Teachers who can't speak English

A Cambodian-born teacher, fired for poor English proficiency, is challenging the Massachusetts law that requires public school teachers to speak English fluently. From the Lowell Sun:

(Phanna Rem) Robishaw was teaching elementary school in Cambodia when her village was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. After marrying, she immigrated to the U.S. and in 1992, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Westfield State College.

By 2002, Robishaw had taught for 17 years in Massachusetts and accrued 54 master’s degree credits for accreditation in different fields of teaching. That same year, Robishaw began teaching at the Greenhalge School. After several years as a transitional bilingual teacher, she was assigned as a classroom teacher.

Her English is “utterly incomprehensible,” wrote a lower-court judge.

I’d guess that her bilingual teaching was done exclusively in her native language. Let’s hope she had an English-speaking co-teacher.

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  1. It would be interesting to hear the arbitrator’s view of the case, and why they decided that she was dismissed unjustifiably. The lawyer appears to be appealing against the judge’s decision based on process and not on any argument that teachers should not be expected to display English proficiency.

  2. Oh Tracy, your focus is unnecessarily narrow.

    I’d want to know how she got her teaching credential, why every other graduate of Westfield College’s teaching program shouldn’t to get a hard, second look, how she was hired, why it took seventeen years to zero in on her inability to communicate and why the grades she issued to all those kids in the meantime shouldn’t be rescinded?

  3. Allen, there have been quite a few cases in my life where I have known what actually was happening and why, and then read a newspaper story that was so out of touch with reality, that this story jumped out as me as one where the other side of the story should be heard before drawing conclusions.
    In other words, I can see at least 3 possible explanations of the events listed here:
    1. The arbitrator was very stupid in deciding that a teacher who obviously couldn’t fluently speak English was wrongfully dismissed (the line the article seems to take).
    2. The judge was very stupid in ignoring evidence that the teacher could fluently speak English. (If the arbitrator can be stupid, why not the judge?)
    3. The journalist was very stupid and totally misrepresented what the judge and the arbitrator are differing about.

  4. Lowell has an extremely large immigrant Cambodian population. Her skills were probably very valuable for the kids coming off the boats.

  5. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    OK, so granted that we don’t have specifics as to the situation, let’s talk general principles.

    Are we agreed that teachers who can’t speak fluent English at all have little or no business teaching in the United States and/or Commonwealth countries?

  6. Well, they certainly have no place teaching ENGLISH…

  7. How did she get 54 credits towards an MA if she can’t speak or understand English?

  8. As have I, Tracy.

    For instance, the slowly passing fancy with what’s come to be called bi-lingual education would have made Phanna Rem Robishaw quite the hot commodity in ed school.

    Oh look at how wonderfully tolerant we are! We’re graduating a student who can barely speak English! That’s an accomplishment to which we can point with pride since it makes clear that teaching skill is less valued at Westfield then overt displays of adherence to fashion.

    Of course that worked out well because there was a school district that had enough in the way of Cambodian-speaking students/parents that the district needed to protect themselves from the charge that they were insufficiently sensitive to the needs of Cambodian-speakers. Too bad they weren’t as concerned with the quality of the education the kids were getting.

    A perfectly understandable, if not particularly defensible, state of affairs. Better not to burden the public at large with the knowledge that teaching skill isn’t professionally valued and doesn’t have much bearing on employability as a teacher.

    So everything was going along swimmingly; Phanna Rem Robishaw was pulling down a salary to which her language deficit suggests rather strongly she was not entitled, the school district had a teacher who was fluent in Cambodian which was as good a bit of evidence as any that the proper degree of adoration was being accorded Cambodian immigrants for speaking a language other then English, Westfield State and the grad school that wasn’t all that picky about English fluency were filling another seat with a paying customer. It was all good and then disaster struck.

    Someone dropped the ball and expected Phanna Rem Robishaw to suddenly start communicating with students in the language in which she hadn’t bothered too, nor had much need to, develop fluency in two decades.

    Notice that in my version of the background to this story no one who can be described as “stupid” is necessary for it to work. Just the usual mixture of cynicism, rationalization and self-absorption in an atmosphere which rewards those traits.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    This is occasionally a problem with hard-science TAs at the college level.
    Of course, even perfect English is about as intelligible in some of the “studies” departments.

  10. I briefly worked as a substitute teacher in my local urban school district. It was for a two week period after I graduated college but before the school year ended.

    I was being used as a “reader” for special education students during the exam process. One of the full-time faculty was also a reader. When it came time to read the oral portion of the English exam, she asked me to do it and it wasn’t hard to see why. She had a rather thick Puerto Rican accent and her English fluency was not the greatest. I’m pretty sure she was a “bilingual” teacher.

    Later that day, I asked the assistant principal how long the other teacher had been living in the United States. Anyone have any guesses?

    Thats right, she was born and raised in the US. I think an English proficiency test is a great idea. The only problem I have with it is that “native speakers” weren’t tested. They probably would have fired more people.

  11. I’m a Lowell resident who has casually followed this case. Some background: beginning in 1986, Lowell became one of the primary settlement centers for Cambodian immigrants in America. Lowell still has the 3rd largest Cambodian population in the WORLD after Phnom Penh and Long Beach (about 20K Cambodian residents of 100K population). Back then, the schools desperately needed Khmer speakers to teach in the bilingual program so that the children could learn their other subjects in their native language while they also learned English. This teacher apparently functioned well in that setting.

    In 2003, the voters of Massachusetts passed a referendum terminating bilingual education. (And as a practical matter, there wasn’t a steady flow of new Cambodian immigrants by then – they all arrived in that one big burst in the late 1980s and were thoroughly integrated by 2003). At about the same time, the state imposed some kind of English fluency test requirement for teachers. The Lowell schools hired a reputable testing firm which tested non-native speaking teachers. This teacher and maybe 8 others failed and failed retests. This teacher was in the meantime in a first grade class filled with native English speakers, none of whom could understand her. The school dept eventually terminated her for failing the Eng fluency test.

    She grieved it. At the arbitration, the guy who conducted the test (who was from Kentucky, I think) wasn’t there. The arbitrator would not consider as evidence the test results or an audio transcript of the test without the person who administered it being present to be questioned. This deprived the city of its proof and the arbitrator found for the teacher.

    The city appealed to Superior Court. That judge was only supposed to review the arbitrator’s application of the law to the facts found by the arbitrator and not retry the case. Instead the judge (understandably in my view) listened to the tape and said he couldn’t allow her to go back to the classroom and overturned the arbitrator. The teacher appealed and the case was argued before the SJC just this week. Because the superior court could only exercise limited review of the arbitrator but did much more than that, I suspect the SJC will hold for the teacher. (Sorry to take so long but it’s an important issue – the teacher’s rights v the kid’s – so I wanted to share the facts as I know them)

  12. Cranberry says:


    A link to the public case information from the Mass. Appellate Courts.

  13. The teacher may indeed be fluent in listening, reading and writing. It’s very clear to me (as an international teacher) that this is an issue of PRONUNCIATION and SPEAKING CADENCE. I have known non-native speakers who THINK they are fluent in English, but in fact they are incomprehensible to native speakers.

    Someone needs to communicate that the English-fluency test refers to CLEAR SPEAKING AND PRONUNCIATION. The most successful immigrants are those who work on “losing their accent” and learn (as much as they possibly can) to speak like native speakers. Unfortunately, as an immigrant myself, I know this is next to impossible for many people.

  14. If the US didn’t have the insane self-destructive immigration policy it now has, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Nor would we be talking about a lot of other problems posted here from time to time. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

  15. i think that lowell (or might be nearby lawrence) where the *superintendent* of the school district was fired b/c he failed the english proficiency test. so why should they expect the teachers to be proficient?


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