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What I Wish I Knew Earlier About the American School System as an Immigrant Mother

I came to this country at age 19 to go to college. I had no kids and no plans to have kids for a long time. What I did have was an education from Trinidad and Tobago, a small country whose school system was modeled after England’s, with uniforms, strict rules, and a tendency to prioritize academic performance above all else. As I quickly discovered, the approach in some school systems in the U.S. is different. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would frame my approach to education — not just for myself, but for my kids as well.

As an immigrant, I wanted to fit in for a long time. I didn’t necessarily want to be American, but I wanted to find comfort and ease in my new life. When I became a parent, I ran into contradictions between my upbringing in Trinidad and the school system in the U.S. Not only was I completely unaware of basic things like the ages that correlate with each grade (I still don’t know this), the whole school system felt daunting to me.

I hold some privilege as an English-speaking immigrant, so I can’t imagine how parents who speak English as a second language must feel when their children enter schools in the U.S. Even though I’ve been in this country for years, that feeling of being a foreigner and “otherness” still exists. But my hope is that I can use my experience to help other immigrant moms who are still finding their footing in this country. Here are some things I wish I knew about the American school system when I was starting out.

I have a powerful voice as a parent.

When I first started interacting with the school system, my instinct was to sit quietly and listen. I was hesitant to ask questions because there was so much I didn’t know. What I soon learned is that it’s ok to take up space, even if I don’t know what that space looks like. It’s ok to say, “I don’t understand this. Can you please explain it?”

As a parent, I have a powerful voice to advocate for my kids and the type of education they deserve. School communities are made richer by a diversity of opinions and people from varied backgrounds who bring different perspectives to the school. I want to learn and I want to speak up and give voice to my experience. Both things are true at the same time, and both things make me a powerful parent advocate.

My kids deserve an education that reflects who they are culturally.

When I learned to speak up for myself as an immigrant mother, I also learned the power of asking for what I wanted in terms of my kids’ education. Sure ,I was getting acquainted with things I didn’t know about, like play-based approaches. (My son’s preschool used play to educate and build independence. Who knew playing could be so productive?) But I didn’t have to wait until I knew all the things to know that my kids needed to see themselves reflected in their education.

I’ve learned to not be afraid to give my son’s teachers age-appropriate books to read to the class about his culture. I’ve learned to ask them about what they’re doing to commemorate holidays we hold dear in Trinidad and Tobago, like Eid and Divali. When kids see themselves reflected in their environment, it helps them feel like they belong and that there is a place for their culture at school.

Feeling a sense of belonging at school shouldn’t be a privilege for some kids. It should be the standard in all school systems. Schools need to incorporate culturally responsive teaching, which is teaching that “connects students’ cultures, languages and life experiences with what they learn in school.”

My voice is just as important as non-immigrant parents’.

Because I wasn’t as familiar with America’s school system, I often found myself hanging in the back when I was around non-immigrant parents, who seemed more at ease advocating for their kids. Now, I realized that my tendency to shrink back in those situations was due in part to my experience as an immigrant mom and also to this country’s tendency to prioritize whiteness.

This past spring, I learned that my voice was just as important as other parents’, even when theirs were louder or attempting to minimize mine. I had started a petition to give teachers the option to get a COVID-19 vaccination before being required to return to in-classroom teaching. Many parents were in support of the petition, but others were annoyed I started it.

At times, I felt sure someone would call me out for trying to make change in a place that I didn’t know in and out. But I did it anyway and I was proud to be able to advocate for safety for my school community. I also gained the courage to reach out to the school superintendent when I wasn’t happy with the nutritional content of the school lunches. Much to my surprise, he was receptive to my feedback, and I’m in the process of starting a committee to explore healthier food for our kids.

As an immigrant mother, stepping out of my comfort zone and ignoring that voice that tells me not to make waves in a new place is an ongoing mission. So much around me reinforces the belief that I don’t belong and that I need to know my place. It’s been empowering to reclaim that narrative and uncover my voice.

The best teachers and principals find a way to make things work.

Practices were rigid and inflexible in my country’s school system when I was growing up. When I became a parent, I expected to have a similar experience in America. But I’ve seen the power of bold and creative teachers and school administrators — the ones who know the system inside and out and are always seeking ways to think outside the box to bring about true education equity for all students. The best ones seek to create space for parents of all backgrounds and experiences to contribute to the school and to bring different cultures and viewpoints into the school culture.

It takes a lot of effort to change things that no longer work for all kids, and my family has been lucky to always have such teachers and principals. These school administrators make learning fun and make parents like me feel like we belong.

No matter my immigration status, I am the expert on my child.

When my son was born, I was gripped with a constant fear that he would be taken away from me. This was in no small part because he is an American, and at the time, I was not. I was afraid that people would think that I didn’t have a right to my own son, that I didn’t really know what I was doing as a new mom. When he started school, I had to intentionally undo this mindset. I had to teach myself that I am the expert on my child, no matter if the teachers and other school administrators are more well-educated than I am on child development.

It’s important for immigrant parents to be confident that you know your child best. Studies show that some teachers tend to view immigrant parents as less involved in their children’s lives, even though this isn’t actually the case. Parental involvement and communication may be different depending on your culture, and it’s ok to support your kid’s education the way you know how. School systems need to become more culturally competent and get creative to find ways that center the needs of not just the child but also the parent.

As a mom to two kids, I’ve learned that the greatest power I have is using my voice. As a woman, as an immigrant mother, as a Black immigrant mother, society tries in so many ways to tell me that my voice is not needed or not appropriate. As immigrant moms, it’s important for us to actively reject these notions and work towards unlearning what society tries to mandate as our place in this country. Whether you are undocumented, a citizen or somewhere in between, you belong in this country and your advocacy as a parent is not just important to your child, it’s necessary to give birth to the type of country that makes space for and celebrates people from varied backgrounds.

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