family in San Pablito, Mexico

Bridging Spanish language barriers in Southern schools

From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

If you teach students who have grown up in certain rural parts of Mexico, you may have noticed that they may feel uncomfortable in the American classroom environment. Maybe they would rather not call out answers or ask you questions, maybe they feel uncomfortable showing off what they’ve learned, or maybe they seem disillusioned with school. This unit will address the unique behavioral norms that students from rural areas of Mexico may bring from home to the classroom, describe expectations and understandings about education, and provide you with strategies to increase the students’ level of comfort at school.

A word about scope

First, it’s important to be clear about the population this article describes. Mexico is a large and diverse nation, and students from different parts of Mexico grow up in vastly different circumstances in terms of geography, socio-economic status, access to educational resources, and more.

This article specifically addresses the educational experiences and expectations of recent immigrants from some rural areas of Mexico. It does not describe students of Mexican origin who have been in the U.S. for a few years, nor students from Mexican cities or other more populated areas.

Please be aware that no article can comprehensively describe the experiences of all students from rural Mexico. The goal of this article is to help teachers understand the behaviors and expectations of students from rural areas of Mexico based on generalities about rural Mexican culture — it is not to paint all students with the same brush. The best way to understand your student is to get to know them and their families personally. This article may serve as a foundation from which to begin that process.

Why students may feel uncomfortable

Children from rural Mexico may frequently feel uncomfortable in the American classroom environment. For starters, students may have grown up playing only with their siblings and cousins. Since the family is the center of social life in most rural Mexican communities, many young children haven’t had significant exposure to children outside of their extended families or students in their communities of origin. Play groups, day care, preschool and after-school activities are not as common in rural Mexico as they in the U.S. Consequently, when students from these areas enter an American classroom it may be the first time they are immersed in an environment with such a variety of people. Compounding this situation, if a student is attending an American school for the first time, it may also be the first time he or she is surrounded by a different culture, language, food, and set of expectations for behavior. This can make a child feel very nervous, out of place, or shy. Without a concerted effort to make the student feel welcome and included, he or she could fall into a pattern of social isolation and low educational achievement.

Parents’ expectations for education

The importance of a good education is universally recognized by American and Mexican parents alike. Both want their children to learn, succeed, and be happy in life. While this mutual desire for a good education is possessed by both Mexican and American parents, the requirements for a quality education are varied in each culture.

It is critical that as a teacher you understand that the definition of a good education, or una buena educación, held by Mexican parents is far more comprehensive than the dominant American definition of a good education. For Mexican parents, the term una buena educación is a term used to refer to the broad education of a child rather than the solely the schooling of a child. In fact, the term in Spanish meaning “well-educated” is synonymous with the term ser gente decente, or “to be a good person.” A good education serves as the foundation for all other learning and instills in children a sense of moral, social, and personal responsibility. This includes teaching a child how to treat elders with respect, behave properly, and become a person of good moral standing. Placed in contrast with the American definition of a good education, which refers to a standard of knowledge, critical thinking skills, and level of literacy, educational expectations in Mexico are far more comprehensive. As a consequence, students from Mexico may develop conflicting understandings of what is expected of them.

Expectations of education again diverge with the understanding of the parental role in a child’s education. While parents in rural Mexico place a very high value on education and learning English, mothers bring the cultural understanding that schooling is the responsibility of the teacher and the school rather than the parents. They often do not realize that most children entering kindergarten already know their ABCs, the colors and the numbers. A mother from rural Mexico might expect that her son or daughter would learn all of these things in school. Even more influential for home learning is that some new immigrant parents may work long hours, may be unable to read, or may fill the house with things other than books or school supplies.

Since a mother considers schooling the responsibility of the teachers, she may not understand that teachers’ requests to bring in supplies are to be followed, that classroom open-houses are normally attended by parents, or that homework frequently comes before family time in many American households.

While these cultural expectations for education may constitute a challenge for many educators, attempts to coach parents from Mexico about American educational norms, however well-intentioned should be avoided. Instead, it is best to try to work within their unique cultural framework and understand the perspective that families from other cultures bring to a community.

Students’ expectations for education

It is common for students from rural Mexican communities to prefer a model of schooling that considers respectful caring relationships with teachers to be the foundation for learning, while American expectations ask that the student possesses an aesthetic caring, which entails caring about the course material, rules, and assignments. The authentic caring that students expect is typical of teacher/student interaction in rural Mexico, and includes genuine concern for the student’s general welfare, emotional well-being, and personal growth.

By contrast, in many American communities, a student is expected to be an individual maximizer, to drive for success independent of his or her teacher. When entering an American school for the first time, a student who has grown up in rural Mexico may expect her interaction with a teacher to be more of a reciprocal dialogue. In rural Mexico, a student will poner empeño, or possess diligence, in response to a warm relationship with a teacher.

Without authentic caring relationships with educators, students may feel disillusioned with their schooling experience and struggle to do well in school. As a result, a student may not participate, complete his or her assignments, or have a positive attitude in class. Many American teachers may believe older students from rural Mexico do not sufficiently care about school, while the students believe that teachers do not sufficiently care about them. Many American teachers and Mexican students alike may not realize the type of behavior they expect from the other. This could lead to a misunderstanding and could be remedied by communication.

Expectations for school-based relationships can have a direct influence on a student’s achievement and even frequently play an important factor in high dropout rates among high-school students.

For examples of ways to build an authentic caring relationship with your students, see the “strategies” section.

Behavioral norms

In addition to a unique definition of a good education, many Mexican parents have a unique parenting style which influences their children’s classroom behavior. When children from rural Mexico first enter the American classroom, either in kindergarten or later due to immigration, they may bring from home their own set of behavioral norms.

For rural parents, establishing good behavior is central to successful parenting. This is typically achieved by instilling in children a strong sense of respect, or respeto, for adults and older family members. Respect includes not acting out in public, not interrupting or bothering adults, and obediently complying with an adult’s request. To show respect to a teacher, a student may refrain from acting silly or boisterous, may not call out, or may not ask a question if they feel like they would be bothering their teacher. They may quietly approach a teacher and wait until acknowledged to ask a question, or wait to provide a response until called on by the teacher.

Students from rural Mexico may feel uncomfortable performing in front of the class or displaying information upon request. In rural Mexican communities, children are not commonly encouraged to show off their knowledge and typically not rewarded by doing so. Children are not expected to perform on command or display knowledge as they may be in some American households. As a consequence of this modesty, Mexican students frequently feel uncomfortable performing in front of the class or displaying information upon request, but would be very willing to share in a small group setting.

Mexican parenting styles also influence classroom behavior through the way children are taught to learn. When teaching a child a task, the parent usually engages the child in the activity rather than explaining or demonstrating. After the experiential learning takes place, feedback is usually straightforward and includes explicit directions of how to perform the task correctly. Because Mexican children are used to this type of learning, they may be confused by what they perceive as vague evaluations of their work at school. Even when negative, feedback may be much less straightforward than evaluative comments made about tasks performed at home.

Culturally sensitive teaching strategies

To demonstrate authentic caring

  • Make an attempt to get to know the student and learn about their family. Try to get to know any siblings or cousins a student has at school, especially since older siblings are often expected to look after their younger siblings.
  • Include elements in the curriculum that are familiar to your student and relevant to his or her experiences.
  • Visit the student’s home once or twice during the school year to speak with his or her parents and gain a better understanding of his or her culture and surroundings.
  • Serve your students comfort food! Make a snack from your student’s country of origin and serve it to the class. Examples of Mexican snacks, which could be purchased at a Mexican store, include:
    • Hot flour tortillas with strawberry marmalade or cheese
    • Carlos Quinto chocolate on a bolillo (Mexican baguette)
    • Layered Jell-o (mango or peach flavored)
    • Mexican homemade candy
  • Nourish and grow a student’s demonstrated interest by providing that child with more information on the subject or supplies used to study that subject. For example, if a student demonstrates an interest in maps, let the child use the computer to access a geography program.
  • If you sense a divide forming between you and your student, sit down and have an honest conversation with him or her, asking what you can do to improve the situation. Ask if you have done anything to make him or her upset.

To help your students feel comfortable in class

  • Assign small group work in class to create a less intimidating environment for a new student.
  • Avoid asking a new student to display their knowledge in front of the class until that behavior seems more familiar.
  • Allow the student to be bicultural! Treat his or her language and ethnicity as assets rather than hurdles to overcome.
  • Incorporate the Spanish language into the curriculum in creative ways.
  • Don’t make your students feel like they need to choose whether they are Mexican or American, let them be both!