What you can do to revolutionize ESL instruction

Staffing for ESL positions can be especially daunting—but supporting your English learners is a challenge worth undertaking.

By Barrett Goodwin Last Updated: January 31, 2023

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students classified as English learners (EL) grew from 4.5 million in 2010 to 5.1 million in 2019. Unfortunately, while these student populations have grown, there hasn’t been a comparable increase in the number of bilingual teachers or paraprofessionals to support them. The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue.

In fact, during the 2020-21 school year, Texas identified shortages of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in all grades pre-K-12. A lack of trained staff can have a negative impact on this subset of students—but that is the current, frustrating state of affairs around ESL instruction nationally.

As school leaders brainstorm and find new approaches to problems laid bare or worsened by the current teacher crisis, now is a perfect time to rethink the traditional ESL paradigm. Teachers, districts, and especially students all stand to benefit from a new approach to hiring for these positions.

De-silo ESL instruction—and instructors.

For a long time, a common strategy for educating EL students has been to isolate them for the sake of providing focused English instruction. Increasingly, though, research suggests that it may be more effective to integrate English language instruction into a student’s existing course load.

Take, for example, dual-language immersion programs. These programs encourage students to take classes in both English and their native languages. In addition, English learners are able to take classes right alongside their English-speaking peers in an environment that provides instruction in both languages.

Indiana’s Noblesville Schools gives us another example. On staff, they have both EL instructional assistants and EL collaborative teachers. Instructional assistants help with language acquisition and collaborative teachers work in concert with content area teachers to support learning in the classroom. With this model, Noblesville is supporting each EL student with a team that’s dedicated to their individual success in the classroom.

Develop your existing staff.

Alongside reexamining instruction, now is the perfect time to investigate the role your current staff might play in educating your EL students. Our guess is you may already have some bilingual employees in your buildings. Are they interested in joining your force of ESL instructors? If so, how can you support them in their development? Too often, bilingual teachers are expected to function informally as a resource to students and families who don’t speak English—without additional training or compensation. Not only does this do a disservice to your EL students, but it further burdens your already overladen teachers. So what can you do?

In many states, ESL staff members are required to hold a special certification in addition to a standard teaching license. If you have bilingual staff members who are interested in becoming official ESL instructors, try identifying reasonable pathways to certification. Some districts have done just that by connecting interested staff with local higher education institutions.

In Oregon, Portland Public Schools has developed an alternative pathway by teaming up with Portland State University and Oregon State University. These partnerships have resulted in the Dual Language Teacher Residency Program, which helps interested staff members gain their master’s degrees in either elementary or secondary education with an ESL/World Language endorsement. The best part? Participants in this program are able to continue working as teachers, substitutes, or paraprofessionals while earning their credentials.

And it’s paying off. When the program first started, the district was struggling to fill several open positions. Now, Portland Public Schools is expanding upon their current academic offerings to serve more students. Current fellows speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Russian.

Build systems and partnerships.

Dr. Jeff Horton, superintendent of Minnesota’s GFW School District, says 20% of their student body is Latino. “We are exploring a possible immersion program to support our English learners,” Horton tells us. “Nobody in our area has that yet.” And, for Horton, the first step of establishing that kind of program is to think critically and carefully about system building. He believes all districts can implement programs like these successfully so long as they prioritize their processes.

“I’ve been in very large school systems,” Horton says, “but I’ve been in rural districts, too. We have a lot of rural schools out there, and they can do really amazing things if they think creatively and develop the necessary systems, structures, and processes.” But what would an example look like? It starts with systematizing a plan to keep ESL instructors in your district.

Take, for example, Kansas’ Dodge City Public Schools. Thanks to grant funding, the district has structured a pipeline within their own high school to help prepare bilingual students for teaching careers down the line. As a result, 20 of their high school students will receive support while they work toward their bachelor’s degrees in elementary education.

The hope is that these students will receive hands-on experience in the classroom while maximizing their opportunity to earn dual credits as high school students. Then, they’ll transition to Dodge Community College while completing their degrees online with Kansas State University.

“We are excited about this fantastic opportunity to develop our pipeline of diverse and talented educators,” says Martha Mendoza, principal of Dodge City High School. “This grant will allow us to invest in our current teachers and grow our own future teachers by supporting our high school students interested in becoming educators in Dodge City. As an English-language learner, I know firsthand the impact teachers had on me when they valued my assets and knew how to support my needs.”

Work is still underway to make this goal a reality, but it hints at an exciting possible future for the Dodge City community—and everywhere. Your current students may turn out to be tomorrow’s ESL teachers.

Strengthen community connections.

Serving your EL students is an opportunity to deepen existing community bonds or foster new ones. This is playing out in exciting ways around Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, in collaboration with local school districts, Grand Valley State University has developed a program for teachers to earn the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) certificate.

In addition, as Program Director Dr. Rui Niu-Cooper tells us, another significant aspect of the program is community involvement. The program collaborates with nonprofits like Oakdale Neighbors Learning Cafe (a community tutoring center) and the Literacy Center of West Michigan—not only to ensure language and literacy development among non-native English speakers, but also to help them better integrate into their local communities.

Grand Rapids has a large refugee population, and an ESOL certificate empowers the people who want to work with this population outside the walls of a school building. Niu-Cooper sees both groups—teachers and community members—as key to the larger puzzle of family engagement and support: “We help the community understand the schools, and the schools to understand the community.” Aside from the linguistic and instructional components, participants in the ESOL certificate program gain socioemotional skills and develop cultural competencies. In this sense, the program bridges higher education, schools and communities.

At the end of the day, the skills educators need to work successfully with EL students translate, literally. ESL-certified teachers benefit all students, regardless of their language background. “ESL strategies are good for all students, including students in the mainstream classrooms,” Niu-Cooper says. “We help our grad certificate participants understand their learners and how to work with them. Then they can differentiate their instructions and services to meet students where they are.”

Since most every school is facing a teacher hiring crunch of some kind, staffing for ESL positions can be especially daunting. However, supporting your EL students is a challenge worth undertaking. You’re not just filling positions; you’re meeting a critical need. After all, love and support mean the same to students and their families in any language.

Originally published as "Speaking the Same Language" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

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