Stories of ESL Educators: Introduction

The goal of this mini-series is to bring the voices of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to the forefront.  Oftentimes, ESL teachers serve as the conduit between the micro student level and the meso school and district levels.  When providing direct instruction to English learners (ELs), ESL teachers gather pertinent information regarding ELs’ needs.  Sometimes, ESL teachers can directly address these needs.  Other times, ESL teachers have to relay the information to other members of the school community to pull resources together to affect change.  Yet other times, ESL teachers simply filter out this information and proceed under their own directive.  This begins the process of blurring ESL teacher’s professional identity to extend beyond the teacher, and begins to include other aspects of the job to become, as Crandall (1998) coined, the “Jack-of-all-trades.”  When ESL teachers brings the ELs’ needs back to the meso level, they are required to advocate to the existing structure on behalf of their ELs so that change can occur; this discourse is precisely the duality of structure Sewell (1992) discusses.  The goal of this mini-series is to paint portraitures of three successful ESL teachers and how they formed their professional identities to positively affect change so others may learn from these examples about professional identity conception that could benefit them as educators.  An epilogue detailing my own experiences and how I was affirmatively impacted by these teachers’ stories will conclude the series.

ESL teachers, the agents who have the most direct contact, influence and impact on ELs’ academic learning, and the expertise they bring, are irreplaceable.  Teaching ESL is not simply about “good teaching methods” (Harper & de Jong, 2009) because each EL’s needs are so distinct.  The ESL teacher, with specialized training in recognizing the learning and understanding the pedagogy behind acquiring a second language, is paramount in the education of ELs.  Sadly, when there is little respect for ESL teachers, or research conducted to support the need for ESL teachers in the classrooms (Harper, de Jong, & Platt, 2008), marginalization occurs.  However, the teaching of ESL is critical.  From the ELs’ standpoint, it is the ESL teacher who is tasked with the responsibility of teaching them the English language and culture; Giddens (in Sewell, 1992) and Sewell (1992) both emphasize the importance of “knowledgeable agents” (p. 4) to bring about change.  ELs must rely on their ESL teachers to provide an adequate and equitable education in acquiring the English language so that they can access academic content and perform well in school and on high-stakes tests.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply good teaching strategies that can be transferred to any student in any classroom situation (Krashen, 1976); it actually requires formal and specialized instruction from the ESL teacher (Harper, de Jong, & Platt, 2008).

“In his research, [Jim Cummins said] that one of the single most important factors in a child’s learning is their relationship with the teacher” (Jesse, Interview 1, December 6, 2012).  Jamie, Jesse, and Jordan, the three ESL teachers who will be featured in this mini-series all attribute their greatest joy to the ELs they teach.  Each of these teachers develops her unique professional identity enacted through different agentic ways in response to the structure within which they work so that each could achieve their own goals for their EL students.  This is as Schultz and Ravitch (2013) state, “People construct professional identities in relation to context and experience and in relation to one another” (p. 37).  Jamie, the veteran ESL teacher at a wealthy school district, becomes the “triage worker” to help her achieve her goal of expediting her ELs’ acculturation and assimilation to the district’s culture and high academic standards.  Jesse, a humanitarian at heart, assumes the professional identity as the “cultivator” of relationships and, specifically at Danaton, her hometown alma mater, the “insider” and used this unique position of power to help her attain her goal of minimizing the margins and creating a space where everyone could belong.  Jordan takes on the professional identity of the “expert guardian,” where she strives to create a stable learning environment for her ELs by filtering and buffering information in and out of her classroom and through to her students.  Though similar in some ways, each ESL teacher responds in her own individual way; this is supported by literature’s statement that there is no one-size-fit-all for ESL teachers’ job function and roles, as the EL population and needs vary and change with time (Gándara & Hopkins, 2010).

ESL teachers may feel marginalized, in part because, often, they are the only teacher of their kind within a building – but my participants’ experiences do not reflect what the marginality framework and existing literature discusses.  In fact, my participants activated their agencies and spoke from the margins; their positions as the “other” in their districts also afforded them the expert status (bell hooks, 1984) needed to affect change so that their ELs’ experiences could be improved.  Although my participants used their positions of marginality as sources of power, each faced challenges in meeting her goals because of factors inherent to low ESL incidence districts.  Such factors include availability of funding, allotted instructional time, time to collaborate with other teachers, and each district’s awareness of her ELs’ needs.  But above all, this series will show that in the face of marginalization, ESL teachers are not powerless.   ESL teachers can create change, albeit through different agentic efforts, because each ESL teacher is equipped with a different schema and background knowledge.  As we continue to work against the marginalization of ESL teachers, the power and agency of ESL teachers individually and as a group will also grow, allowing us to enact more beneficial changes for our students and our schools.  These students are why the ESL teachers do what they do, face the challenges of working in a low incidence district, and seek agentic ways to change the existing structure to better the educational experiences of their students.

References Cited

Agentic.  (n. d.).  In Wikipedia.  Retrieved April 29, 2013, from books.  (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center.  Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Crandall, J.  (1998). The expanding role of the elementary ESL teacher: Doing more than teaching language.  ESL Magazine, 1(4), 10-14.

Gándara, P., & Hopkins, M. (2010). Forbidden language: English learners and restrictive language policies.  New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Harper, C. A., & de Jong, E. J.  (2009)  English language teacher expertise: The elephant in the room.  Language and Education, 23(2), 137-151.

Harper, C. A., de Jong, E. J., & Platt, E. J.  (2008)  Marginalizing English as a second language teacher expertise: The exclusionary consequence of No Child Left Behind.  Language Policy, 7, 267-284.

Krashen, S. D.  (1976). Formal and informal linguistic environments in language acquisition and language learning.  TESOL Quarterly, 10, 157-168.

Ortner, Sherry B.  (2006). Anthropology and social theory: Culture, power, and the acting subject.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schultz, K. & Ravitch, S. M.  (2013). Narratives of learning to teach: Taking on professional identities.  Journal of Teacher Education, 64(1), 35-46.

Sewell, Jr., W. H.  (1992). A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation.  The American Journal of Sociology, 98(1), 1-29.

Tina taught K-12 ESL in Massachusetts for 7 years before moving to Illinois. She received her doctorate in Leadership in Urban Schools from the University of Massachusetts, Boston and currently works for the Division of English Language Learning at the Illinois State Board of Education. She also teaches ESL and bilingual endorsement courses to pre-service and in-service teachers at DePaul University and National Louis University. When she's not working, Tina likes to experiment with cooking different kinds of foods from scratch.

Category: Education