Friday, March 16, 2018

Speak American

I'm at the NY State Association for Bilingual Education Conference, a guest of UFT Education VP Evelyn de Jesus. For some reason Evelyn thinks it's a good idea to send me to conferences that center around the kids I serve, and this is the second year she's sent me here.

I'm not at all sure how this story got past me, but a teacher saw fit to tell a Spanish-speaking student that she needed to "speak American" and actually got caught on video.

“Men and women are fighting. They are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish,” the teacher said in the Oct. 12 video. “They are fighting for your right to speak American.”

Well, I'm glad I didn't have to represent that teacher. There's not a whole lot you can say or do to mitigate that kind of speech. I won't mention the name of the young woman who was the recipient of those comments, but today we saw and heard her. It's horrifying that anyone would speak to a student like that. I'm a little upset it was an English teacher, because in a galaxy long ago and far away I was one too.

In New York City hate speech like that would be a violation of Chancellor's Regulation A-421, verbal abuse. A-421 is pretty broadly written, perhaps too much so. Anything that would make a student feel belittled or abused is a violation. If you say, "Good morning," and the student doesn't like it, and the principal doesn't like you, you're likely up on charges.

You kind of expect an English teacher to be well read. To me, at least, that would imply a rudimentary understanding of culture. If you are telling people to speak American, culture's not the first thing I'd be accusing you of. I have little to no tolerance for racism, bigotry, or even garden-variety stupidity. These are especially egregious in adults. To my mind, none of these qualities are desirable in teachers.

It's different with kids. They often don't know better, and one of the things about this job is you get chances to be proactive. You can help kids to grow up and never say things like, "speak American." I'm pretty shocked when I see bigotry in my ELLs, but I do. Sadly, I'm less shocked by homophobia, which many of them deem acceptable. They're pretty surprised when I don't wink and nod with them. I let them know that it's no different from making fun of their country, religion, color, sex, or any number of things.

The students today gave me the impression this speech was not that unusual. The only thing that really changed was that this time it was captured on video. I don't think this teacher would have fared as well in NYC. I know someone who did something I'd consider less egregious, got caught on video, and got fired. Of course you never know on any given day what some zany madcap arbitrator might decide.

Again, I am so glad I didn't have to represent the teacher who said this odious thing.
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