Phone Calls Cross Boundaries

Tiffany and Ivy had missed a lot of school. Most recently, Tiffany had been absent for more than a week. Ivy showed up every other day. Their answers to questions about those absences were vague: “I was sick” or “My mother needs me at home.” When I emphasized the importance of attending school daily, they nodded in agreement. The next day, their seats were empty.

I decided to reach out to the girls’ parents. For most of my 120 students, that process involves an email or a phone call. But Tiffany and Ivy were born in China, and their families speak only Chinese. That language barrier represented a many-faceted communication breakdown.

Both students had come to the United States within the past five years; chosen new, more English-sounding names and attended middle schools whose robust services for English Language Learners (ELLs) included a full-time teacher of English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL). 

Our small high school has few ELLs, and an itinerant ESOL teacher visits only once a week. The girls’ transition was difficult. As their English teacher, I assigned them a separate set of academic vocabulary words, encouraged conversation and interaction with other students through structured oral tasks, and invited Tiffany and Ivy to draw parallels between the English and Chinese languages. Their frequent absences made the work difficult and frustrating for all three of us.

My school district provides a service that allows school staff to access professional translators over the phone. The service is indispensable, but the process is a bit awkward. Conversations are jerky and slow, and I sometimes worry that nuances are lost in translation. I prepared to make the phone call to Tiffany and Ivy’s parents by employing a professional translator.

When we spoke via translator, Tiffany’s father told me that she left the house every morning and returned every afternoon. He assumed, of course, that she was attending school. He occasionally signed notes for her. But because the notes were in English, he wasn’t sure what he was signing. He said he valued Tiffany’s education immensely and promised to set things straight.

I heard a similar story from Ivy’s parents. They had no idea their daughter was missing school. I met with the three of them in person later that week, and we again spoke via a translator. Ivy seemed depressed. It became clear that she had been cutting school and spending the days with Tiffany, one of the few people with whom she could comfortably communicate. Ivy didn’t speak much during the meeting, but she expressed a wish to return to China. 

After the phone call, Tiffany returned to school. But I haven’t seen Ivy since the meeting with her and her parents. Both Tiffany and I have tried to reach Ivy, with no luck. Although I can’t be sure where Ivy is now, I hope she is happier and that she is learning. 

I realize the difference those phone calls made. Both Tiffany and Ivy, as the sole liaisons between the English-speaking world at school and Chinese-speaking worlds at home, had been trying to hide the truth from the adults in their lives: They were really struggling at school. They found ways to avoid it altogether. 

The phone calls—despite all their imperfections—were worth the effort. Tiffany’s attendance improved. The phone conversations clarified the girls’ situations for me, and helped me develop a better system to communicate with my students’ families. The parents and I were able to devise solutions together. I will make this kind of outreach a habit.

Many students bear the same burden as Tiffany and Ivy. In the Unites States, more than 5.5 million students are English language learners, speaking more than 400 home languages. These students straddle two worlds divided by a significant linguistic barrier. They struggle in school, and very few people appear to be able to help. They feel very lonely.  I think many teachers, myself included, feel overwhelmed by the needs of these students and underequipped to address them. I hope our schools will provide more of the support this group of students needs. In the meantime, I’ve learned that one phone call can make a difference.

Melville is high school English, Spanish and drama teacher in Pennsylvania.