The Quiet Kids Still Need You
There are many benefits associated with having a diverse school staff. One that doesn’t get enough attention is how teachers of color can help English Language Learners (ELL) find their voice. ELL students (like all students) have a variety of personalities, strengths, and levels of assertiveness. Some easily catch their teacher’s attention, but too often, the quiet ones get overlooked.
As a teacher, sometimes having a few quiet kids can appear to be a blessing. They don’t ask questions or disrupt activities, so we assume they understand what’s being taught and therefore focus our attention on other students. These kids are the ones who respond with a “No” when asked if they need help, because they may be too afraid or nervous to ask. Many ELL students have figured out how to fake comprehension to obtain a decent grade, but that doesn’t mean they truly absorb and grasp what’s being taught.
During my first year teaching middle school, I had a student who turned in every assignment and never missed a day of school. Other students looked at her and would say things like, “She is so smart. She is definitely going to Harvard. We need to be more like her.” What they didn’t see was how significantly she struggled—often re-doing assignments and having difficulty taking tests. Other teachers noticed her academic struggle but spent more time helping the students who were louder—those who more obviously demonstrated the impact of trauma in their lives.
Relationship building is the key
Last year, I had a very similar student. He was quiet and struggled academically, but he turned in every assignment and was one of the most respectful students I had. What made the difference for him was relationship building. We talked about his weekend plans, his home life, and emotions. What I learned was that he was coping with very serious trauma, but the way he dealt with it was just different than other students did. Instead of being loud and seeking attention; he was quiet and kept to himself.
“These students don’t say much, but silence does not equal acceptance. Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they don’t want attention. These are children. They carry with them trauma and inability to self-advocate..”
I’ve never had students from the same cultural background as me, but regardless I’ve engaged many quiet ELL students—building strong relationships with students who were otherwise silent throughout the day. While we were culturally different, we connected as children of immigrants, sharing stories about our families and experiences growing up in America.
It is important to realize that silence does not equal understanding. Many ELL students struggle with their homework and exams. They are respected by their peers but often feel alone. They see other kids having relationships with their teachers and engaging with their peers, staff and curriculum. These students don’t say much, but silence does not equal acceptance. Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they don’t want attention. These are children. They carry with them trauma and inability to self-advocate. And it is our duty as school staff to make them feel heard, help them find their voice, and navigate their emotions.
Policy that gives communities connection and voice
For schools to better support ELL students—silent and outspoken alike—new policies need to be implemented. My first job as an educator was at a school with a large Latinx population. We had a full-time Spanish-speaking liaison who lived in the community. Families felt comfortable communicating with her. She helped organize events to get families into the school, and she was someone students felt comfortable going to when they didn’t know where else to turn—especially those new to the country. It was beautiful to see how beneficial this staff member was to the entire school community.
“We can’t ignore some students because they are “easy” to have in our classroom.”
We need legislation that states if a certain percentage of students from a particular language group make up a school, there should be a liaison at that building who speaks their language. If a student or students fall outside that percentage, the district or state should be responsible for finding someone from the community who can check in with the student and family on a frequent basis. The latter option should be presented to families in the language of their choice, and they should be given the option to accept or deny it. I know my mom, who was in the country for only a year when I was born, would have appreciated it. I would have had a better educational experience too.
All of our kids have strengths and are wildly intelligent in different ways. But until policy is in place, we need to help these quiet students find their voice. Administrators should look into hiring linguistically diverse liaisons and school staff should focus on building relationships with their quiet students too. We can’t ignore some students because they are “easy” to have in our classroom. Like all other children, these kids need positive role models in their educational careers. They don’t have everything figured out and not all of them enjoy being quiet and alone every day at school. As a new academic year begins, my challenge to educators is to think about these students in your classroom and find ways to engage and amplify their voices.
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