It’s that time of the year again - back to School!
Being an ELL or bilingual teacher comes with many gifts and challenges. What is one challenge you face the most in your professional teaching career?
Many ELL teachers say lacking communication with mainstream teachers can be one of the most significant challenges they face in school. If you are an ELL, ESL, bilingual or mainstream teacher do you find the lines of communication can be a barrier?
Sarah Ottow, an ELL educator, tells a story about teachers working in silos – one that many educators don’t talk about enough.
From her blog, Our Kids: The Role of the Language Specialist (ELL/ESL/EAL/ELD/ENL/ESOL), Ottow states: “We, as ELL teachers, already know how to work well with English learners. We know what we need to do to help them succeed. But classroom teachers don’t always know what to do and they don’t always understand that we can help! We are there to be a resource and an advocate. At the end of the day, the questions are: ‘How do we, ELL specialists, establish strong relationships with general education teachers?’ How do we keep focused on a shared mission of supporting ELLs and set everyone up for success within a system that is often setting us up for failure?”
When you read this story, you can see one significant problem in schools regarding the ELL teacher and the mainstream educators: lack of communication and partnerships – which can lead to poor outcomes for students.
According to The Digest of Education Statistics, beginning in 2019, English Language Learners comprised 10.4 percent of the K-12 student population, up from 10.2 percent the previous year. Spanish is ELLs’ most common home language, followed by Arabic. Chinese and Vietnamese hold third place in a tie regarding the most popular language spoken at home. Today, 64 percent of teachers have at least one ELL student in their class – or 1 out of every 4 teachers.
For ELL or bilingual students to thrive, all teachers must provide activities to enhance their skills to become successful English speakers, readers, and writers.
To ensure student success, mainstream teachers and ELL or bilingual teachers must work together to build a bridge that supports all ELL students. However, that is not always an easy task. The commitment between teachers should focus on best practices from an ESL pedagogy perspective and a cultural, social, emotional, and developmental lens.
Building a Bridge Between ELL and Mainstream Teachers
Over my 15 years in education, I have been privileged to work as both a mainstream and ESL teacher.
There is a quiet, unspoken problem in the world of ELL and mainstream teachers. Rather than collaborating, mainstream and ELL teachers tend to work in silos. There may be various reasons contributing to this issue.
This article provides tips on how this sometimes seemingly daunting task can be overcome.
ELL and Mainstream Teacher Communication Tips
Mainstream teachers should welcome and share their classroom while supporting the ELL teacher. On the other side, ELL teachers need to make an effort to attend grade-level and content-area team meetings to integrate both curriculum programs. Maintaining these critical relationships can make all the difference for the school year while helping students reach their best social and academic outcomes.
Maintain an Ongoing Open Door Policy
Mainstream teachers and ELL teachers should provide an ‘open door policy’ regarding communication. Both teachers must be comfortable approaching and discussing content, academic, social, emotional, cultural, and developmental concerns. When these relationships break down or don’t exist, students aren’t given the best opportunities to assimilate socially to the culture, or learn social and academic English easily.
ELL Teachers Must Be Proactive
Most schools in the United States consider an ELL teacher’s role as part of the support staff. Therefore, they are not always invited to team-level meetings or may be left out of other significant events that affect their students. ELL support staff must support the mainstream teachers who work with their ELL students. Some examples of building this bridge include: attending team meetings, contacting mainstream teachers for social and academic collaboration, participating in parent conferences, and expressing a strong commitment to working together.
The United States is highly diverse, and everyone in the school building should have solid cultural awareness. For example, one way to grow cultural perception is to have ELL students create a short book about their culture to share with students and staff. Not only does this activity help ELL students learn English, but it can also boost students’ confidence. ELL students will know that their voices are essential and that they are being seen and heard – while native US teachers and students can learn about new different gestures, behaviors, and traditions. When students can express who they are and feel comfortable doing so, teachers and students may be surprised to find out how much they truly have in common with their ELL students.
Compassion & Patience
From both ends of the school (mainstream and staff support), all teachers need to be patient and compassionate – understanding and discussing all concerns about their ELL students with each other. New students may experience cultural shock and anxiety – and feel overwhelmed when they come to the States. All teachers must know that ELL students have a ‘silent period’ upon arrival. According to Colorín Colorado, the silent period occurs when the ELL student takes in a new language but does not speak it. This period often lasts six weeks or longer, depending on the individual. The individual begins to speak using short words and sentences, but the emphasis is still on listening and absorbing the new language.
Teachers should be aware of and respect the silent period. Sooner or later, the student will find their comfort zone and will be chatting up a storm!
Support Each Other
Even if mainstream and ELL teachers disagree on content or pedagogy, they must support each other to help reach their students’ best outcomes. Discuss situations, share opinions and best practices, and remain student-centered.
Ensure ELL & Bilingual Students Are Part of the Entire School Community
Once ELL students are comfortable in school, it is crucial to encourage them to step outside of their ELL classroom comfort zone. Some ways to promote social and academic growth include: teachers can pair students for tasks in school, encourage students to join clubs, take students to cultural events, and help them find like-minded activities with their peers. Ensure your students progress in their mainstream classes by checking in and collaborating with their teachers.
Acknowledge Mistakes and Move Forward
All teachers make mistakes when they are in the classroom. Take the time to look back, reflect, and make changes for next time. Be kind to yourself, and know you are doing your best with what you have.
Never Stop Learning and Sharing
When you work in a support position (rather than a team role), it is easy to get caught up in being alone a great deal of time. Make sure to get out into your school and build essential relationships to provide the best opportunities for your professional growth. Learn, listen, share, and always maintain an open mind.
ELL teachers and mainstream teachers should celebrate the joy and accomplishments of observing student success together. Teaching English and social and academic language can be a challenging task. However, being an ELL or bilingual teacher is truly a gift, and you are privileged to support and change lives for the better.
About the author
Robyn D. Shulman is a writer, editor, educator and the Growth Marketing Manager for Summit K12 - where they empower learners and support teachers in the ESL/Bilingual, Dual Language Field, and in Science. In 2018, she won LinkedIn's Top Voice, and she’s a former contributor to Forbes, where she covered education and entrepreneurship. Follow her on LinkedIn.