I was appointed as a bilingual support teacher in May 1984. This post was created to support bilingual children whose first language was not English with the aim of teaching concepts in their mother tongue to then transfer this knowledge into English. I worked mainly with children who spoke Urdu/Punjabi as it matched my first languages. Glasgow City Council appointed six teachers to work in this way throughout the city in pre school and primary schools. These posts were spearheaded by educators who had a wealth of experience in working with bilingual children. They included Jean Campbell who was Headteacher when I first started in this post, Maureen Kilgour and David Betteridge. These people fought a hard battle with the authorities to show how bilingual children would be best supported and give them equal access to the curriculum in their early years of schooling.
As a bilingual support teacher, the main part of my remit was to work directly with groups of children. I worked alongside the class teacher using the same plans and resources, the only difference being Punjabi and Urdu serving as the medium of instruction. This allowed pupils equal access to the curriculum. It also gave status to their mother tongue and was celebrated as a positive rather than children who otherwise often experienced being described as unable to speak! My presence in the school also encouraged bilingual parents to come into schools and be able to communicate in their first language. At times it was a hard job to convince parents to continue their mother tongue at home and not rush their children into speaking English before they were ready. Parents were not used to hearing this message and thought their children had to be seen speaking English for them to make progress at school. To this day, we are still having these conversations with parents, and we need to make sure that we are continuing the use of mother tongue at school and at home. Otherwise, these families will slowly lose their mother tongue. Bilingualism should be celebrated, not denied.
When I was at school in the early sixties, there was no acknowledgement of my first language at all. My parents were both illiterate, but they knew they wanted their children to do well at school. I spoke my mother tongue at home and learned English at school. My dream was to become a primary school teacher. I dreaded the exams because I knew I had to pass Higher English in order to get onto the teacher training course. I passed the exam and got onto the course and completed the training. A few years later I attended a secondary school reunion where one of the teachers was totally shocked that I was a qualified teacher because they were convinced that I worked in a shop.
Many years later when I was a parent attending my son’s parents’ night, I was asked by a teacher why my son was bucking the trend of black bilingual boys and doing well at English! Quite frankly I didn’t have an answer for her. But I thought later: “Why would he not be able to pass the exam?” Major assumptions were being formed about my son just because of the colour of his skin.
I had a lot of positive experiences working at Glendale Primary. I was able to share my knowledge of bilingualism with other staff and show them how to best support pupils. As educators we need to ensure this specialist provision is continued and is not eroded by the assumption that children are third or even fourth generation of immigrant families and don’t need support anymore. To deny the support would be denying a large part of these children’s identities.
Long live Bilingualism!Balqees retired in June 2022 after 38 years of teaching and has since received an Honorary Award from the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators. Visit the EIS Website for advice and resources on challenging racism in the workplace, diversifying the curriculum, and creating affirming learning environments for all.