Bilingual Parent Liaisons: the Juggle is Real
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Happy Back to School!
This blog post is for all the school-based family engagement staff out there who specifically focus on immigrants, refugees, and English Learners. Whether you’re called a bilingual parent liaison, cultural broker, cultural navigator, community navigator, bilingual facilitator, ELL liaison, or something else, you know who you are. This post is for you.
I was once at a conference and got to hear Kenya Bradshaw from TNTP speak. She said the most memorable thing. She said "I call bullsh** when the only people who engage families are your family engagement staff!”
This is a great reminder that one of the most – if not the most – important roles of family engagement staff is to help build the capacity of fellow educators to partner with the families of their students. And this is NOT just about family engagement staff in the central office. This applies to school-based staff, like parent liaisons, too!
Woah, say that again? School-based family engagement staff shouldn’t be spending 100% of their time working directly with families? No! Ideally, they should be spending a good amount of their time facilitating professional development for teachers on family engagement strategies and on modeling these strategies for their teacher colleagues. In addition, family engagement professionals ought to spend time helping different departments or programs figure out how to engage families in their work. For example, at the school level, a parent liaison or other family engagement professional might work with the social studies department on how to incorporate parents’ input and experiences into a particular lesson.
The juggle between responding to every parent who walks in the front office and carrying out these capacity-building efforts is challenging and real for all school-based family engagement staff. However, it is particularly challenging for bilingual/bicultural family engagement staff for at least two reasons.
First, is because of the language component. To my bilingual parent liaison friends out there, if you were hired particularly because you are bilingual, this juggling act is particularly challenging for you. In fact, your job description might even say that you are there to interpret for every Spanish-speaking or Arabic-speaking parent that walks through the front door. I get it. It’s hard to think about “capacity-building” in this regard when you’re not about to sit down and try to teach a 4th grade teacher Arabic so she can talk to a student's mom.
That said, there are things you can do. For example, does your district contract with a phone interpretation company, such as Language Link or Language Line? Have teachers been trained on how to do it? If not, and if there is a “fear” of using it, ask your principal if you can have five minutes of an all-staff meeting and model it for them. I guarantee teachers will use it more once they see how easy it is. I know what you’re thinking – “But families don’t want to talk to a stranger, they want to talk to a me.” This feeling is certainly understandable, but there’s no way you could be everywhere all the time and as family engagement professionals, we must give teachers the opportunity to build their own relationships with families! Teachers are the ones who can speak best to what the child is learning, what they are struggling with, and provide suggestions for how families can help.
The second reason you may struggle to focus on capacity-building is because you are likely of the cultural background of the families you are serving. This is, of course, a positive thing, so let me clarify how this could create a challenge. Perhaps you are an immigrant or a child of immigrants from the same country that a majority of families in your school are coming from. You have been in their shoes, literally. You empathize wholeheartedly with where they’re at and want to do everything in your power to help them. You refer to them as “my families” and feel that you are the only one who can really help them. You also want to protect them from anything culturally inappropriate that a teacher or administrator might say. Likewise, when families come to school, they always ask for you and pretty much do all their school-related business through you.
This sentiment is also understandable; however, my "boundaries alarm" is going off! How will teachers, administrators, counselors, and other school-based professionals ever learn about their students’ and families’ cultures, backgrounds, and needs if you are the only one they ever meet with? If all the communication and relationship-building is just with you, this is problematic. You may actually be inadvertently denying parents the opportunity to build relationships with their children’s teachers or other school-based professionals.
Furthermore, this could actually be dangerous. What if a parent confides in you that they are dealing with domestic violence? Or that their child is self-harming? There is hopefully a school counselor, social worker, and/or psychologist in the school that is aware of what to do and what resources to access for situations like this. You, as the parent liaison, likely “don’t know what you don’t know.” By attempting to handle a situation like this yourself, you could be inadvertently denying that family access to programs in the community that could help them.
There are things you can do to rectify this situation if all of the families of your cultural and linguistic background only ever meet with or talk to you. If your title has the word “liaison” or “broker” in it, focus on that. Your job is to bring people together and to help educate each “side” to better understand the other. So the first thing you might do is to approach your principal and ask if you can do a training for staff on the backgrounds of the immigrant, refugee, and English Learner families at your school. Even better would be to partner with colleagues or parents from a number of countries and cultures so that more backgrounds are represented.
The second thing you might do is teach the parents you work with how to access school staff without you, but by still keeping their potential need for interpretation in mind. For example, does your district have any kind of “I speak” card they could utilize when they walk in to the front office? If not, can you make one? If your district has a phone interpretation system, do parents know this? Do they realize they can call any teacher or front office staff and say “I speak French” and an interpreter can be looped in? Part of your job, whether it’s in your job description or not, is to help build parents’ self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is similar to confidence – it’s essentially one's belief that they can succeed in specific situations. Teach parents the skills they need to survive a school visit without you. While it can feel good to be needed and indeed, helping families is super rewarding, but you may actually be holding families back.
In conclusion, ideally all school-based family engagement staff, such as parent liaisons, should have a capacity-building component to their job. These means that they shouldn’t be spending 100% of their time meeting with families! This can extra challenging for bilingual/bicultural parent liaisons for all the reasons outlined above, but it can be done! It’s a juggling act and it requires setting some boundaries with both parents and school staff, but ultimately, the growth in self-efficacy of each party will be worth it.