “normal” when you have an immigrant family or are an immigrant student is a big weight that no one else carries. This has lot to do with how, historically, our cultural differences have been treated. Many schools officials try to ban students from speaking Spanish to each other, including those in New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois. Our family duties and expectations, like going to doctors appointments to translate for our elders or going shopping with them when they need to look for something specific at a store, can sometimes keep us from seeking extra help from teachers or school staff, and schools are often unprepared to deal with any of these issues – even one as small as a language barrier.

Educators play a huge role in these struggles. As the first line of defence, they should try to create a more inclusive classroom. However, unless a problem is explicitly brought to their attention, they will create lesson plans that exclude anything outside of the “ordinary,” like reading materials that might speak to Latinx cultures, or an understanding of what it’s like to speak multiple languages. During my college years I was surprised that, outside of classes centered around Latinx literature, we never studied any texts written by Latinx authors. Many of my professors praised Latinx authors, but their writings never made it past the point of just being mentioned.

This exclusion and erasure of Latinx culture makes staying in school and learning even harder for students who are the first or second generation of their family to receive formal education, at any level. These students often don’t have a support system to guide them through academia, which makes it more isolating when school staff doesn’t create a space that feels welcoming. In my case, my mother, who doesn’t speak any English, could not understand any information about my schooling even after she had been granted access to it. I slowly went through it with her and tried to explain what some terms meant and how things worked. I had been a college student for less than a week at that point and was still learning myself. It was a difficult experience because no one on staff could speak Spanish and my college only had information available in English, despite the large Latinx student body.

However, not all is lost. Many schools throughout North America are slowly implementing strategies to meet the needs of Latinx students. Cultural understanding, community outreach, and parental involvement are some of the many adjustments that can help Latinx students feel more welcome. This will help to create a community of understanding and support around Latinx students that doesn’t completely rely on the school system. Though these changes are slow, they are already making an impact. The dropout rate for Latinx students in the U.S. has dropped by 6 percent. Still, only 53 percent of Latin-identifying adults have a high school diploma, according to research group Excelencia in Education.

Personally, I have seen many of my Latinx peers fail or drop out because of some of these challenges. Even when we worked together with school staff, the issues still persisted because there was no proper support. I know I won’t be the last one to experience language barriers, stereotyping, or lack of support and understanding in schools. Being part of the first generation to receive any kind of education is already a challenge, do we really need to add more to it? We need educators and schools to recognize and adjust to Latinx students’ needs so we can give them the opportunity to succeed in their academic careers. Latinx students have so much potential — we deserve the same quality of education as everyone else.

About the author: Anthonella Alvarez is a Teaching Artist and freelance writer in Savannah, GA. Originally from Quito, Ecuador she works to share stories that expand people’s understanding of the word identity. In her free time she tries to be good at social media and likes spending time cuddling with her pets. You can follow her on Twitter @itisnella, though so far she only has a handful of tweets.

Tags: education, latinx, race, race and racism, school

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