Teachers at a Loss for Words Communication Fallout between Teacher and Student Goes beyond the Generation Gap. Census Figures Confirm That in Many Suburban Schools, the Language Barrier Is the Biggest Hurdle

By Mask, Teresa | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

Teachers at a Loss for Words Communication Fallout between Teacher and Student Goes beyond the Generation Gap. Census Figures Confirm That in Many Suburban Schools, the Language Barrier Is the Biggest Hurdle


Mask, Teresa, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Teresa Mask Daily Herald Staff Writer

For those who believe numbers are a universal language, math teacher Ryan Beidler has an eye-opening lesson.

Try getting across a new concept to a group of students in which at least four languages are represented.

Beidler, who has taught in Naperville's Indian Prairie Unit District 204 for three years, sometimes finds himself literally at a loss for words when dealing with the multiplicity of languages teachers in the increasingly diverse suburbs are facing.

"Sometimes I can't get the point across even when I show them. Sometimes you end up doing the problem for them."

Welcome to education in the melting pot suburbs, where students from warring countries such as Croatia and Bosnia can be classmates and where teachers would benefit from degrees in linguistics and world history.

Beidler often counts on other teachers - those who specialize in English as Second Language - to help students comprehend math equations he can't.

"It's tough not being able to speak their language," said Beidler, who has taught students from Vietnam, Mexico and Kosovo alongside American-born class-mates.

"I just don't have the words. It's as frustrating for us as it is for them."

Cultural awareness

Teachers with ESL and bilingual education certification are equipped to handle the growing diversity of today's classrooms, but the majority of educators, like Beidler, simply don't have the training.

Those teachers face not only the language barriers but also cultural issues that arise in such a diverse atmosphere.

Of the state's more than 124,000 full-time teachers, only 2,145 are bilingual-certified. Another 614 have enough classes behind them to teach English as a Second Language, meaning they teach classes comprised of immigrants from throughout the world. There are about 120,000 students in bilingual classes in Illinois' public schools, out of a total of nearly 2 million students.

In some schools, such as North Elementary School in Des Plaines, more than 30 different languages are spoken.

In response to those trends, diversity and cultural awareness workshops are becoming a mainstay in some suburban schools. There also is a push to require more professional development, especially for teachers of students who are learning English as a second language.

The focus has increased within the last five or six years, educators say. And with new census figures showing a rise in minorities and young people in the country, equipping all teachers to handle the changes is more crucial than ever.

The population of people younger than 18 in Illinois grew by 10 percent since 1990 to 300,000. Some counties, such as McHenry and Will, saw growth as much as 47 percent and 42 percent, respectively, in the last decade.

That includes increases in minorities. The suburban census data mirrors the country, especially with the influx of Hispanic people. The Hispanic population in the Northwest suburbs, for instance, increased 120 percent from a decade ago. Today, Hispanic people comprise about 13 percent of the population. Throughout DuPage, Lake and Kane counties, communities also saw steady growth in the Asian, black and American Indian population.

Demographers say the growth will mean more emphasis on services, especially classes that teach English in schools.

"The decade of the '90s had the greatest influx of immigrants into this country and the most diverse," said Dave Turner, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

Majority need training

Recognizing that language diversity is here to stay, more and more regular education teachers are seeking ESL certification. Unlike bilingual education - which is taught in both English and the student's native language - ESL teachers learn to teach to students of various backgrounds. …

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