Working with Dual Language Learners
Montserrat Garibay is the Acting Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director for the Office of English Language Acquisition and Senior Advisor for Labor Relations, Office of Secretary, U.S. Department of Education. Previously she was the secretary-treasurer of the Texas American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and served as vice president for Certified Employees with Education Austin. Ms. Garibay was a bilingual pre-kindergarten teacher for eight years and a National Board-Certified Teacher. She is a graduate of the National Labor Leadership Initiative with the Worker Institute at Cornell University and is a University of Texas-Austin graduate with a master’s degree in Education. An activist on education and immigration issues, Garibay came to the U.S. from Mexico City as an undocumented immigrant and became a citizen 20 years later. She has been instrumental in promoting opportunities for all students, including those from immigrant families.
How did you begin your career in early childhood?
While I attended the University of Texas, I did my student teaching in a Pre-K class and that experience opened my eyes to the importance and effectiveness of quality bilingual full day Pre-K programs. I began my career as a bilingual Pre-K teacher at a Title 1 school in Austin, Texas. I taught Pre-K for eight years in a public school and the last five years at a Pre-K center. I was always very impressed by the curiosity, sense of humor and intelligence of four- and five-year-old children. It was amazing to see how fast they learned concepts and developed their social and cognitive skills in their native language and in English.
What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?
As a Pre-K bilingual teacher, I was the chair of the Pre-K committee with my union, Education Austin, a merged local with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. When the state cut funding for full day Pre-K program, our committee focused on advocacy. For months, our committee worked in collaboration with other teachers, parents, professors, early childhood organizations and community members to advocate for a quality full day Pre-K program. Parents, teachers and advocates met with school board members and the superintendent to share the importance and positive impact of the program. After many months of organizing, the school district voted to fund the full day Pre-K program even though the state had cut the funding. That experience transformed my way of thinking and taught me the importance of organizing to achieve better outcomes for my community.
I was also part of the Building Base Line Objectives for Children’s Knowledge and Skills in Science, a National Science Foundation funded project at the University of Texas, for three years. In the collaborative, I learned how to integrate science with a project-based approach in my teaching. I was part of a cohort of 12 early childhood teachers from different schools in Austin. We enrolled in professional development during the summer and received different resources such as books, technology, and materials to implement what we learned. During the school year we would use the strategies and resources we learned to teach our students. At the Pre-K center where I taught, we started a butterfly garden and everything we taught was centered in science and integrated different subjects into our daily learning. Our students were excited to learn, their vocabulary in Spanish and English grew, and their level of understanding of science grew exponentially. This collaborative not only improved my teaching, but it also allowed me to mentor new teachers, and I ended up providing professional development in my school district and presenting at national conferences.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work with dual language learners and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
Some of the challenges I experienced had to do with a preconceived notion that Spanish-speaking parents were not interested in the education of their children because they didn’t speak English. To the contrary, I found Spanish-speaking parents extremely interested in the education of their children. They wanted their children to be successful. I learned how to build relationships with them by doing home visits; inviting them to our classroom to read in Spanish; and asking them to volunteer, join field trips, and share their beautiful culture. Many parents worked in landscaping and at the local nursery, and I welcomed dads to share their expertise and knowledge about how to care for our garden. They became the “science experts” in our classroom. Their children were joyful to see their dads sharing their knowledge and the parents were happy and proud to be part of their children’s education.
I also experienced many adults in our schools having a deficit mentality about English learners. Many assumed that our students would not be successful because they didn’t speak English. I learned to advocate for them by using research and best practices. I often invited them to my classroom to see how our students were using their native language to learn concepts and later transfer their knowledge into English.
What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services for DLLs and their families?
My suggestions for others interested in improving early childhood services is to open their classroom doors to parents. Parents are the first teachers of our students and bring a variety of “funds of knowledge” to our classrooms. They can share their culture, their skills, and talents and they can be great role models to their own children. Pre-K is the best time to engage parents in the education of their children. Learning at the Pre-K level needs to be engaging and fun. We must provide a strong foundation and promote the love of learning so our students will be lifelong learners.
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