Hidden talent, missed opportunities: The challenges for bilingual instructional assistants | Chalkboard Project

Hidden talent, missed opportunities: The challenges for bilingual instructional assistants

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 Mary Cadez

In schools statewide, instructional assistants are the backbone of programs for English language learners. Usually native speakers of other languages (most often Spanish), these assistants work closely with students to improve in every subject area, from reading to math and science, and the assistants report they are deeply committed to their students and their communities. They also don’t earn much—the starting salary for an instructional assistant in Salem-Keizer is $20,983, compared with $37,320 for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

Many instructional assistants would jump at the chance of becoming teachers if they had the means and support to advance their careers. Portland State University’s Bilingual Teacher Pathway program is an excellent model that is turning instructional assistants into teachers. The Oregon Education Investment Board and Department of Education are also working on initiatives designed to develop career pathways and accelerate the time it takes to make the move from instructional assistant to teacher.

As part of this effort, we also must do more to support to aspiring teachers taking the state licensing exams, which can pose a significant hurdle for non-native speakers.

Maribel Peña’s story is a case in point. A Mexico City native, she studied law at the University of Mexico before moving to Oregon over a decade ago. She attended Chemeketa Community College and was hired in 2004 as an elementary school instructional aide in Salem Keizer. She currently works at Cesar Chavez Elementary. From the start, she was able to make strong connections with her students as well as their families. “I share my own experiences with them,” she says, “and that helps me be an influence.”

She works mainly with students who are native Spanish speakers, some of whom have had such limited schooling they are illiterate in both Spanish or English. Anyone who saw her in action would say she has everything it takes to be an outstanding teacher.

Peña earned top grades in PSU’s Bilingual Teacher Pathway Program, as well as an endorsement as a teacher of English for speakers of other languages. But despite studying and extra tutoring, she has struggled to pass the licensing exams.

Although her own English language skills are excellent, she had to re-read questions several times and encountered questions and vocabulary that, as a non-native speaker she found tricky to comprehend. Combine that with the pressure of taking a timed test, and you see how much of a challenge lies before prospective bilingual teachers.

“I feel I have earned my own classroom,” she says. “I am more than qualified to be a teacher.”  She plans to take the test again. “I want to make a change in my school and my community,” she says. “I want to impact lives.”

Chalkboard’s TeachOregon initiative is working with school districts and colleges and universities to attract more students of color to teacher preparation programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. We have some new programs that start even earlier. The Pro-Team and Teacher Cadet programs being piloted in Salem-Keizer schools gets students interested in teaching careers as early as middle and high school. The High Desert ESD offers college credit to high school students of color who work as summer school interns.

Some of these programs will take time to produce results.  However, a ready source of bilingual/bicultural teachers remains to be tapped—instructional assistants already working in classrooms in Oregon. Critical supports for the successful licensing of these potential teachers should be investigated, and then installed, to empower diverse teacher candidates, thus creating a brighter future for Oregon schools.

  • Teacher Preparation
  • Equity and Diversity
  • Educator Workforce

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