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The Dilemma of Cultural Responsiveness and Professionalization: Listening Closer to Immigrant Teachers Who Teach Children of Recent Immigrants

by Jennifer Keys Adair, Joseph Tobin & Angela E. Arzubiaga - 2012

Background/Context: Many scholars in the fields of teacher education, multicultural education, and bilingual education have argued that children of recent immigrants are best served in classrooms that have teachers who understand the cultural background and the home language of their students. Culturally knowledgeable and responsive teachers are important in early education and care settings that serve children from immigrant families. However, there is little research on immigrant teachers’ cultural and professional knowledge or on their political access to curricular/pedagogical decision-making.

Focus of Study: This study is part of the larger Children Crossing Borders (CCB) study: a comparative study of what practitioners and parents who are recent immigrants in multiple countries think should happen in early education settings. Here, we present an analysis of the teacher interviews that our team conducted in the United States and compare the perspectives of immigrant teachers with those of their nonimmigrant counterparts, specifically centering on the cultural expertise of immigrant teachers who work within their own immigrant community.

Research Design: The research method used in the CCB project is a variation of the multivocal ethnographic research method used in the two Preschool in Three Cultures studies. We made videotapes of typical days in classrooms for 4-year-olds in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in five countries (England, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States) and then used these videos as cues for focus group interviews with parents and teachers. Using a coding framework designed by the national CCB team, we coded 30 focus group interviews. The coding framework was designed to facilitate comparisons across countries, cities, and categories of participants (teachers and parents, immigrant and nonimmigrant).

Findings/Results: Teachers who are themselves immigrants from the same communities of the children and families they serve seem perfectly positioned to bridge the cultural and linguistic worlds of home and school. However, our study of teachers in five U.S. cities at a number of early childhood settings suggests that teachers who are themselves immigrants often experience a dilemma that prevents them from applying their full expertise to the education and care of children of recent immigrants. Rather than feeling empowered by their bicultural, bilingual knowledge and their connection to multiple communities, many immigrant teachers instead report that they often feel stuck between their pedagogical training and their cultural knowledge.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Bicultural, bilingual staff, and especially staff members who are themselves immigrants from the community served by the school, can play an invaluable role in parent–staff dialogues, but only if their knowledge is valued, enacted, and encouraged as an extension of their professional role as early childhood educators. For the teachers, classrooms, and structures in our study, this would require nonimmigrant practitioners to have a willingness to consider other cultural versions of early childhood pedagogy as having merit and to enter into dialogue with immigrant teachers and immigrant communities.

Many scholars in the fields of teacher education, multicultural education, and bilingual education have argued that children of recent immigrants are best served in classrooms that have teachers who understand the cultural background and the home language of their students (Arzubiaga, Rueda, & Monzó, 2002; Banks et al., 2005; Carreon, Drake, & Barton, 2005; De Gaetano, Williams, & Volk, 1998; Garcia, 2005; Goodwin, 2002; Valdés, 2001). Culturally knowledgeable and responsive teachers are especially important in early education and care settings that serve children from immigrant families (Arzubiaga & Adair, 2009; Adair & Tobin, 2007; Souto-Manning, 2007; Takanishi, 2004). Whether as lead teachers, paraprofessionals, or support specialists, these teachers are often called on to help young children of immigrants and their families manage the dissimilar worlds of home and school (de la luz Reyes, 2005; Gupta, 2006; Lucero, 2010; Monzó & Rueda, 2008). Teachers who are themselves immigrants from the same communities of the children and families they serve seem perfectly positioned to bridge the cultural and linguistic worlds of home and school. However, the present study of teachers in five U.S. cities in a number of early childhood settings suggests that immigrant teachers often experience difficulty applying their cultural knowledge to the education and care of young children of immigrants. As will be shown, many immigrant teachers in our study reported that they often feel stuck between their pedagogical training and their cultural knowledge; between the expectations of their fellow teachers and of parents; and between the goals of being culturally responsive to children, families, and their community and being perceived as professional by their fellow teachers and their superiors.

This article is based on our analyses of transcripts from video-cued focus group interviews we conducted in five U.S. cities with 50 preschool teachers, almost half of whom were bilingual, bicultural immigrant teachers. These interviews were conducted as part of the larger Children Crossing Borders (CCB) study, a comparative study in Europe and the United States of what practitioners and parents who are recent immigrants think should happen in preschool. In this article, we present an analysis of the teacher interviews our team conducted in the United States, and we compare the perspectives of these immigrant teachers with those of their nonimmigrant counterparts.


Although the focus of this article is immigrant teachers in the United States, our analysis is informed by the larger CCB conceptual framework that is concerned with the power differentials that lead to the marginalization of the voices and perspectives of recent immigrants in early childhood education (see Adair & Tobin, 2007; Arzubiaga & Adair, 2009; Brougère, Guénif-Souilamas, & Rayna, 2008; Tobin, Arzubiaga, & Mantovani, 2007; Tobin & Kurban, 2010). Our analysis of immigrant preschool teachers in this article draws on two conceptual frameworks: the Funds of Knowledge framework of Norma Gonzalez, Luis Moll, and colleagues (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; see also Moll & González, 1997) and Lisa Delpit’s (2006) work on how the expertise of African American teachers is often ignored in the education of African American children.

The Funds of Knowledge (FOK) project began as an anthropological inquiry that drew on ethnographic methods and concepts to help teachers better connect their curriculum and pedagogy to students’ lives outside of school (see Gonzalez et al., 2005; Moll, 1992). Instead of relying on disconnected trainings or superficial understandings of customs and holidays, the FOK project recruited teachers to become teacher-ethnographers and learn directly from the families of their students about what kinds of knowledge children brought with them to school. Teacher ethnographers participated in everyday family activities, observed family routines over time, and interviewed family members about specific practices or philosophies. This experience demonstrated to teachers how children use math, science, literacy, or problem-solving within their homes and communities and challenged teachers to bring this knowledge into the classroom for the benefit of the child and out of respect for diverse ways of knowing.

This research formed the basis for a theoretical framework that asserts the importance of teachers and teachers-to-be in “learning from their students and their communities” (Gonzalez et al., 2005, p. ix) as a way to better inform their practice. We extend this logic to propose that there is value in tapping the funds of knowledge of bilingual, bicultural teachers who come from the same communities and neighborhoods as the children they teach. The present study also explores what happens when bicultural teachers with a deep understanding of their students’ funds of knowledge are unable to use this understanding because practices based on it are not considered best or even acceptable practice in the current school context.

Lisa Delpit (1986, 2006) drew on her experiences as a teacher and then as a teacher educator to analyze the power and voice of African American teachers and to study their struggle to address the needs of African American children in school. Delpit’s research suggested that White liberal professors of education dismiss African American preservice teachers because their ideas about curriculum, classroom management, or literacy are not consistent with progressive best practices. Her qualitative work shows how this leads many young African American teachers to doubt their own cultural knowledge (1986). Delpit’s work has been a clarion call to other scholars who are rethinking whose voices are present in addressing the educational needs of children of color.

As in Delpit’s examples of African American teachers who teach in their own African American neighborhoods, immigrant teachers in our study who work with children and families from their same community often share past histories and cultural experiences that place them closer to their students than the majority of teachers (de la luz Reyes, 2005). These past histories and cultural experiences may include struggling to learn a language that is different from the one spoken at home; overcoming being seen as “other people’s children” (Delpit, 2006) by teachers and those in authority; and raising children in a country where social, cultural, and educational practices are dissimilar to those cultivated at home. A combination of sociocultural proximity; shared childhood and schooling experiences; and the underlying “sociocultural emotional geography” of spatial and experiential patterns of closeness and/or distance in relationships (Hargreaves, 2001) are theorized to be important factors that position immigrant teachers to bring their “prior beliefs and experiences” (Gupta, 2006, p. 3) to their work with children of recent immigrants.


The research method used in the large CCB project is a variation of the video-cued, multivocal ethnographic research method used in two Preschool in Three Cultures studies (Tobin, Hsueh, & Karasawa, 2009; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). As in those studies, in the CCB study, we made videotapes of typical days in classrooms for 4-year-olds in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in five countries (England, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States) and then used these videotapes as cues for focus group interviews with parents and teachers.

The five settings in the United States where we conducted focus groups were selected by classroom visits and demographic data to represent a wide range of the demographic and sociopolitical contexts in which recent immigrants live, work, and send their children to school. These settings are San Luis (a small town on the Arizona/Sonora border); Phoenix (where about half of the children in the public schools are children of immigrants and where political debates are raging); Farmville, Iowa (a town of 3,000 that in the past decade has become about half Mexican); New York City (a traditional gateway where Dominican, Mexican, and West African immigrants are growing in numbers); and Nashville (a city that is increasingly Latino). These schools were also selected to represent a mix of private and public schools, Head Start as well as preschools run by elementary school districts, religious as well as secular, all within communities of families of varying social economic class and ethnicity. We chose specific schools to provide middle- and working-class versions of immigrant schooling. The university preschool in Nashville and the Mosque preschool in Phoenix were both private schools that attract children of immigrants from the middle class. All but two programs in our study were accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Although it is true that a substantial number of children of immigrants do not attend NAYEC-accredited preschools, their work remains influential within federal early childhood programs like Head Start that serve children of immigrants (Zigler & Styfco, 2010). This is significant given that the NAEYC guidelines require programs and teachers to be both culturally responsive and to adhere to NAEYC’s definitions of progressive best practices (see Bredekamp, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

In all the focus group interviews with immigrant parents and preschool teachers, participants were asked to watch and discuss first a video of a day in a preschool in their country and then one from another country. Approximately 50 teachers and 100 immigrant parents participated in the U.S. focus groups (see Appendix B). Immigrant parent focus groups, typically with 5–7 parents per group, were conducted in English, Spanish, Arabic, Mixtec, and French. Teacher focus groups, ranging from 2 to 5 teachers per group, were conducted in English and Spanish.  Out of the 50 teachers, only 3 were male. In New York City, San Luis, and Phoenix, where immigrant teachers were present, we conducted some focus groups with immigrant teachers only and some with immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers together. Some immigrant teachers preferred to have their focus group conducted in Spanish rather than English, as was the case in some NYC, Phoenix, and San Luis preschools (for a more detailed explanation of how immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers participated in the focus groups, see Adair, 2009, 2011). Most of the teachers were either middle class or lower middle class. Immigrant teachers who had first been parents at the schools where they taught were the exception because they have continued to live in working-class conditions, in the same parts of town (even the same apartment buildings) as some of the families they serve.


We began each focus group interview with a brief explanation of the project. We then showed the 20-minute U.S. film of a typical day at Solano Preschool in Phoenix, a state-funded program located in an elementary school. About half the children in the video are children of recent immigrants, the majority of whom speak Spanish at home. Both teachers seen in the video came to the United States as young adults, one from Mexico and the other from Guatemala. The film shows the teachers and children switching back and forth between speaking English and Spanish during the day. The interviewer began the discussion by asking an open-ended question: What are your thoughts about the preschool in the video? Follow-up questions asked the focus group participants to comment on various scenes in the video, each of which is connected to a key issue in early childhood education. Participants were asked what they thought about how the teachers in the video dealt with language issues, the balance of academics and play, connecting with parents when children were dropped off and picked up, dealing with misbehavior and children’s disputes, and affection. Toward the end of the discussion, interviewers asked about issues less clearly visible in the film, including how teachers should help children develop their identity as both American citizens and members of an immigrant culture. To include the voices of shyer participants, the interviewers would ask participants who had not spoken up if they agreed with the ideas others had stated and if they had anything to add. After discussing the Solano Preschool video, the process was repeated with another film, one of a day in the French or Italian preschool. Both of these films had subtitles in English. Each focus group discussion followed its own direction. However, interviewers used a common set of guiding interview questions to make sure all topics/questions were addressed in each focus group (see Appendix C). The focus groups typically lasted between 90 minutes and 2 hours.  


The U.S. focus group interviews conducted in Spanish with preschool teachers and immigrant parents were translated and transcribed by native-Spanish-speaking members of the U.S. research team as well as professional translators. Focus group interviews that took place in Arabic, Mixtec, or French were translated either within the focus group or transcribed and translated by a native speaker. Using a coding framework designed by the national CCB team (see Appendix A; see also Adair & Pastori, 2011), we coded 30 focus group interviews. The coding framework was designed to facilitate comparisons across countries, cities, and categories of participants (teachers and parents, immigrant and nonimmigrant). Patterns were identified and assertions were examined in several ways. The same transcript was coded multiple times to ensure accuracy and interreliability. Transcripts were searched for confirming and disconfirming evidence. Team discussions included comparing notes as well as joint readings for interpretation. It was during this coding and analytic process that differences between immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers’ approaches to immigrant families emerged as evidence to the particular situation of bicultural, bilingual immigrant early childhood teachers. While we looked for patterns stemming from the socioeconomic status of schools, teachers’ bilingual skills, and local educational contexts to make sense of how teachers spoke with and connected to immigrant parents, we found the most consistent and specific differences between immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers.    


Immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers across the five sites where we conducted focus groups in the United States expressed similar beliefs about pedagogy, curriculum, and classroom management, a consistency of perspective that can be explained in part by the fact that all of them worked in programs accredited by NAEYC (see Adair, 2009). In contrast, on the question of how best to teach immigrant children and how to relate to immigrant parents and their communities, there were significant differences in the responses of immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers. There was also considerable variation on these topics among the responses of nonimmigrant teachers working in different locations and contexts of immigration.

Sites in our study with only a recent history of immigration had a mostly White nonimmigrant teaching force that in most cases lacked close connections to and familiarity with the new immigrant families in their community. For example, teachers in Farmville, Iowa, said they have relatively little contact with the Mexican parents. One teacher said in the focus group that when she “bumps into” Mexican parents outside school, the parents are appreciative but remain shy and apprehensive. Another of the Farmville teachers, who speaks some Spanish, said, “I think the parents want to know more than they ask us.” The teachers in Farmville shared a sense of regret and frustration that language and cultural barriers, and the geographic and social separation of the White and immigrant families in the small town, prevented them for connecting more with the parents of the immigrant children in their classes. Teachers explained that even in a town of only 3,000 people, the White and immigrant parents were largely segregated in their daily lives; they shopped in different stores, attended different church services, and worked in different places (the immigrants almost all working in a meat processing plant just outside of town).

The two communities in Farmville came into closest contact in the school, beginning with the preschool, where Mexican and White children meet and become friends. The preschool teachers in our focus group interviews, on the one hand, expressed pride and pleasure that they were able to play a mediating role between the immigrant and the nonimmigrant communities. On the other hand, the teachers acknowledged in various ways that they were unable to transcend the prejudices and suspicions their White nonimmigrant community holds of the immigrant community. These teachers expressed frustration that although they felt they were acquiring some knowledge of the immigrant community and getting to know the children well and the parents a little, they lacked an adequate way to respond to the complaints and prejudiced comments they heard from their family members and friends about “the Hispanic kids” and “the Mexicans,” as they described in this discussion of rumors that immigrant children were causing trouble at the school:

Janine: I hear that, you know, “troubled kids,” I would always hear that they’re Hispanics. It’s never the White kids, it’s always Hispanic kids.

Marta: I hear it too, and it’s hard for me to . . . sometimes I have to be quiet about it, because since I work here, I know that that’s not the way that it happened. But to avoid confrontation with sometimes my own family, you know, it’s better just to walk away or stay quiet because you know that’s not what happened.   

White and African American nonimmigrant teachers in Nashville also expressed a sense of distance and disconnection from immigrant families. Teachers in one Nashville focus group put the blame on the lack of communication between teachers and parents in their preschool on the parents, whom they complained are “are hard to get to know”:

Hannah:  Hard, because most of the mothers are Japanese.

Charlotte: It’s most of the Asian moms that are a little. . .

Hannah: You have to write notes to them.

Charlotte: Communication with the children, also with the parents, is also a challenge.

Nonimmigrant teachers in Phoenix and New York City, sites with long histories of serving children of recent immigrants, expressed more familiarity with the needs of immigrant children and their families than did their counterparts in Iowa and Nashville. Teachers in New York City, for example, had a long list of parent interaction strategies and could tell us more about children’s home lives than teachers in Farmville and Nashville. Farmville teachers reported that they had home visits each year but rarely communicated with the immigrant parents at school or in the community. Given this lack of communication, it is no surprise that nonimmigrant teachers often expressed mistaken notions of immigrant parents’ beliefs about early childhood education. Souto Manning and Swick’s (2006) research on [primarily White] teachers’ beliefs about parent involvement concluded that “the chasm that often develops to create unhealthy dissonance between teacher and parents/families is greatly influenced by teacher beliefs” (p. 188).


The teachers in our analysis who were themselves immigrants and who came from the same immigrant communities as the children and families in their classrooms well understood the perspectives of immigrant parents. In contrast to the nonimmigrant teachers in our study, the immigrant teachers felt a strong connection to the immigrant families whose children they teach and could articulate the concerns and desires of immigrant parents. For example, immigrant teachers at the Mosque school in Phoenix explained that parents wanted a preschool teacher who would blend the roles of parent and teacher.  In New York City, immigrant teachers from West Africa at the Morning Hill preschool empathized with immigrant parent concerns about discipline and in the focus group discussion expressed beliefs closely aligned with those raised by West African parents the day before. These immigrant teachers knew that immigrant parents felt powerless to discipline their children in their new country that does not allow corporal punishment. The teachers told us that although they understand the parents’ frustration, they still have to follow “policies and rules.”

Anita: We have policies and rules even though they’re used to certain things being done a certain way, we have rules in which we have to follow

JT: Do they tell you it’s not okay to hit, to spank?

Anita: Yeah, we tell them that it’s not okay.

Nicole: Yeah we can’t do that.

Janette: I don’t know if they might have mentioned it already but . . . quite often I get parents who come and complain to me that, you know, discipline is not what it is in this country. What’s going on and they kind of give up. . .  

JT: Yeah, that’s what we heard in the parents’ [interviews] .

Anita: Yeah, so . . . they gave up.

JT: Yeah, so they feel a loss of authority?

Anita: Mm hmmm. Definitely. Very difficult.

In some of the focus group interviews, immigrant teachers explained the concerns of immigrant parents to their nonimmigrant fellow teachers and to us. And yet, despite their empathy for the immigrant parents and despite sharing a language and cultural background with the parents, these immigrant teachers also described the difficulties they encounter as they try to respond to immigrant parents’ concerns while appearing professional.


Many immigrant teachers described their journey to becoming professional as one of having to give up old beliefs as well as acquire new ones. Rather than merging the cultural knowledge they grew up with and the professional knowledge they learned in their education classes and on-the-job training, many reported the two forms of knowledge as substitutive and incompatible. For example, in a focus group in New York City, we spoke with preschool teachers and assistants at Garden Grove, who were Spanish-speaking immigrants from the Dominican Republic (where many of the families at the school were from), and we asked them if immigrant parents ever had concerns about the school. The first teacher to speak, Rosa, responded by relating her own feelings as an immigrant parent when she first arrived at the school. She told us that she did not initially like the school because every time she came to the classroom, she found that her daughter was “just playing.” She was disappointed when the teachers explained to her that they would not be teaching her child to write and instead would be engaging her in literacy through games and center activities. The teachers attempted to convince her that her daughter would learn more through play, but Rosa strongly disagreed with their teaching methods:

When we arrived here, I questioned what I saw in the program because I thought they were teaching our daughter more [in Mexico] than what they were teaching her here. I started noticing that she was learning but in another dimension, in another way. But I only saw that by being here and participating with her. That’s why I always said, “Ay, she is going to be behind,” because she already knew [her ABCs] and I don’t see a notebook here.

Rosa told us that she began to work in the classroom first as a volunteer and later as a paid assistant. This led her to pursue a degree in early childhood education and to become a teacher. Along this journey, Rosa gradually came to accept the school’s pedagogical approach and the notion that her daughter and the other children would be learning in “another dimension.” Rosa and many other immigrant teachers described how, through their university coursework and on-the-job training, they were first introduced to and then gradually came to accept the logic of DAP—the developmentally appropriate practices that is the core set of professional practices endorsed by the NAEYC (see National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 2009).

Although Rosa eventually accepted the concept of developmentally appropriate practice and she became able to explain to parents how a technique like “learning through play” works, she still remembers how the preschool’s approach to literacy felt to her as an immigrant parent. Rosa in her heart may still believe that the school could have better supported her daughter’s skills. But her narrative suggests a process of becoming a professional that required her to give up one set of beliefs and replace them with another.

Some immigrant teachers who spoke enthusiastically about DAP and other progressive practices described their journey from being an immigrant parent to a teacher of other immigrant parents’ children as one of growth, of a journey from misunderstandings to true knowledge. Other immigrant teachers described this journey as one of coming to accept and perform, without fully endorsing, a new set of beliefs and practices (Arzubiaga & Adair, 2009). Why do immigrant teachers feel such pressure to discard many of their cultural beliefs about early childhood in order to be seen as successful teachers? How can early childhood programs draw on immigrant teachers’ expertise?


When both immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers watched the video of a day in a preschool classroom in Phoenix, their comments were almost always positive. The head teacher in this video, Liliana, speaks Spanish and English with the children, acts out stories with the children during “free play,” negotiates arguments in the dramatic play area, and even swings with the children outside on the playground. The video shows Liliana comforting a panicked child being dropped off at school by his mother. The immigrant teachers, in particular, praised Liliana’s use of affection. However, when the immigrant teachers watched and discussed the films we showed of French and Italian preschools, their responses revealed some ambivalence about how and what children should learn in preschool. We speculate that the task of watching films of unfamiliar schools in other cultures worked to unleash more complicated, ambivalent reflections and reactions than did the task of watching a film showing progressive practices that were familiar to them and that produced expected comments and reactions, in line with those of their nonimmigrant colleagues. Watching and responding to preschool films from the other CCB countries often allowed immigrant teachers to speak more freely as immigrants rather than as professional teachers.

One example of such an ambivalent and complicated reaction occurred at a preschool in New York, where a group of Spanish-speaking, mostly immigrant teachers (8 of the 9 teachers were from the Dominican Republic) watched and then discussed our video showing a day in a French ecole maternelle. The French film is different from the U.S. preschool film in that it follows French schooling traditions of monolingual instruction, teacher-centeredness, and larger teacher-student ratios. The teachers were surprised that a single teacher was expected to teach a class of 25 students and critical of what they saw as a lack of adequate supervision of children on the playground, which raised concerns about safety. We were accustomed to the French video provoking expressions of such concerns among U.S. teachers. But in this focus group with immigrant teachers, the discussion took an unexpected turn. The discussion began predictably enough, with a teacher saying that it was awful how children could fight without a teacher intervening: “The children were killing each other. When the girl [tried to take] the chair of the other girl, she didn’t let them resolve the problem. When they had the recess, they were killing each other, nobody went there.” A teacher faulted the French teacher for being too rushed in her interactions with immigrant children: “How much it is going to take them to understand the, the immigrants. I mean, sorry, but, Oh my God! I didn’t like when the teacher didn’t give the boy a chance to answer the questions she was asking.” A third teacher added that they even let the children use knives during mealtime: “The knife and the fork for the children, the children. It is not suitable for 3-year-old children.” At this point, the conversation turned, as the teachers debated the wisdom and appropriateness of children being allowed to use knives in preschool. One teacher agreed that “real” knives would not be found in U.S. preschools, but she wondered aloud, “Why not?” and observed that young children were allowed to use knives to cut their food in some homes. This led to a spirited discussion about the cultural nature of assumptions about what children can and can’t do:

Alejandra: I think that it can be the influence of the culture. I mean if they can handle it

Lourdes: Many people teach the children at an early age to use the

Alejandra: But, that’s what I’m telling you. Her hands were not used to [the knives].

Miriam: But the girl didn’t have, you know what I’m saying? The one who was cutting the meat. She didn’t have. . .

Alejandra: She didn’t feel comfortable. Because she wanted to. . .

Miriam: . . .not only at the mealtime but during the whole process.

Victoria: It was okay [the use of knives by the children]. But maybe we are looking at them and I think that by watching the video, I questioned ourselves. I walked in the shoes of somebody who we say, “They don’t understand us.” Because by watching that video, we are like the Americans to our children. What I mean is that remember that in our native country there are 7-year-old children who cook. Children who can take care of other children. They have skills that make us say—is this good or not good? . . . That’s why in our country a 17 year-old-child has a mentality that enables you to talk to him at any level.

In this conversation, we see immigrant teachers drawing on their memories and experiences prior to emigrating to the United States to challenge the taken-for-grantedness of middle-class American beliefs about what children are capable of doing. Victoria accuses the other teachers of having too limited a view of children’s potential, the way that Anglo teachers limit the abilities and possibilities of immigrant students. In her criticism, we can hear a form of cultural critique, as she suggests that immigrant children come to school with knowledge and abilities that are underestimated or, worse, considered dangerous by teachers who view them through a U.S. professional lens. Her comment, “We are like the Americans to our children,” is less as an accusation than a realization, or even an epiphany.

This exchange was one of the rare instances in our study in which immigrant teachers offered a direct challenge of U.S. early childhood educational beliefs and practices. In her epiphanic declaration, Victoria named the problem she and the other immigrant teachers suffer from as a forgetting of things they once knew, and worse, a forgetting that makes them view their own children through foreign eyes, in terms of deficits rather than strengths.  

The argument put forward by Victoria and Lourdes is consistent with sociocultural constructions of childhood that critique normative, ethnocentric ideas about how children learn and develop (LeVine & White, 1986; Rogoff, 2003; Tobin, 2000; Whiting & Edwards, 1988). There have been calls within early childhood education for the implementation of more culturally responsive approaches to teaching children from diverse backgrounds (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, 2005; Souto-Manning, 2007; Williams & De Gaetano, 1998); for educating teachers (Goodwin, 2002); and for connecting families and teachers (Doucet, 2008; Graue, 2005).  Teachers should be informed by current early childhood best practice, coupled with an understanding and appreciation of the “funds of knowledge” (Gonzalez et al., 2005) that immigrant and other children and families bring with them to school.  For nonimmigrant and White middle-class teachers, such culturally situated, responsive approaches require new learning. For immigrant teachers, it requires not just new learning but also a not-forgetting.


Being an effective teacher for immigrant children requires having a repertoire of strategies for working not only with children but with their parents as well. Studies have demonstrated the value of parent participation in early childhood education programs and pointed to the importance of establishing good communication between teachers and parents (Epstein, 1995; Tobin et al., 2007). But communicating well with parents is a skill that is not yet effectively taught in many teacher preparation programs (Doucet, 2008; Graue, 2005), and as a result, many teachers struggle with their relationships with parents (Carreon et al., 2005; Knopf & Swick, 2007). This is especially true when the teachers and parents do not share a common cultural background or language (De Gaetano, 2007; Gonzalez et al., 2005; Lopez, 2001; Rodriguez-Brown, 2008; Schaller, Rocha, & Barshinger, 2006). Too often, parent–teacher communication is hierarchical, asymmetric, and one-way, especially when the parents are from a lower social class than the teachers and/or when the parents are immigrants. Parent–teacher communication is too often conceptualized as the teacher giving information to parents rather than on a more reciprocal, symmetrical, dialogic relationship (Vandenbroeck, Roets, & Snoeck, 2009; Tobin, 2009).

Most of the research on communication between teachers and immigrant parents has importantly focused on teachers who come from a different culture than the parents (Carreon et al., 2005; Lopez, 2001; Rodriguez-Brown, 2008). Our study is unusual or even unique in including a focus on the relationships between immigrant parents and teachers who are also immigrants. To provoke discussion of parent–teacher relationships, we included scenes in our videos of teachers interacting with parents at the beginning and end of the school day, and we followed up with questions to teachers about the quality of their relationship with parents and strategies they used to communicate with parents. For example, in a focus group with a group of teachers, all of whom were immigrants, at a New York City Head Start center called Morning Hill, we asked what they do when immigrant parents have concerns about their child or the program. The teachers responded with predictable list of ways they worked with parents: conferences, home visits, spontaneous interactions before and after school, and monthly meetings, as per Head Start policy. When we asked what the teachers considered the main goal of communicating with parents, one teacher responded, “To make parents wise” to the value of learning through play and other early learning strategies used by the school. We followed up by asking the teachers if their attempts to “wise parents up” worked, and the teachers responded that they are engaged in an ongoing struggle to convince immigrant parents who press them to provide their children with more direct academic instruction:

Alice: That’s what we see quite a bit. [We] have a workshop explaining to them that “When he plays in the block area, it’s learning some math concepts, etc., etc., etc.” If you don’t explain it . . . you have to spend much of the year reassuring them that [their children] are going to be being able to function when they move out of here. That they’re going to do as well. In fact they always come back afterwards very surprised, “Oh, don’t you know our child did so well in school.” But you have to convince them, in a way.  

JT: And you usually can?

Alice: Usually you can. You still have something that’s like “Oh, you guys do a lot of playing in that classroom” going on. So we try to inform them as much as possible through the class committee or school workshops.

The verbs reassure and convince imply some resistance by immigrant parents to what the teachers, who are immigrants themselves, are saying about how and what children should learn in school.

The theme of parental resistance was more explicitly articulated in a comparison of two focus group we conducted at another New York Head Start preschool: Garden Grove. First we met with the immigrant parents. At the end of the focus group time, we thanked all the parents for coming, and we explained that the goal of the study is to find out what parents and teachers think about educating children of immigrants in preschool. We explained that we would be meeting with the teachers at their school later that day and asked “Is there anything you want us to pass along to them?” A mother responded: “Yeah, ask them, ‘Would it kill you to teach my child how to write her name?’”  

Later that day, we interviewed the Garden Grove teachers who were immigrants mostly from the Dominican Republic, the same place the immigrant parents at the school were from. Keeping in mind what the mother had said about wanting her child to learn to write her name, we asked the teachers what they do when parents have such concerns about the curriculum:

JA: I want to know what happens if a parent has questions or problems with something in class, with a teacher or another child or something. I want to know what happens and what you do about it.

Claudia: We generally tell the principal. We try to meet with them. If the problem is not resolved, then we tell the principal.

JA: What kinds of questions do they have?

Claudia: One that has always prevailed here in Garden Grove is that we don’t teach them the ABCs.

Sandra: We teach that but not formally. Not like “Sit down and this is the letter A and this is the letter B.” We do that through playing.

Nancy: Academic playing. Yes, because. . .

Claudia: Many parents bring their children here with the hope that they can learn how to read and write.

Sandra: In the same way that they did. [But] those are different systems . . . times have changed.

Nancy: For example, in our country, when they go to the school for the first time, almost no child would attend the Head Start when they were three and four. They would go to kindergarten. And in kindergarten, in a country like Santo Domingo, once you take the child there, they would sit you, [saying] “Let’s go.” They would even hold his hand. That was something. The parents who are like us, coming from another country, think that when they come here that’s what they’re going to learn.

Sandra: [They think] it should be like that.

Nancy: And they don’t understand that while they’re playing they learn. You understand? It’s half and half.

JA: Because for them, learning is different.

Claudia: The teaching method is different.

These teachers know that parents have concerns about the school’s philosophy of learning through play and developmentally appropriate practice. They acknowledge that the immigrant parents “traen a sus niños con la esperanza de que ellos aprendan a leer y escribir aquí” (bring their children here with the hope that they can learn how to read and write). Immigrant preschool teachers recognize that immigrant parents are hoping that their children can learn the way they did growing up. The teachers’ response is to see the parents as having an insufficient understanding of how children learn from play, a lack that prevents parents from appreciating the wisdom of the approach teachers are using in the preschool. “No entienden que jugando se está aprendiendo. ¿Tú entiendes? Se está compartiendo” (They don’t understand that while they’re playing they learn).

In this exchange, the Garden Grove teachers understand and even sympathize with the immigrant parents’ expectations for preschool. The teachers know that immigrant parents’ ideas about learning and pedagogy are different from what they see in the preschool. And they identify with the immigrant parents, as we can hear in such statements as “los padres como nosotros” (the parents who are like us). The immigrant teachers’ knowledge of the parents’ views as well as their empathy for the parents’ struggles to do best for their children in an unfamiliar world are advantages immigrant teachers have over teachers who do not share life experience and cultural knowledge with the parents of the children they teach. And yet, our interviews suggest that such cultural knowledge and empathy are not enough and that even immigrant teachers struggle to communicate effectively, and nonhierarchically, with immigrant parents.

To work most effectively with children and parents from backgrounds different from their own, teachers need to adjust their approach to teaching. This shift, as the multicultural education literature makes clear, is difficult for many nonimmigrant teachers to make (Ladson-Billings 1999, 2001; Souto-Manning, 2007; Valdés, 2001). More difficult to explain is why immigrant teachers working with immigrant children and families have difficulty being culturally responsive to the parents’ perspective. Teachers who are themselves immigrants know that immigrant parents want their children to learn in preschool to write and read. They also know that the immigrant parents come to school with expectations about learning and teaching that are counter to what the school and teachers hold to be true. Some, like Victoria, who were once themselves parents of preschoolers, know what it is like to feel frustrated with a preschool for not doing more direct academic work. And yet in our study, we found that many teachers who come from the same background as the immigrant parents whose children they teach struggle to modify their teaching to accommodate the parents’ wishes.


One of the major findings of our larger study is that preschool teachers are caught between the expectation that they follow their profession’s notions of progressive pedagogical practice (for example, play-based learning) and the expectation that they be responsive to the wishes of parents (for example, for more direct instruction and academic preparation). Teachers and parents often have different ideas about what should happen in preschool. When parents are immigrants, the differences are likely to be large (Adair & Tobin, 2007). When teachers are also immigrants, the gap should be smaller and easier to transcend (Arzubiaga, MacGillivray, & Rueda, 2002). But there are special pressures on immigrant teachers that constrain their ability to play the role of brokers and mediators across this divide of the professional world of school and the cultural world of the immigrants.

The core of the problem is that in the course of becoming a professional, immigrant teachers have had to renounce positions they held before joining the field and to adopt the field’s central beliefs—for example, in play, constructivism, and child-centeredness. For example, Rosa needed to change her views on learning through play, and Victoria moved away from thinking that preschool-age children can and should use knives or care for younger children. If they show agreement or even sympathy with immigrant parents’ expressions of desire—for example, for more academic emphasis or for more attention to girls’ modesty—they risk being seen as backsliding or failing to be adequately professional. Teachers at the Mosque preschool commented that they liked being teachers at the Mosque school because their beliefs about modesty (whether from their national cultural of origin and/or their Islamic faith) were valued and encouraged. Immigrant teachers in New York at Morning Hill preschool knew the parents’ wishes for stricter discipline but were unable to respond or even work with the parents to reach a compromise.

On the other hand, if immigrant teachers too completely adopt the positions of their nonimmigrant fellow teachers, they risk being seen as alienated from their culture of origin, or worse, as being a traitor to their community. During a meeting in our project in which we gathered immigrant parents together along with the preschool teacher to talk about their preferences for classroom practices, this alienation became visible. During the discussion, parents shared the cities they were from in Mexico, and when the teacher happily added that she was from the same city as one of the immigrant fathers, he teased her about being la coyota.1 Such a reference emphasized differences between the parent and the teacher, as if insinuating, even in a joking way, that the teacher worked for the other side rather than emphasizing a shared community. In other cases, immigrant teachers referred to “parents like us” but still went on to explain how the immigrant parents’ ideas about early childhood practices were ill informed.

Sometimes to avoid being criticized by either or both sides, bicultural teachers presented themselves differently to their colleagues and to immigrant parents. Immigrant teachers reported not only code switching in their conversations between, for example, Spanish with parents and English with other teachers, but also changing their speech register and demeanor, and even presenting differently nuanced versions of their own beliefs, in concert with those of their interlocutors. For example, some bicultural, bilingual teachers reported in the focus group discussions that when asked to translate for conversations between parents and other staff members, as they often are, they do some editing of what is said, to avoid the two sides becoming fully aware of how differently they see things.  

Both immigrant parents and nonimmigrant school staff look to bicultural, bilingual staff members to provide a bridge between the worlds of home and school (Monzó & Rueda, 2008), but both sides tend to underestimate the complexity of this task. In Farmville, the only bilingual, bicultural staff member at the preschool and elementary school was Janette, the community liaison, who skillfully communicated with immigrant families at the school and translated between parents and teachers. The teachers told us about her during a conversation about their struggle to communicate in Spanish to school parents.

JA: When you do home visits, do you bring an interpreter?

Nancy:  It depends on how comfortable I am with that family. Sometimes I will go by myself, and other times I’ll take Janette, a family contact person. If it’s something really important . . .

JA: So do you feel like parents rely on you at all? Do they rely on you for help with English things, or things in the community or the town?

Nancy:  We’re very fortunate that we have Janette, our family contact person. She’s wonderful working with our families.

Janette was clearly perceived to be an important part of the school staff. The teachers rely on her to translate for them. Tellingly, when teachers were asked about whether parents relied on them for help with “English things” or “things in the community,” they reported deferring to Janette, explaining “She’s wonderful working with our families.” Later, in an interview, Janette explained to us that she does help with translation, but she feels her main role is to help the parents feel comfortable at the school and to better understand how school works. One of the ways she does this is to expand teachers’ explanations to make them more culturally understandable to parents, often offering a more detailed explanation of terms and concepts in her translation than is originally present in what the teachers say. Studies of bicultural, bilingual teachers who work to bridge home and school environments suggest that this task is often burdensome and those performing the task undervalued (Lucero, 2010; Rueda, Monzó, & Higareda, 2004). The more schools and districts listen and value the knowledge of immigrant teachers, the more information they will have to positively affect children of immigrants’ learning and improve parent–teacher interactions (Adair, in press; Monzó & Rueda, 2008).  


When Rosa or Victoria challenged professional practice, they did so by drawing on their own immigrant experiences. This was a strategy cited by many of the immigrant teachers we interviewed, such as at the Morning Hill preschool, where immigrant teachers from the Caribbean and West Africa told us how they draw on their personal experience to help their nonimmigrant fellow teachers understand why some parents send their children back to West African countries to attend primary or middle school. Morning Hill, a preschool associated with an African American church in Harlem, was a particularly open-minded site to conduct research. The director and teachers, who clearly enjoyed a friendly and mutually respectful relationship, discussed many difficult issues with us in the focus groups, issues including tensions among African immigrant and African American children; parents’ use of corporal punishment with their young children; and cultural mismatches among the teachers and the families at the school. The director, Alice, was eager to hear from us regarding what we had heard from parents and teachers in the focus groups. When we reported to her that many of the immigrant parents had expressed a wish for more direct academic instruction—not instead of but to supplement the schools’ approach of learning through play—Alice wondered aloud if she and the teachers were truly listening to the needs and concerns of parents. A follow-up focus group interview with Alice and her staff resulted in an insightful discussion about what they perceived as the difficulties immigrant children were having when they left the supportive atmosphere of Morning Hill preschool and entered the wider society and public school kindergartens:

Tasha: It’s also so much like a family here within the school. Every teacher knows every child almost as if it’s their own child . . . so once they move on out of here it’s so very different. That’s what I worry about, that they’re going to be taken out of one other culture and then put in some other place so drastically different . . . but there’s nothing that can totally prepare them to leave this type of environment.

Teachers in this focus group echoed Tasha’s concern about children being teased and discriminated against. They worried that children would be uncomfortable with the less family-like feeling of their kindergarten classroom. Alice, the education director of the preschool, added that she is concerned that the situation is so bad for young children of immigrants that “they [the children] don’t stay that long in the country. After a while it gets so tough that [parents] send them back home.” Simone, a teacher who was herself an immigrant from Sierra Leone, provided some valuable insider perspective:

Simone:  I can speak a little bit as someone who is from what they experience here, who is here from West Africa and how my father wanted to send me to Nigeria for schooling. I admit that I did encounter a lot of problems in elementary school especially. . . not so much in high school but elementary the whole, being called all kinds of names. But [laughing]

JT:  Because your family was from Africa?

Simone:  Yeah . . . I never came home complaining about it. But my father, he just thought the quality of the education was [poor] and discipline wasn’t as you know. He didn’t like what he was seeing in the school system. It wasn’t because I was saying, “Oh, this person is doing this to me.” I’d keep that to myself. So the parents might be sending them for other reasons, not necessarily that the children are being treated differently because of their background [but] because education is not high quality or discipline . . . Right? It conflicts with what they’re doing at home. I did go to school in Sierra Leone when I was younger, when I was about six or seven. The teachers had a lot of authority (laughing). Big difference when you come here. It was weird. I’m glad I didn’t go [back]. I would go visit but not . . . for like years of education, you know?

USA-born teachers at this school, unfamiliar with the particular concerns of West African immigrant parents, assumed that the rationale for sending children back even at a young age had to do with discrimination they suffered as immigrants or trouble fitting in, but as Simone explained, immigrant parents were more worried about discipline and the academic environment. Simone’s fellow teachers were struck by this insight, and the director said that she felt less bad about children being sent back to Africa for school now that she knew the reason. This example illustrates issues the kind of contributions immigrant teachers can make in preschools where their cultural expertise is welcomed and validated.


Helping nonimmigrant teachers and administrators learn from the cultural knowledge and practices of immigrant teachers is consistent with the theoretical framework for Funds of Knowledge that we have previously described (Gonzalez et al., 2005; see also Monzó & Rueda, 2008). Recall that an FOK perspective encourages teachers to learn to appreciate the forms of cultural knowledge and learning practiced in the homes of the families the school serves and in the community in which the school is located and embedded. This same approach can be applied between and among immigrant and non-immigrant teachers. If immigrant teachers’ ideas about curriculum, both as professionals and as members of multiple cultural communities, are validated and encouraged (as they were in Simone’s case at Morning Hill preschool), then nonimmigrant teachers can benefit from learning from the immigrant teachers’ practices. They can also benefit from connecting what they learn to the children and families in their classrooms. To do so requires teachers to borrow some strategies from anthropology, starting with engaging respectfully, in a spirit of genuine curiosity, with beliefs and practices that differ from their own. Schools fortunate enough to have immigrant teachers on their staff can begin such a process in-house by asking the immigrant teachers to share something about their backgrounds and perspectives, not only or primarily about traditions, but also about childrearing practices and pedagogical beliefs. Seeing immigrant teachers as experts and listening to them with pedagogical openness can prepare teaching communities and schools for the challenging task of entering into dialogue with immigrant families about what should happen in preschool.

In our focus groups, we heard both immigrant parents and nonimmigrant teachers express admiration and appreciation for bicultural, bilingual staff members as sources of information, translators, and mediators. Our interviews also suggest that neither immigrant parents nor nonimmigrant staff members are always aware of the difficulties the bicultural staff members in their program face as they struggle to negotiate their in-between positionality. Teachers and directors working in preschools serving immigrant communities might then be encouraged not only to employ staff members who come from the immigrant community but also to support them, to be sensitive to their “in-betweenness,” and to avoid putting them in situations in which they will feel pressured to speak either as the voice of their community or as the voice of the program.


Expanding the perspective of FOK to include the funds of marginalized teachers only partially answers the dilemma facing immigrant preschool teachers in our study. This solution of knowledge is a critical piece to strengthen the voice and pedagogical input of immigrant teachers. However, even when immigrant teachers have knowledge of the immigrant parents and even when they are able to share their ideas, their actions run the risk of being misperceived as unprofessional. The inability (or unwillingness in some cases) of immigrant preschool teachers to respond to and/or use their own cultural knowledge parallels Delpit’s findings about African American students within mostly White teacher education programs. In one example, Delpit introduced an African American graduate student (a former school principal) who was frustrated by having to listen to White professors talk about educating Black children. Delpit (1995) described the student’s attempt to enter the dialogue thus:

I try to give them my experiences, to explain. They just look and nod. The more I try to explain, they just look and nod, just keep looking and nodding. They don’t really hear me. Then, when its time for class to be over, the professor tells me to come to his office to talk more. So I go. He asks for more examples of what I’m talking about and he looks and nods while I give them. Then he says that that’s just my experience. It doesn’t really apply to most black people. (p. 22)

Silencing the experiences and intuition of teachers of color prevents their full range of skills and talents from being utilized, not just for children in their own communities, but for a diversified body of children in school. In this same way, bilingual, bicultural immigrant teachers from the same communities as the immigrant families they serve can benefit by using their own experience and knowledge to navigate professional practices. Structures, attitudes, and practices that advocate for culturally responsive educational settings gain value by including immigrant teachers in decision-making processes, especially when they involve children of immigrants. For early childhood settings, this requires not only knowledge but also the power to have the information taken seriously, from a position of expertise on both their community and early childhood education.

To truly use immigrant teachers’ knowledge for the benefit of immigrant students, funds of knowledge and what we might call funds of power seem to need reallocation. Funds of power focuses the attention not only on the expertise and the knowledge immigrant teachers can share but also on the ability to recognize the issues of power related to the use of such knowledge. Recognition can lead to finding ways to provide the supportive environments that allow teachers to act on cultural insiders’ understanding and empathy. Thinking about funds of knowledge and power necessitates responsiveness to the concerns and knowledge base of immigrant teachers as well as abdicating power in pursuit of a more culturally broadened version of better practices. Being culturally responsive to immigrant teachers would involve listening with the intent to change, rethink, reflect on, and even give up treasured ideas and seeing the immigrant teacher not as a spokesperson but as a well-educated person with expertise in multiple worlds.

Understandably, teachers, administrators, and teacher educators may be leery of what immigrant teachers and/or immigrant parents suggest or want to see as part of young children’s early learning experiences. In the field of early childhood education, tensions are higher than ever between the academic demands of standardized testing and child-centered, constructivist pedagogy that addresses multiple developmental domains (Fuller, 2007). In the most recent DAP guidelines, the NAEYC wrote that early childhood educators are battling against “the prospect of the K–12 system absorbing or radically reshaping education for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, especially at a time when pressures in public schooling are intense and often run counter to the needs of young children” (NAEYC, 2009, p. 4). Because the field is busy fighting against K–12 standardizing forces, preschool teachers are fearful that they, like kindergarten teachers, will be asked to put away manipulatives, centers, and dramatic play for phonics, math cubes, and letter recognition worksheets. Tobin et al. (2009), in a multi-sited study of preschools in the United States, Japan, and China, found that the U.S. preschools are uniquely caught between standardized testing demands and progressive best practices, between “Nacey” and “Nickleby” (NAEYC and NCLB).

This intense pressure to trade child-centered, developmental curriculum for academic outcomes-based curriculum affects low-income schools first, typically those with a high number of children from immigrant families (Crosnoe, 2005; Crosnoe & Cooper, 2010). Administrators and teachers who care about children of immigrants, including immigrant teachers, understand what is happening and are worried. In this context, immigrant parents’ desire for more academics makes the field nervous because it sounds perilously close to the academic pressures they are fighting from K–12 standardized testing. Amid this understandable anxiety, is it possible for progressive teachers and administrators to consider the wishes of immigrant parents and their concerns about their children’s reading and writing? Could the fight against testing pressures in early schooling contexts be preventing our field of early childhood from listening to the voices of the very set of teachers who could be sources of new ideas and/or solutions? Working with immigrant teachers to hear their perspectives and to give them space to educate nonimmigrant staff and respond to the ideas and concerns of immigrant parents ultimately should result in the use of better practices. Ensuring that immigrant teachers can use their knowledge in the classroom and with immigrant parents requires conversation, cultural negotiation, and a willingness to consider pedagogical change at school, district, and national programmatic levels.


The core tension faced by immigrant preschool teachers working alongside nonimmigrant fellow staff members in programs serving children of immigrants is that they are potentially caught between the field of early childhood’s dictates of best practice (meaning, in most cases, following DAP) and cultural responsiveness. When, as our experience suggests is most often the case, dominant culture notions of best practice trump cultural responsiveness, immigrant teachers feel caught in a bind, and they cannot contribute their experience and cultural knowledge. Ignoring the tensions produced by the in-betweenness of the immigrant teacher sets an impossible expectation for the teachers and frees the larger structural institutions from addressing this contradiction head on. It is a recipe for failure to direct immigrant teachers to be both professional and culturally responsive until and unless being culturally responsive is considered to be a sine qua non of best practice. Teachers who have immigrant experience, as well as those who interrogate their Whiteness (Sleeter, 1993; see also Galman, Pica-Smith, & Rosenberger, 2010), bridge disconnects between home and school (Valdés, 2001), or make efforts to get to know communities they don’t know well (Adair, 2009; Suarez-Orozco &Suarez-Orozco, 2001), can profit from being given the space to act on the knowledge they gain. It is difficult to argue as a field of early childhood education that we are being culturally responsive if immigrant teachers (and preschool teachers generally) are unable to draw on their diverse experiences or the input of immigrant communities when acting pedagogically.

More research is needed on the process by which immigrant teachers are pushed to give up their own ideas about childhood, pedagogy, and best practice rooted in their experience as a child in another country or as an immigrant parent. This loss most likely does not happen all at once. The immigrant teachers we interviewed in this study were at different points in their professional journeys. Some reported deemphasizing their cultural perspectives and emphasizing their colleagues’ notions of best practice. Others described feeling comfortable sharing their immigration experience and cultural insights with their colleagues.

Listening to the voices and perspectives of immigrant teachers is one piece of the larger need for the field of early childhood education to listen to the voices of the children, families, and communities they serve.  Immigrant teachers can be effective cultural explicators and mediators between the host and immigrant cultures if school staff as well as parents are sensitive to the risk their in-betweenness carries of being seen as insufficiently professional by the staff and insufficiently loyal to their home culture by the immigrant parents. When a preschool hires an immigrant teacher, in addition to urging her to assimilate to the ways of the school, it seems important to give equal attention to how the school can change to accommodate the fresh perspectives the immigrant teacher can contribute. Before asking immigrant teachers to play a mediating role between immigrant communities and school staff, it would make sense for schools that employ them to begin having honest dialogues among the school staff, immigrant and nonimmigrant, about how cultural backgrounds and belief enter into their notions of best practice and how to work with children and their families. Bicultural, bilingual staff, and especially staff members who are themselves immigrants from the community served by the school, can play an invaluable role in parent–staff dialogues, but only if their knowledge is valued, enacted, and encouraged as an extension of their professional role as early childhood educators. For the teachers, classrooms, and structures in our study, this would require nonimmigrant practitioners to have a willingness to consider other cultural versions of early childhood pedagogy as having merit and to enter into dialogue with immigrant teachers and immigrant communities.


1. The father said, “Eres la coyota,” which translated to English means, “You are the coyote.” La coyota is a term for the female version of a person who accepts money to smuggle people across the border. Coyotes are seen as “stone-cold pragmatists” (Urrea, 2004, p. 64) who are equally feared and loathed.


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National/Local Policy


Laws or official language talking about potential and existing laws regarding immigration, residence permit, applying for citizenship, etc.

Family policy

Any laws or rules pertaining to family life like housing, health benefits, social services, food assistance, family allowances, etc.


General laws or rules about education.

Power issues

Comments about who has more options, rights, agency, access to decision-making.

National approaches

Perspectives or comments about how countries approach policy. Political discourse about multiculturalism, majority/minority.


Public discourse

How society talks about immigrants. National or local ideas about how immigrants are expected to assimilate and/or integrate.

Neighborhood characteristics

Where immigrants choose to live their everyday lives. How neighborhoods are organized in relation to one another.

Media on immigration

Incidents reported by media—TV, newspaper, etc. General discourses in media about immigrants and immigrant policies.

Migration stories

Biographies—stories about the process of going from their home country to their new country.

Home country

What life was like in the home country. Reflections about everyday life, school, etc., or stories about others (relatives, friends) who have come from another country.

Discourse about racism

Speaking about racism, including discrimination, stereotypes, xenophobia, and construction of “the other.”


Process of going from one situation to another as a result of migration—generation distancing, cultural capital or competencies, cultural evolution, etc.


Disagreements and tension between different minority/immigrant groups and within singular immigrant groups themselves.

Relationship to dominant

Comments about the dominant, mainstream group—how the rules of the society work and how the mainstream operates.



When people refer generally to nationalities; what it means to be a citizen.


This code is for references to France or being “French.”


This code is for references to Germany or being “German.”


This code is for references to Italy or being “Italian.”


This code is for references to other nationalities outside the five countries in the study.


This code is for references to the U.K. or England or being “British.”


This code is for references to the U.S. or being “American.”


Ways in which they describe themselves. Describing which groups and/or peoples they associate with or identity with.

Identification of others

How describe others.

Children’s identities

Characteristics that are used to identify children or put them in a category or group. Describe children in relation to migration process.

Multiple identities

References to having more than one identity or the ability to shift back and forth.

Physical characteristics

Visible differences of the body; skin color; hair color; gestures.


References to woman, man, talking about gender roles; includes also boy or girl children.




General comments about beliefs or thoughts about the world (worldview). Includes talk about culture as well as general philosophy about life and how the world works.


References to religion or religious beliefs, rules, rituals, markers.

Transmission of culture

How/why culture passed onto children, including intergenerationally.


Food at school or home.


Clothing—either as cultural or religious.

Celebrations/ festivals

Rituals associated with holidays—can be religious or celebrations of countries, schools, etc.

Other cultural aspects

Music, furniture, art, etc.



Everyday actions that are taken for granted—routines or rituals that are not religious. Personality traits or characteristics of a group.


Comparing people or processes to objects.


Language policy

Rules and control over language in the school.

Multilingual society

The position of languages in society; hierarchy of languages; tensions between multi- and monolingualism.

Learning dominant language

The process of learning dominant language skills—what skills are needed/learned, the difficulty or success with doing this, learning development timeline expected by teachers and parents.

Dominant language as resource

Dominant language as a resource or a barrier, language as a tool to construct identity.

Languages at home  

Parents’ understanding or practice of using language, which languages are used at home, code switching.

Home language acquisition/ preservation

The importance and struggle of passing on home or native language to children. Stories of lost and changing languages; home language as a resource or a barrier; language as a tool to construct identity. Process of learning home language skills.

Languages at school

Peer communication, materials, code switching. Communication inside school with staff and parents.

Bilingual staff

The language skills of staff members of the school; desires or comments on the languages the teachers and school staff use with parents and during the day in the school. Also includes the role of bilingual staff and their impact on the children/community and the impact of their work in school on their own identity within the community they come from.

Multilingual children

Comments about children speaking more than one language. Their problems and their potentialities.


Immigrant parent life

Links to other parents, everyday lives, isolation, etc. Stories about daily life and issues they face.

General life of parents

Descriptions and explanations about the lives of parents—can be comments or stories. Includes the work/family balance.

Childrearing attitudes

Thoughts/ideas about fatherhood, motherhood, values and goals, nature of childhood.

Childrearing practice

Discipline, educational activities in the home.

Preparation for diverse society

How parents prepare or don’t prepare children for a diverse, racist, unjust society.

Desires & aspirations

What parents hope for their children in the future.


What parents are worried about for their children in the present and for the future.

Parent/child relationship

References to the relationship between parents and their children, and children to extended family.

Preschool as an Institution

Parental expectations

What parents think generally and theoretically about preschool as an institution, how preschool should help their child.

Teacher expectations

What teachers think generally and theoretically about preschool as an institution, the purpose of it, how it should work.

Value & role

The role of education in the wider school system. The place of education in life.

Preschool changes

Historical perspective on preschool, or predictions about preschool in the future.

Comparison of schooling

Comparisons of the whole school system and preschool. Comparing school between old and new countries, comparing different preschool systems.

Concepts about diversity

How diversity should be handled, supported, and included in preschool generally.

Preschool Practice

Imm. parent/school Interactions

How do immigrant parents and teachers interact—in the school, outside the school, etc.

Everyday interactions

How parents connect or interact generally with the school.

Role of the teacher

What is the teacher’s job description? Includes what the teachers, parents, and children think the teacher’s job is and is not.

Role of the parent

What is the parent’s job in the school? Includes what teachers, parents, administrators, and children say about parents.

Staff diversity

Staff characteristics like male/female, race, nationality, parts of the country, accent.

Teaching approach

Pedagogy, self-esteem, self-expression of child, autonomy, encouragement, sense of belonging, how interact educationally with children in classroom.

Teacher engagement

Affection, caring, touch, proximity, sensitivity, and empathy.

Physical environment

What the classroom space looks like, materials, activity corners, physical layout, resources and finances.

Outside activity

Recreation, outdoor play and work and school activity within wider community, i.e., external world, safety.

Classroom organization

Management of risk generally, routines, daily schedule, transitions, how children are grouped (voluntary or assigned).

Curriculum & assessment

Content and/or programs used in the classroom; work/play, academics, reading and writing, letters, assessment, and other activities.

Managing classroom behavior

Expectations, conflict resolution, regulations and rules, discipline, control.

Preparation for school

Transitions and preparation to enter the preschool, for kindergarten, elementary school; induction programs or activities to help students’ transition.

Teachers and diversity

Multicultural strategies, special needs, cultural and religious diversity, antibias programs, reinforcing identity, making  different cultures visible, ways to name immigrant children.

School discrimination

How the school discriminates against individuals; stories of discrimination, racism . . . at school among children, among parents.

Stress and social pressure  

Comments about the stress that teachers and parents feel.


U.S. Focus Group Interviews: School/Participant Characteristics






# Imm teachers

Immigrant Communities Represented in Teachers



Public - state


2 of 4

Mexico, Guatemala

King Waters

Public- state


2 of 4



Private, religious

1 Male (Director)

3 of 7

Scotland, Morocco, Albania, Iraq

San Luis

San Luis

Public - Head Start


3 of 3






0 of 5



Private, church


0 of 5


New York City


Public-Head Start

1 Male

5 Female

3 of 6

Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone

Garden Grove

Public-Head Start

1 Male

8 Female

9 of 9

Dominican Republic, Mexico



Public - state


0 of 7




50 Teachers (22 Immigrant and 28 Nonimmigrant)



Was this school typical—is it similar to yours?


What did you like about the preschool?


What did you not like or what would you change if you were in charge of the preschool?


What did think of the use of Spanish in the video?


How do you interact with the parents? With the immigrant parents? When do you see them?


Has your school and/or community changed in the past few years? If so, how?


How do you help new children in your classroom? How do you deal with children whose first language is not English?


What is your relationship like with the parents at your school?


Do the parents at your school know each other?


How has your community reacted to immigrant communities?


Where do your children live—what types of housing and what type of environment?


What do you think about the relationships between the children in your class and their parents?


What do you think about the education system of the country where your students are from? How much education do their parents have?


What happens when the children are brought to school? What do the parents do?


How do immigrant parents generally react to the curriculum and how the school runs?


What happens if the parents have questions or concerns about something at school? Do they come talk to you?


Do any of you have personal experience with immigration—were you or your family members immigrants?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 12, 2012, p. 1-37
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16719, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:49:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Adair
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin. Using comparative ethnography, her research focuses on the cultural nature of early childhood education and how communities and nations see pedagogy and the nature of childhood in different ways. Her recent publications include Advocating for Ethnographic Work in Early Childhood Federal Policy: Problems and Possibilities (Adair, forthcoming); Confirming Chanclas: What Early Childhood Teacher Educators Can Learn From Immigrant Preschool Teachers (Adair, 2011); and Meditation, Rangoli and Eating on the Floor: Practices From an Urban Preschool in Bangalore, India (Adair & Bhaskaran, 2010).
  • Joseph Tobin
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH TOBIN is the Basha Professor of Early Childhood Education in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. His research interests include cross-cultural studies of early childhood education, immigration and education, children and the media, and qualitative research methods, especially video-based research. Among his publications are Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited and Good Guys Don’t Wear Hats: Children’s Talk About the Media. His newest project is a study of deaf kindergartens in Japan, France, and the United States.
  • Angela Arzubiaga
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    ANGELA E. ARZUBIAGA is an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She received her PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles. She has been a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient and an awardee of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development (ISSBD). Her research focuses on sociocultural perspectives on family life and home-institution connections, comparative understandings of difference, the education of children of immigrants, and immigrant families’ adaptations. Dr. Arzubiaga’s work emphasizes the importance of culture within all human practices. In an article for Exceptional Children, she contends that the cultural presuppositions in a field’s habitual practices as well as the sociocultural location of the researcher need to inform our research. Her review of research on children in immigrant families in Review of Research in Education is leading current research on the contested issues of diversity and difference surrounding the education of children. She was Spencer and Bernard Van Leer investigator on the Children of Immigrants in US Preschool: Parent and Teacher Perspectives and the Children Crossing Borders (CCB) studies.
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