Skip to main content


Translating the parent-teacher conference

Many schools hold parent-teacher conferences this month. For parents who don’t speak English, having a conversation with a teacher can be difficult. At a handful of schools in the Little Village neighborhood, some college students and future teachers are helping out.

PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM: We welcome you to John Spry Community School, one of Chicago’s finest …

So let’s say the teacher doesn’t speak Spanish. And the parent doesn’t speak English. Here’s the way that problem has been handled at countless parent-teacher conferences for decades.

MEDINA: So yeah, I would have to sit there and actually translate.

Yep, kids translating their own parent-teacher conferences. There are some obvious drawbacks.

MEDINA: I was a good student, so you know. I didn’t say lies or anything.

Nilda Medina is principal of Spry Community School, which is 99 percent Latino. She has many, many bilingual teachers. But … 

PRINCIPAL: We do have some teachers on staff that don’t speak Spanish, and we don’t have the resources to have someone there all the time to provide the translation.

That’s where Illinois State University Professor Jim Pancrazio comes in.

PANCRAZIO: We’ve established this type of roaming interpreters.

Welcome to the parent-teacher-interpreter conference.

TEACHER: This won’t be long, it won’t be painful either. These are his ISAT scores for last year, 6th grade …
TRANSLATOR: Aquí tenemos los resultados del examen del estado. También hay un guía …

For the past five years Pancrazio has driven to Little Village schools on report-card pickup days like this one. He’s brought along some 250 college students on his trips. All are advanced students of Spanish. Nearly all plan to become teachers themselves.

FRATICOLA: My name is Lisa Fraticola, I’m a junior at Illinois State University. I’m aspiring to be a Spanish teacher, so this is a great opportunity for us to come out and practice our Spanish, and also get an idea of how teachers are handling parent-teacher conferences.

Fraticola sits in a sunny classroom between a mom and seventh-grade teacher Julie Aimers.

When Aimers took a job at Spry she worried about not being able to speak Spanish. Her students all speak English, but with parents, it’s a different story.

AIMERS: I made little scripts of what I would like to say to the parents, but I know they’re probably not completely correct.

Aimers was relieved that Fraticola was assigned to translate for her.

A survey of California teachers who work with language minority students found the inability to connect with parents was their number one challenge.

And Fraticola is not just translating in one direction.

FRATICOLA: She’s saying that the parents, you know, they talk outside of classes. And she just wants to make sure that … what’s your personal way of punishing someone?
AIMERS: Um, depends on what they do, but, if it’s something that’s really inappropriate for class, I write it up to Ms. Garcia, the disciplinarian.
FRATICOLA: Entonces depende de lo que pasa, pero …

Of course Fraticola is translating language, but this is more complicated than that. Beyond language there are ideas about schools and parents’ role in schools that can differ radically from thinking in the U.S. It only gets more complex in schools where 15 or 20 languages are spoken.

Maria Estela Zarate is a professor of education at the University of California-Irvine. She studies parental involvement among Latino families.

ZARATE: There’s still much more in-depth communication that needs to happen in order for parents to be able to participate in the school, advocate for their children, and be engaged academically with their children. And that requires much more than just translation.

Spry feels a little bit like a fair on parent-teacher conference day. Whole families are here. A red popcorn cart sits outside the main office.

EMPLOYEE: Palomitas! 

Pancrazio talks to his college students about conveying cultural perspectives here. He tells them Hispanic parents often spend lots of time expressing gratitude for teachers’ work. And he tells them they might end up translating conversations about immigration or health—since the school may be parents’ main connection to this society.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.