Finding Hope: A Project to Help Bilingual Teachers Thrive in the Classroom
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: September 12, 2019
What does it mean to be a bilingual teacher in the Portland metro area and Willamette Valley?

That’s a question that Prof. Esperanza De La Vega intends to address with her community research project, Finding Hope. For the autoethnographic project (qualitative research involving self-reflection and writing), De La Vega has been convening alumni from Portland State University’s Bilingual Teacher Pathway (BTP) program.

BTP was established 20 years ago to fill shortages of elementary bilingual teachers in the Portland metro area. The program involves recruiting school district employees who wish to become licensed teachers.

“Relationships and the sense of community spirit that come out of the program are a memorable part of the BTP experience,” De La Vega said.

The project brings together BTP alums for quarterly focus groups during which participants share their take on current events and their career experiences. De La Vega and her co-principal investigators (Profs. Moti Hara, Maciel Hernandez and Carrie Larson) launched the Finding Hope project to capture the voices and views of bilingual teachers and to then share the power of the BTP program with all of Oregon.

At a recent Finding Hope gathering, De La Vega discussed Sonia Nieto’s theory on what keeps teachers in the profession. Nieto believes it is love, hope, and an anger that spurs teachers to fight for students who struggle in poverty, racism, and a flawed education system.

“We, as teachers, have the responsibility to mirror back to students,” De La Vega said. “Lisa Delpit talked about seeing the brilliance and beauty in every student.”

At every meeting, teachers from throughout the Portland and Willamette Valley areas discuss issues and solutions that affect their careers, while De La Vega’s team makes note of their comments and conversation.

One of the benefits of the project is that it serves as a professional learning community, where teachers can discuss the professional issues that they face and what to do about them, said Tymon Emch, a dual language physics and chemistry at Beaverton High School.

Emch—also founder and director of the nonprofit community school Cada Casa International and an adjunct professor at PSU—said one of the key issues with bilingual teaching is that some programs are designed for students who have been in the bilingual program and may not benefit new immigrants. He said another problem is some may see bilingual teaching as an auxiliary program, not an essential one, which frustrates him.

Finding Hope has helped him because he has felt isolated with so few other teachers in his program. Finding Hope participants share the collective experience of graduating from BTP, and bilingual teachers all experience similar work-day challenges, he said.

“Being able to articulate those challenges and work together as a group are some of the first steps toward addressing and solving those problems,” he said. “Seeing solutions and things that other teachers are doing well gives you an inspiration to do the same in your own school.”

Emch, who attended Finding Hope discussions in February and July, said De La Vega’s discussions revive his passion for pedagogy, and he loves reconnecting or meeting new BTP graduates, all of whom he considers family. The Finding Hope program’s family feel also appeals to Nahir Pérez, who attended her first Finding Hope gathering in July. Pérez teaches third-grade in the Spanish immersion program at Rigler Elementary School, part of Portland Public Schools.

She agreed there’s room for improvement in bilingual programs in the area. Pérez finds it frustrating that there are few pre-translated materials, so she must request a translation to be able to teach from a book. Another issue is that training for bilingual teachers is during the school year, and it’s difficult to find a substitute teacher for a Spanish immersion class.

Attending Finding Hope events gave her reassurance, as she realized that many of her classmates have had similar experiences and challenges at their schools and school districts. She said De La Vega is also quite encouraging.

“She always reminds you that the fight is not going to be easy, but it can be done,” Pérez said.

Patricia Lerma Martinez agreed that De La Vega keeps her inspired as a teacher. Lerma is entering her third year teaching second grade in the Dual Language Immersion Spanish/English Magnet Program at Trost Elementary School in the Canby School District.

De La Vega “was always there and she believed in me, and she knew I could do it,” Lerma said. “She inspired me. I think I am the teacher who I am because of her, because of all of the support that I received in the BTP program.”

Lerma said that now she has found support through Finding Hope, which she said offers value through sharing teachers’ voices.

The project will also continue this year, much to the delight of its participants, including Emch, Pérez, and Lerma.

“I am very happy to be a part of this project because I feel that our voice will be heard and people will know what we think and what we are facing in the classroom and what students are facing in their lives,” Lerma said.

Photo: Prof. Esperanza De La Vega

To share stories with the College of Education, contact Jillian Daley.