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Oregon is facing a teacher shortage. This program is training the next generation of bilingual and diverse educators

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Courtesy of Nancy Swarat

A program at Western Oregon University is designed to create new opportunities for diverse teachers in Oregon and to get them back into local classrooms.

With the fall semester underway, schools across Oregon are facing a shortage of teachers. That shortage is especially severe when it comes to bilingual teachers, even as the demographics of some communities continue to change. According to the Oregon Department of Education’s 2022 Oregon Educator Equity Report, 42% of Oregon students identify as ethnically and linguistically diverse, as opposed to only 13% of teachers.

That same report shows that Oregon communities are diversifying more quickly than our teaching workforce: since 2020, Oregon’s population of ethnically and linguistically diverse students increased by 3.9%, while employed teachers only grew by 1.3%.

A program at Western Oregon University is reaching into Oregon’s communities to train more bilingual people to become teachers and getting them into classrooms in local communities. The Bilingual and Diverse Teacher Scholars Program offers scholarships and support to students who are training to educate the next generation of Oregonians.

Maria Dantas-Whitney is a professor of bilingual and ESOL education, and the coordinator of the Bilingual and Diverse Teacher Scholars Program.

Belén Tencos Mendoza is a graduate of the program and a teacher at Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro. They spoke with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni.

John Notarianni: This program was started eight years ago at Western Oregon University, in partnership with a number of local school districts: Salem-Keizer, Hillsboro and Central. What need were the superintendents in those districts seeing back then?

Maria Dantas-Whitney: These superintendents approached us with this very specific need because previously, they had been going out of state —and sometimes even out of the country — to places like Texas, California, Puerto Rico, and sometimes even Mexico and Spain to recruit teachers to become bilingual teachers here in Oregon, in their districts. But what they were finding out is that those teachers would stay perhaps for one and two years, but then would go back home. Then, they realized that they had the population of bilingual individuals right there in their local communities. So, the idea came up of doing what we call a grow-your-own program.

Notarianni: I think a lot of people are familiar with the term ESL, but the acronym in your title is ESOL. What’s the importance of the distinction there?

Dantas-Whitney: ESOL is English for speakers of other languages. That really recognizes that sometimes, English might be the third or fourth language of many of our kids and families that are in our schools. Many of the families coming from Latin America may have an Indigenous language as a first language, and Spanish maybe as their second language. So English would be their third language.

Notarianni: Belén, I understand that you’re a DACA recipient. You moved to the US with your family from Mexico when you were eight years old. How were you supported in school in terms of language?

Belén Tencos Mendoza: Well, I was very fortunate to arrive to an elementary that was already a Title 1 school. I went to W.L. Henry here in Hillsboro, Oregon. Even though I was not placed in a dual language class, I still had teachers that spoke Spanish, so I didn’t feel out of place. I came into a community that had many Latino students that looked like me, and I was able to feel comfortable, in a way.

Obviously, it was challenging for me because of the English, but even though it was a challenge, I still had teachers that tried their best to communicate with me in my own language. That actually made me feel a little bit more safe and comfortable. But obviously, I still face a lot of challenges in terms of feeling anxious being in a new country.

Notarianni: Maria, you’ve been a professor for many years. How have you seen bilingual students’ performance change in the classroom when they have a teacher that also speaks their language?

Dantas-Whitney: It really makes a very big difference, because once you start recognizing that kids’ bilingualism is an asset as opposed to a barrier or a challenge, then you start opening up opportunities for success, right? When a child comes into a school, perhaps speaking Spanish, for example, and is still developing their English language skills, schools and teachers might sometimes look at that as an obstacle or challenge or barrier: ‘Oh, this child doesn’t speak English, it’s going to be hard for them to achieve,’ right? That’s a deficit perspective.

But on the other hand, if we embrace the child’s bilingualism and look at that child as, ‘wow, they do speak Spanish!’ Let’s build upon their Spanish language skills and not only teach the content of their academic classes in Spanish, but at the same time also develop their English language skills — taking more of this asset perspective — then we have all kinds of opportunities to maximize their academic performance at school. So, it really does make a huge difference.

Notarianni: Belén, you’re one of the first people in your family to have the opportunity to go to college. You’re a graduate of the bilingual scholars program. I’m wondering what sort of support you found in the program.

Tencos Mendoza: Well, of course, my family was my biggest support. Their goal for us was to come to this country to get an education. That was drilled into my mind at the age of eight, that we came to this country to take advantage of the opportunities it has to offer. As a little, young, eight-year-old girl, I always told myself: ‘Yes, this is a lot of pressure as their first daughter, but I think my parents are both hardworking people.’ That made me even work harder because I saw the struggles that we faced as family coming to this country. All of that made me the person that I am today; the teacher that I am today.

At college, when I started at Western Oregon, it was different. In high school, not all of the teachers supported me, but in college I felt like I belonged there. My professors noticed me and they made me feel safe, and that I had potential, and that I belong in a university.

In high school, I didn’t have that much confidence. I was just a very quiet student. Yes, I did really well, but I felt like I always compared myself to other students. I’m like: ‘oh no, I think they’re smarter than me and I’m just average,’ right? But when I got to college, my confidence grew a lot because professors truly acknowledged that I was also a student; not because I looked different or anything. I felt a lot of support and love. I was always raising my hand, I was always trying to get into the discussions with my classmates. I started to notice that people were noticing me as well and that made me feel more confident and have a voice, and be like: ‘wow, I can do this.’ That’s how I felt supported at Western.

Notarianni: Well, you are now a teacher in the same school district that you graduated from, and you’re serving as a mentor for students who are likely going through some of the same things that you went through when you were younger. What’s that like?

Tencos Mendoza: I see it as an advantage for me. Being a migrant and being an English learner myself, I share this with my students, you know? I get vulnerable in the classroom and I tell them: ‘My family migrated to this country; I migrated to this country. I’m sure that your parents migrated too! Maybe you didn’t go through that experience yourself as a student, but I know your parents did.’ A lot of kids were like, ‘Oh yes, Ms. Tencos! My parents migrated to this country!’ and they start to share that, because a lot of the times when I was a student, I used to kind of hide it and be like, ‘okay, I don’t want no one to know that I migrated to this country,’ you know? Because I didn’t feel safe sharing into the whole world.

In the classroom, now I tell my students ... they’re like, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this because English was not my first language,’ like little comments like that. I tell them: ‘Oh no, you can because look at me now; I’m also an English learner. If I could do it, you can do it too.’ I tell them I still get anxious to when I’m speaking in English. I’m self-conscious sometimes when I’m using my English, but I’m still practicing and getting better every time. Then I see there’s a smile, you know? They don’t even have to say anything, but you know that they get what I’m saying and that they can see a little boost of confidence in themselves as well.

Dantas-Whitney: Another real strength of the bilingual teacher-scholars program is that it creates this network of support within the peer group of bilingual scholars that then continues on into the profession.

Tencos Mendoza: We keep in touch, and even with my other bilingual colleagues, you know? They’re in Salem-Keizer, or some are here in Hillsboro. We still like reach out and check in on each other, and I was so happy to tell my principal, ‘Hey, I know of this bilingual teacher-scholar that is going to be graduating this summer. Let’s keep her in mind, she has these endorsements,’ like I knew what endorsements she had. And, we hired her as our second EL specialist.

Notarianni: And how’s she doing? How’s she doing as the teacher?

Tencos Mendoza: She’s doing great. She was very, very anxious, you know? And because of me, you know, her and I already had a relationship built; I told her: ‘I feel very supported here at my school that I think this would be a great start for you.’ She was a little anxious about it, you know — it is her first year of teaching — but she’s a great teacher. My principal went and observed her, and he was very impressed by her.

Notarianni: But I think a big part of that is your support: you are there to support her, that you understand what she’s been through, and that you can be a resource.

Tencos Mendoza: Exactly. She feels more comfortable now and not so anxious, because she’s like: ‘You’re right — this is a great school where we both receive support and we’re supporting one another.’

Notarianni: Maria, this program started eight years ago, but this year you added your first cohort of what you’re calling ‘diverse teachers.’ How is that different and why is that important?

Dantas-Whitney: Yeah, it is different because when the program started, we were supporting specifically candidates who are bilingual in Spanish and English. But this year, with the support of the university, we were able to expand the program. Now we are able to support students who may be bilingual with other language backgrounds, as well as ethnically and racially diverse as well. Because really, the goal is to also diversify the educator workforce in Oregon. The population of children in K through 12 schools is becoming more and more diverse, so we need teachers who reflect the identity of our students in the schools. So really, that’s the major goal of the program and we are so excited to be able to expand it.

Click here for more information about the Bilingual and Diverse Teacher Scholars at Western Oregon University and for information on how to apply.

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