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As California bilingual education grows, teacher training is key

Zyanya Cazares, a sixth grade teacher who is starting a new assignment this fall teaching in a bilingual education program in Los Angeles, grew up speaking Spanish. But she was recently reminded that the casual, conversational Spanish she spoke at home is not the same as the formal form of the language she's now being asked to teach. 

“As a Chicana, it’s very easy to say, ‘oh I know how to say that word in Spanish, you just add an "o" at the end,’” Cazares said. “But that’s not academic Spanish, and we’re in an academic setting –  so I definitely have to prepare to learn the real word of how to say it academically.”

Cazares was one of a dozen current and aspiring bilingual education teachers who gathered at Cal State Dominguez Hills to learn about the latest teaching methods and also, for many teachers like Cazares, to fill in gaps in their language skills.

More often than not, many educators say, bilingual education teachers’ grasp of academic language in their second language trails that of their academic language in English. Experts in bilingual education say improving those skills will be essential as school districts open new programs after California voters lifted restrictions on dual-language programs last year.

“Principals tell us, we know that the content is important, what they need to teach, but send us teachers [who] speak Spanish well,” said Lilia Sarmiento, a professor of education at California State University Dominguez Hills.

L.A. Unified is leading the pack of school districts in the state opening new bilingual education programs. It’s opening 16 new programs this coming academic year, bringing the total to 101 bilingual programs. 

The second language of the vast majority of bilingual programs in California public schools is Spanish. A smaller number are in Chinese, French, and other languages.

Sarmiento helped start the two-week summer training for bilingual teachers where Cazares enrolled. During the second-to-last class session, CSU Dominguez Hills professor Heather Kertyzia talked to them about how to defuse tension with students through the use of non-violent language in the classroom.

“He can’t be independent at home because there are – what’s the word I’m looking for – physical punishments,” she said in Spanish, talking about why students act up in class. Kertyzia is not a fluent Spanish speaker; she learned the language in college and while living in Colombia. Despite incorrect grammar here and there, the message about the lesson remains clear.

Cazares noticed that and says it’s helped calm her nerves about starting her new teaching post.

“Through this class I’ve noticed that it’s empowering to engage the students in the, ‘well how do we say this word,’ or 'it’s OK not to know how to say every word,'” she said.

Her notebook is full of terms and concepts in Spanish she’ll be using on day one.

Charlas, is like chats, or talking. So charlas literarias: literature talks; cigla: acronym; citas: quotes,” she said.

It’s exactly those kinds of vocabulary gaps this class is aiming to close. Besides their teaching credential, bilingual education teachers must have additional training. Some educators say the preparation currently required by the state isn’t enough.

“One of our goals is to empower teachers, to create a space where they can use their heritage language to express themselves and to grow, not only professionally but personally,” Sarmiento said.

Educators say these kinds of teachers will be snapped up by school districts.

“We have a current shortage and the shortage is almost going to double with the new programs that the districts are predicting and expanding of the current programs that they have,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, a long time bilingual education advocate and executive director of Californians Together.

The success of new programs will depend on how well trained teachers are. Spiegel-Coleman successfully lobbied Governor Jerry Brown to create grants to train bilingual ed teachers. 

There are hundreds of teachers with bilingual education training who’ve been in English classrooms for years so their skills are rusty, Spiegel-Coleman says.

“This is the source that we think is most easily tapped to staff the programs, but we really need the universities, and we need the recruitment, we really need to think about building the pipeline,” she said. And that pipeline, she said, should include the product of current bilingual programs: the thousands of California high school seniors who are graduating with seals of biliteracy on their diplomas.