Who is this gringa anyway?

This is the blog post that I’ve been wanting to write since we started the blog. It’s the post that I think about again and again and put off. This morning Adrienne and I had the privilege of being guests on Jahdai Jefferies’s podcast What in the World? Language Podcast. We talked about what it means to be a white, non-native teacher of Spanish heritage classes. Jahdai is gathering some important perspectives about whiteness and language teaching, and we were honored to be a part of the list. So click on the link to check it out. 

Our conversation was just the shot in the arm that I needed to write about this topic. I think I kept holding off because I wanted to wait until I knew more, until I had more things figured out. But just like so many other things in education, I won’t ever know enough, I won’t ever have it all figured out. To think I could is just privilege rearing its ugly head. So my goal today is to write about what I have learned and where I am now as a white non-native Spanish-speaker teaching Heritage Spanish classes, knowing full well that I will continually need to reexamine my ideas around teaching and whiteness.

Where I started

To be honest, I fell into teaching heritage classes. I was looking for a job and there was a school who had just lost a Spanish teacher before the start of the school year. Part of that teaching assignment was teaching two levels of heritage Spanish classes. I was intimidated, to say the least. Coming straight out of graduate school, I finally felt like my language skills had gotten to a place where I could manage teaching the class linguistically, but something didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t feel right for me as a white, non-native speaker to stand up in front of a class of Latinx students and teach them about their language. I knew I needed to do something to squelch that idea right then and there. Something inside me said, Just tell the truth. Address it head on. They’re probably all thinking, “Who is this gringa anyway?” Looking back, I hope they were all thinking that. I hope that they were all questioning the fact that a white, non-native speaker was there to teach them Spanish.

Honestly, I can’t remember what I said to those students on day one, but I think it was something similar to the speech I would give every year on the first day of my heritage classes from there on out. It usually goes something like this, “Si no han notado ya, no soy nativo hablante del español. Yo sé que es una sorpresa para todos.” (That part is supposed to be a joke, since I’m a blond, whitey mcwhiterson. Usually they laugh, sometimes they stare at me in shock.)  “No estoy aquí para enseñarles a hablar su propio idioma. Sería ridículo, ¿no? Estoy aquí porque sí, hablo español, lo he estudiado mucho y espero darles oportunidades para avanzar las habilidades que ya tienen, especialmente en cuanto a la lectura y la escritura. Sé que a veces voy a cometer errores o decir cosas que les parecen raras y espero que me lo digan, porque quiero aprender de ustedes también.”

Can I just say that sharing only that much of my own Spanish with all of you, dear readers, made my anxiety go up? I’ve read that last paragraph about ten times already, knowing that there are probably mistakes in my Spanish, or just things native speakers wouldn’t say. I feel the same way when I speak to my heritage classes for the first time, or worse yet, at back-to-school night in front of all of their parents, or at parent-teacher conferences. It’s okay, though. It’s good for me to experience that anxiety around my language skills. First, it makes me want to work on my Spanish more. Learning Spanish will never end for me. I know that. I think it’s part of the reason why I love it. Second, it gives me empathy. I am bilingual because I chose to be. I get to decide when and where I put my bilingual skills to work. I can decide if I want to take that risk or not. It’s a privilege of my whiteness and it’s important for me to recognize that it’s probably not that way for most of my students. Many of them have to be bilingual to navigate their world – to be able to talk with their grandparents AND their teachers, their peers AND their bosses. For many students, bilingualism isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. I feel anxious and I chose this. What if I didn’t have the choice? What if I felt anxious in two languages, not just one?  Don’t get me wrong, many students move effortlessly between two Spanish and English and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. But is it celebrated? My bilingualism is celebrated. I get praised for it. Is it the same way for my students? Or have they been treated like their bilingualism is a deficit? We have to acknowledge these facts and empathize with our students as we stand up in front of them every day.

What I learned

Those three years with my first heritage students taught me a lot about myself as a teacher and a human being. At times, it brought me to my knees. When I look back on some of the things I tried, some of the things I said, and some of the conflicts I had with students, I cringe. I was doing my best, but I was stabbing in the dark, and my students deserved better. That’s not to say we didn’t have some successes over those three years. We read books in Spanish – both as a class and individually. Students wanted to continue on to the next level. I think they liked coming to class and the numbers were growing. 

One of the lessons that I learned is that respect does not come automatically just because I am granted a position of authority, nor should it. At first, I would get so frustrated when certain students didn’t listen to me, didn’t do their work, or spoke to me in ways that I knew would horrify their mothers and that most likely wouldn’t be tolerated by a teacher that shared their cultural background. I would constantly wonder why they were testing me day after day. Looking back on it now, it makes sense. The fact that I was in a position of power in a culture and language that was not my own should have touched a nerve, whether it was conscious or not. I’m not saying at all that we should give students a pass on disrespectful behavior. It has to be addressed. I am saying that the sooner we can recognize the role of our dysfunctional system in that behavior and acknowledge the ways we have benefitted from that dysfunction, the less likely we are to take it personally and react. And the less we react, the less our buttons get pushed. The next year was easier, as was the year after that. I had earned some trust and with it, respect.

Which leads me to my second big lesson – I should never expect insider status for being an ally. I know that ally is a loaded word in social justice circles, and rightfully so. As people in positions of power (in this case, white people), we shouldn’t need a special designation just for doing the right thing. Maybe I should say – I should never expect insider status for doing the right thing by my students. My students came to trust and respect me with time and consistency. Sometimes they let me in their world which led to some great connections, but it was important then and it is important now for me to remember that I am a guest in this language and the cultures that speak it, and as a guest, it is important for me to be on my best behavior. For me, that means listening more than I speak (still a hard one for me as a teacher). It means being curious about things that I don’t know about or understand while withholding demands for explanations or my own personal judgements. It means doing my own homework instead of just expecting my students to teach me about their culture all the time.

The third thing I learned from this first phase of my career was to believe my students when they tell me something is racist. This may seem like a no-brainer for most educators. I hope that it does. It wasn’t for me. I can be a real Pollyanna at times. I didn’t want to believe that my students were being mistreated and that racism was a part of their daily lives, and that desire was detrimental to them. It was unintentional gaslighting. I’ve since learned that intent does not excuse impact and I am truly sorry to any student that I ever doubted when they told me about racism that they had experienced. If you’re a white teacher reading this post, learn from my mistakes. If a student of color (or any person of color that matter) tells you something is racist, it is. It’s never your job to say it’s not. 

When I decided to leave that position to move somewhere warmer and less isolated, leaving my heritage students was the hardest part. The ones that were freshmen when I started were about to be seniors and I wanted to watch them finish strong and graduate. I was able to come back for graduation and watching them walk across the stage was a huge honor. I learned a lot during my time with them, and yet, I still had so much more to learn. I still do, but I’ll get to that in a follow-up post.

To be continued…

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