Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What Is an ELL Teacher? (or an ESL or ESOL teacher)

On my flight to the WIDA conference last October, I sat next to a Congressman who was fleeing Washington DC after the late night vote to restart the Federal Government.  He told me how excited and relieved he was to be going home to his family and then he asked me what I did.  Being very careful not use any confusing acronyms, I told him that I was a teacher that worked with English Language Learners and that I was on my way to a conference of other such teachers.

His response was:  "Wow, that's great I would love to speak two languages!  What language are you teaching them?"

I blinked, smiled, and replied, "Well, I work with students who come from other countries. I help them improve their English."

This Congressman's confusion was troubling to me because of his role as a policy maker (though he does not sit on the Education Committee and comes from a district that is 96% white), but I have found that misconceptions and confusion are common when I tell people what I do.

My mother is from an area that is 83% white.  She tells me, "No one knows what you do when I first tell them, but once I explain it to them they get it."

When I told one friend of mine he said, "Oh, I didn't know you spoke Spanish."

"I don't, and though some of my students do, my Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian students don't," I replied.

He smiled and said "Oh sorry, I'm from Miami.  ESOL was all Spanish when I was growing up."

As with all comprehension, background knowledge is the number one determinate of understanding.

So what does an ELL teacher do?

The truth is that we do many things.

We may work with ELLs in small groups or one-on-one building their language and literacy skills.  We help them build their prior knowledge so they can understand content area instructions.  We employ diverse and culturally responsive teaching strategies to increase our students' linguistic skills, but we also do so much more.

A couple years ago when I was at Ellis Island I saw an exhibit about how the children of immigrant families are the family's bridge between their home culture and the new culture.  These children are our students.  How often do we hear a young child say: "My Mom can't understand English, but I help her"?  Think about the responsibility implied in that statement.  We always think of the parents as being the bridges that guide their children into adulthood, but for many of our students the burden of helping the family build the bridge between old and new is placed upon their young shoulders.  Who is there to help and support them?  We are! It is our responsibility as ELL teachers to support them and help them build a strong cultural bridge for them to lead their family across.   As Holly said in her post, we are the advocates for our students and their families in the community. We provide support, sensitivity, and cultural understanding to help them build a strong bridge toward the future for them and their families.

How are you building cultural bridges for your students?

Thanks, Heather, for sharing your experience and starting an interesting and important conversation.

Image by opensource.com via Creative Commons.


  1. Very interesting situation, but not surprising to me at all. I am also an ESL teacher. Very few people understand what I do even within the school. Some teachers think the ESL teacher is someone who is there to support failing students. Others think that the ESL teacher speaks all the languages spoken by the English Language Learners. That's how I end up speaking more than 20 languages (or so I have heard) while in fact I only speak 4 fluently and have some basic skills in a few others). Others think that English language learning is a disability. Such confusions lead me to conclude that our job includes educating, besides our students, people in our community people, including other educators about the nature an importance of what we do. More importantly, it seems to me that our job includes helping people understand English language learners. Wasn't Freire right when he said we cannot educate someone who we we not understand?
    So we are to build bridges not only for our students, but as advocates, we need to build bridges for people in our environment especially those whose actions affect the English language learners, our students.
    Unfortunately there are very few formal opportunities where one can actually teach and promote mutual understanding, but the workplace is a fertile ground for that to be done.

    1. I agree that the workplace is often the first place where we can start to advocate for our students. It often surprises me how unaware instructional professionals can be about the issues and best practices for ESL students. Many times this relates most to veteran teachers that have spent their careers working with less diverse populations. It can be frustrating to have colleagues that are unaware of the needs of ESL student, but it important to be patient and assume that all educational professionals have positive intensions. They will eventually come around!

  2. It often surprises me how unaware instructional professionals can be about the issues and best practices for ESL students.

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