I first heard of bilingual education as a student at the University of Texas in 1973, confused over my course of study and career.
I was a music major, tired of lonely piano practice rooms with a fading concept of what my future in music might hold.
Home in Fort Worth for the summer, I had a heart-to-heart talk with my mother. She was the person in my life who consistently and kindly endured my multiple searches for the meaning of life and my role in it.
As I tearfully shared my dilemma, she asked many questions about what made me excited for the future.
I said I was excited about anything to do with the Spanish language, which had enchanted me from an early age.
My mother showed me a small Star-Telegram article that spoke of a brand new program at the University of Texas called bilingual education. The report, no larger than the size of a very small business card and tucked in the back of the paper, gave the contact for more information.
My mother said enthusiastically that becoming a bilingual teacher would allow me to use some of my talents in a way that would help children whose first language was not English.
A quick call to Professor George Blanco, coordinator of the program, ended up changing my life and, I hope, the lives of the students I would teach, forever.
As a non-native speaker of Spanish who found the language to be “como música a mis oídos” (like music to my ears), I was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a bilingual teacher.
And the rest of the story is my history, having worked in the field of bilingual/bicultural and English as a Second Language education for more than 40 years.
My greatest teachers have been my students, whether in public school or academia.
I remember the fifth-grader, just learning English, who wrote a sentence that still makes me smile today.
After teaching them the names of several animals in English, I had asked the class to use the word “sheep” in sentences.
Still learning English sounds, including some such as the “sh” that do not exist in Spanish, the student wrote, “I ate three potato sheeps.”
She was confusing the words sheep and chip because she was unclear as to which sound, “sh” (unfamiliar in Spanish) or “ch” (common in Spanish), to use.
There are those who would lament her lack of knowledge about the sounds of English. Yet, that one sentence told me several things about her English language development.
First, I learned that she could now hear the previously unknown sound. Second, she could produce the sound. Third, she needed much more exposure to the sh/ch contrast in English to grow in confidence as to when to use each sound.
This student unknowingly gave me a great plan of action for helping her proficiency in the English language.
Another student helped me to see that the words a teacher uses with a student still learning English may be misinterpreted.
As with many adolescent girls, this Cambodian student struggled with self-esteem issues that were further complicated because of her refugee and English language learner status.
One day, she rushed into my classroom sobbing over what she thought another teacher had said to her.
Evidently, this very upset young student was talking with another Cambodian refugee student in class, seeking clarification about what they were to do for an assignment.
The teacher scolded her, saying, “Don’t be ugly.”
The student in question did not understand that the teacher was telling her not to misbehave. Rather, she interpreted the teacher’s words to mean that she was ugly in appearance — another swipe at her already suffering self-image.
The lesson for me this time was to consider how literally an English language learner might comprehend idiomatic and colloquial language.
I am thankful to have had these and a multitude of other instructive experiences with my students.
They have made my professional and personal life infinitely more interesting.
I always tell my students I have never been bored as a bilingual or ESL teacher or professor of bilingual/ESL teacher education.
I encourage anyone with interests in teaching and languages to join the bilingual/ESL teaching field.
As you seek to help students learn in a welcoming, supportive atmosphere where learning is successful, your life will be changed as well.
Melinda Cowart is professor and coordinator of the Bilingual/ESL Teacher Education Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.