Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tell Her Something Bad

NYC high schools are doing parent-teacher night tonight. Here's a piece I published at Gotham Schools about just such a night on March 19, 2010.

I was at parent-teacher conferences when one of my very best students walked in with her mom. I can’t speak Chinese, but a former student of mine, also from China, was in the room and volunteered to translate for me. I told Mom her daughter was wonderful, that she was learning fast and doing great. I told her if she were my daughter I’d be very proud. 

But Mom was not happy.

She asked, through my ex-student, why I didn’t teach like they did in China. Why wasn’t I giving extensive vocabulary lists for her daughter to memorize? Why wasn’t I giving her daughter the SAT words she’d be tested on? Why wasn’t I giving books full of those words? Well, I said, she’s only just arrived here, and I don’t think that’s what she needs just now.

“You can’t tell Chinese parents anything,” confided my young translator, her hand covering her mouth.

So I tried something else. I said the girl had only been here four months, and that she loved speaking English. I told her she was making jokes in English, that she was very happy, and that I didn’t want to change anything. Mom talked for a long time, and gesticulated wildly.

“Tell her the names of some books with SAT words,” translated my former student.

I said that was not what she needed right now. She should read newspapers, perhaps. Maybe she could find things that interested her and write about them. Does she like dancing? Singing? Playing Parcheesi? She should start by reading about what she likes.

My translator gave me a frustrated look. I was clearly a slow learner.

I turned to Mom and told her if her daughter were my daughter, I’d get big sandwich signs and walk down the street beating a bass drum, announcing to the world she was mine. My translator duly reported my comments. Then Mom talked for a long time.

My translator sat and thought for a moment. Then she turned to me. The hand went over the mouth again. “Tell her something bad,” she instructed.

I said the girl was doing great. Her test scores were merely good, but I gave her extra credit for enthusiastic participation. I love seeing kids love English, I said. She’s good, she’s wonderful, she’s excellent, blah, blah, blah …

My translator gave me a look that clearly indicated it was time for me to shut up. “If you don’t tell her something bad,” she informed me, “she will never leave.”

I got another idea. I explained to Mom that I was largely the grammar teacher, and that my student’s other teacher was actually the reading teacher. Mom thanked me and purposefully shuffled on to introduce her proposals to my colleague. We watched her leave.

“I know what Chinese parents are like,” confided my translator, nodding with great earnestness.

“Are your parents like that?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “My mother lets me do anything I want.”

So much for stereotypes — and what does my young translator want to do?

I asked her.

Turns out, she wants to be an ESL teacher, like me. She says she wants to teach the American way, not the Chinese way. She’s smart, quick-witted, and she’ll be a very good teacher.

I’ve no doubt she’ll know exactly what to say at parent-teacher conferences.
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