Voices in Education

Sociopolitical Constraints on Teachers’ Ability to Support Undocumented Students
As teachers and former teachers of undocumented immigrant students, we have noticed a glaring lack of resources—and even conversation—within schools, districts, and schools of education about how to support and advocate for these students. Over 7 percent of K–12 students are estimated to be undocumented or the children of undocumented immigrants. Yet training on educating this sizable portion of our student population is exceedingly rare in teacher preparation, professional development, and educational leadership programs. Educators are faced not only with a lack of information but also ambiguous policies that leave them uncertain if their efforts to support students violate school or district guidelines.

Through a critical case study in which we interviewed 18 teachers, we learned the many ways in which unclear policies and lack of training constrain teachers’ abilities to support their undocumented students. For instance, when the 2016 presidential election raised students’ fears about increased immigration enforcement, teachers were unsure if commiserating with students would violate district policies on political speech. One teacher refrained from printing for a student a webpage of immigrant rights information out of concern that this, too, would be viewed as political. Another, more veteran, teacher hosted an event for parents in a fellow teacher’s home in which legal aid representatives shared resources on immigrant rights. However, she was careful not to inform her school leaders. She worried that their fear of community backlash would motivate them to prohibit the event.

The teachers were placed in the position of having to risk censure or job loss just to carry out actions they felt were morally and professionally required of them to foster their students’ emotional, physical, and academic well-being. Others withheld supports they might have rightfully offered their students out of a fear of administrative repercussions.

The teachers who chose to participate in this study were just a subset of teachers who were concerned about the well-being and safety of undocumented students. If these teachers face barriers to supporting their students, we might expect the broader population of teachers to encounter the same challenges or even more, as they may be less aware of the types of support they could be offering.

The inattention of school districts and education policymakers to the needs of undocumented students places an already stigmatized and disregarded group in a position of even greater invisibility and vulnerability. It also violates schools’ legal obligation to provide safe and welcoming environments for all students, regardless of immigration status, as established in the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe (1982). In a sociopolitical climate characterized by increasing xenophobia and immigration perils exacerbated by COVID-19, this obligation warrants more attention than ever.

About the Author: Hillary Parkhouse is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Virginia R. Massaro is a dually appointed lecturer in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Old Dominion University and the Arts, Business, Humanities, and Social Sciences Division at Thomas Nelson Community College. Carolyn N. Waters teaches English as a Second Language in a Virginia public school and is an affiliate scholar in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Melissa J. Cuba is a postdoctoral fellow for the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Hillary Parkhouse, Virginia R. Massaro, Carolyn N. Waters, and Melissa J. Cuba are the authors of “Teachers’ Efforts to Support Undocumented Students Within Ambiguous Policy Contexts” in the Winter 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.