Making a Career out of Dual-Language Skills | A Conversation with Cecilia Chau

Cecilia Chau smiling at the camera.

What do you do when you get your dream career “wrong”? When you’re certain you know the direction you want to go in, but you wind up making a realization- about yourself or the work involved- that has you moving towards a different career?

Some may feel a sense of failure or insecurity, and distance themselves further and further away from that first dream ambition. But sometimes it’s merely being open to the unexpected opportunities in your life that can deliver you back to the dreams you had been so impassioned about long ago. While you may have anticipated your career developing in a certain way, the meandered route you took might in fact lead you back on track.

Cecilia Chau, an advocate for children’s education, and in particular for bilingual skills for all students- including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has had this kind of career shift. Ms. Chau identified immigration law as her first career interest, but after some self-reflection found herself needing to honor the creative aspects of her personality. This lead her to a 5-year long career in the operations department at MCA Universal...but a fateful day in a coffee shop prompted a discovery that led her back to one of her first passions- working with the most vulnerable of immigrants, the children.

Read on to learn more about her story, as told to me in a recent interview:

Tell me a little bit about your current role.

I work as the Coordinator of a dual-language program. Students begin the program in pre-kindergarten and continue onto fifth grade. The program is recognized for its progressive views; the objective ensures all students graduating from fifth grade are bilingual, bicultural, and literate in both English and Spanish.

The particular school where I work is in one of the most marginalized communities on Staten Island. It (the program) belongs there, though everyone has said “don’t do it there.”

Many people think specialized programs only belong to children of privilege. If there’s a theme among my trajectory in teaching and working in education, it’s social justice. We needed to give the children in this community a fighting chance. College is not for everyone but we have to think about what is interesting to the person- what will benefit the person, and how they will have a livelihood.

Let’s give them language skills. Why? Even if they don’t go to University, they can get a job because they have a second language. Let’s give them a different opportunity. In Mariner’s Harbor, there has traditionally been Black Americans, now African students, lots of Nigerian students and children from the Middle East and Yemen, as well as a big Mexican population.

We’re helping the black community which has been here two or three generations, and also the newer generations. A dual-language program works beautifully when it’s done well. We are the first dual-language program that has pre-K. We are also the only school on Staten Island to have dual-language for children in special education or ICT (Integrated Co-teaching) classrooms.

How did you become interested in your career field?

Teaching is my second career, my second interest. It happened by accident. I’m originally from LA, and I worked at MCA Universal for many years.

I was at a coffee shop one day, and I saw a flier calling for volunteers- people who are bilingual who want to volunteer at schools. They didn’t have enough bilingual people to work in schools. So I held on to this flier for months kept thinking about being in a classroom with kids... I just wasn’t sure if I had the skills to assist. I didn’t play school when I was little.

I finally called, and I have to tell you, the first day- the first hour- I changed careers, because it was so incredibly rewarding, so powerful. Prior to working at the studio (MCA), I thought about becoming an immigration lawyer I could help immigrants. Then it occurred to me that I could help the most vulnerable of immigrants, children. I could achieve this by working in schools. After I made that choice, I worked in the Los Angeles Unified School District for eight years.

How did your interest in immigration law develop?

I have a dear friend who I went to college with and we were involved in Model UN - you know, for real geeks- she and I had spoken about immigration law. I’m an immigrant and immigration is a theme in my family. I guess that’s my narrative.

At the age of 5, I became an immigrant of the US. My parents attended American schools in South America and speak English. They instilled in my brother and me the obligation of helping those who don’t speak English. While I was in elementary school, my mother would say that if I saw someone who didn’t speak English I should help them.

I understand the plight of immigrants; I understand being an outsider. That’s why I wanted to work in immigration law. When I had a chance to peek a little closer though, I realized that might not be the best way for me to serve immigrants. I do have a strong sense of justice, but my personality is more creative so it didn’t quite suit me. I had to find something where I could work with immigrants but still be creative.

How did you find your current job?

The first thing that comes to mind- courage and chance. One of my recordings that I play in my head is the harder I work, the luckier I get. I never say “no” at work. I always say yes because it’s an opportunity (when you’re asked to do something outside of your regular job duties, such as going to a professional seminar)- you never know who you will sit next to at a workshop, for example.

At one workshop I met a woman who was launching a dual-language program. It’s a new push in NYC by the federal government because when world leaders gather to talk specifically about education in the US, one of the weaker areas is that many (students) don’t graduate with dual language proficiency. (It’s not a requirement like it is in other countries.)

There’s always a lot of languages in my house- it’s a currency. When the person I was sitting next to at this workshop said she was going to launch this, I said I was on board. I understand how important a second language can be, how it opens up opportunities. For children who are immigrants, it’s a way to honor their heritage and their native language as they learn the language of their new country.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursue a career path like yours?

You know the joke, become a teacher because of the summers off and the short days. Well, sure- if you want to be mediocre. But if you want to be at the top of your game, you really have to be prepared and have compassion- that’s first and foremost.

What we see, hear, and experience can make some people hardened. Teach first to the social and emotional aspects, by showing understanding of the children’s situations. When they are on the bus getting to school, it’s high energy; sometimes before they even have breakfast at school, they are upset. You have to figure out how to change this otherwise they won’t be receptive to your teaching. Their emotional and social states must be ready for the day.

Then you have other situations in immigrant families- they are worried their families are going to be deported. They are 6 years old and this is what’s on their minds. So, compassion. This is what is needed. And enthusiasm and you have to have energy.

What is a project that you’re really proud of? What was the result?

This is something that’s been ongoing, prior to working the dual language program. I named them Talleres- “workshops” in Spanish- they were workshops for parents. What the misunderstanding is, is that parents don’t want to (continue the teaching at home), but it’s that they don’t know how. I created workshops in both languages and I teach parents in steps how to become their child’s teacher.

I teach them what I have learned so they can continue the work at home with their children. I teach them when you are cooking, it’s a natural way to teach math in their everyday lives. Let them see the measuring cups, how much (of the ingredients) you are pouring in. When they are little, ask them what numbers they see. The measuring tape- let them use it to measure the table, lamp, rug. Let them make a game. I give them sheets with systematic steps. I usually do about six workshops in Math.

For the English workshops, I make sure they get a library card. You don’t have to buy books- the library is a great resource. The library in the community where our school is located is modern, beautiful, and underused. I reached out to the Head Librarian and established a Saturday reading program to bring more families to the library regularly. Every Saturday, a teacher from our school reads for an hour at the library.

We teach them the power of vocabulary and language- so they know the right names for things. The more they are exposed to vocabulary, the better readers they will become. Don’t refer to something as a “thing”, use the actual word for it. I do research on what the best practices are.

I give them a certificate at the end, and they are so proud. They have to show up, and then they get a certificate. And I tie field trips to that, because they need to be exposed to different things. They’re New Yorkers but they’ve never been to Carnegie Hall.

On Saturdays they have a program for kids at Carnegie Hall with professional musicians and the tickets are inexpensive. We meet and take the kids and the parents. What’s striking to me is that the first time we did this, the parents stood behind me and I wondered why.

I realized it was because they felt it was a place that they didn’t belong. But I said “oh no no no, you walk in first.” That’s the reality of working in marginalized communities- a lot of emotional stuff going on.

What have you learned from the students of the program?

That they’re so smart. That given the opportunity, a child that is disenfranchised can do the work, with the right professional in front of them. A lot of the argument is always, “oh they can’t learn two languages- they can’t speak one.” And it’s like, “oh watch me (teach them).” So with the right professional, the right material and the right structure, they will succeed. Success looks differently for all of them because not all of them are the same, they all have their set of challenges but (the important thing is that) they progress.

By Victoria Crispo

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