The role of an English teacher is, naturally, to teach English. All are different: some have accents, some don’t; some are tall, short, fat, skinny, and some are good, and some bad.
This month, several of Arizona’s state education officials were called into question in a federal investigation. Throughout the last decade, these state agents frequently checked in on teachers, evaluating them on their accents — the way they spoke, not the way they taught.
A recent article in The New York Times profiled Arizona resident Guadalupe V. Aguayo, who teaches English to her class of mostly Latino second graders. She immigrated from Mexico years ago, learned English, and received her teaching degree — an almost idealistic example of someone achieving the American dream. After consulting with her principal, she “took a college acting class, saw a speech pathologist, and consulted with an accent reduction specialist, none of which transformed her speech,” according to The New York Times. But still, she taught well, yet was repeatedly marked up for review.
Investigations into Aguayo’s and other teachers’ language skills are remnants of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), an act of Congress overhauled during the Bush administration in 2001. It set standardized testing as the main focus of public education, especially affecting those schools and teachers with minority students. NCLB requires all teachers to speak English fluently in order to teach the subject. Obviously, it makes sense that teachers should be adept in the subjects they teach. But when the state determines what’s “fluent,” a problem arises.
Evaluating teachers on their accents over their performance is problematic at best and xenophobic at worst. Whether state monitors have been actually been helping students seems to be irrelevant. Rather, they seem to care more about homogeny, exhibiting their prejudices and fear of the “other.”
English itself is a challenge — some say it’s the hardest language to learn if you didn’t grow up speaking it. But those who learned it from a book, in an academic setting, might speak more clearly than those growing up with all the slang and dialects of America. Those who learn English fluently as a second language could certainly speak a more standardized version.
This is why it is concerning that the state of Arizona is investigating its minority teachers merely because, as the NYT reports, the state agents took issue with “prounounching ‘the’ as ‘da’ [and] ‘another’ as ‘anudder.’” These are audible relics, and their destruction is a destruction of culture. In fact, it’s easy to see how one person speaking slightly differently could be a source of comfort and solidarity for another person who speaks differently from the majority. Language is ever-changing, a fluid and dynamic entity — never stagnant.
The United States has the luxury of many, many different people, from all over the world. English isn’t even our official language — it’s only the one spoken by the greater majority. We are a country of immigrants, founded by, run by and designated for anyone — anybody who wishes to make a life here for themself and their family.
In 2010, Arizona signed into law the strictest anti-illegal immigration bill in recent history, known as Senate Bill 1070. It requires legal immigrants carry state documentation proving their citizenship. Police are also required to question anyone semi-suspicious, and anyone not carrying ID can now be detained until citizenship is proven. Do Arizona’s actions reflect America’s purported melting-pot mentality?
A country unwelcome to accents is a country unwelcome to diversity and immigrants, and this goes against our founding principles. If racial discrimination like the incidents in Arizona continues, the United States will not be the country it claims to be.