The Tale of an Itinerant English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher – Shifting Mentality from an Observer to a Proactive Participant
I was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in both a high and a very low incidence district in Massachusetts. Despite the number of identified English learners (ELs) at the two districts, my experiences at both schools are remarkably similar. I began both jobs with no curriculum, no classroom, no budget, and no accountability. The major difference was that at the high incidence district, I enjoyed full teacher status. This means that I was on a step schedule, my years of service counted towards my pension, and I was part of the teachers’ union. At the very low incidence district, I was just a contract worker. I was not guaranteed a job from year to year or paid over the summer, holidays, or snow days. Throughout the school year, I hung in limbo, experiencing high anxiety about my job security and wondering whether I would be asked to come back. However, fault for this cannot be solely attributed to the district for the district does not know about the EL enrollment numbers year-to-year and my employment is conditional upon this number. The biggest irony of this all is that I am at least as qualified as my fellow teachers. However, I am not afforded equal treatment as my peers.
My story is not unique, sadly. Too many (itinerant) ESL teachers can tell a similar tale. We are often robbed of our power, our voice, and our identity. We are relegated to the margins, and struggle to survive. To our administrators and peers, we have to constantly justify our worth, value, and contribution; yet, to our students, we are the “Jack-of-all-trades” and often times, their sole connection to the American culture. After connecting with other ESL teachers, my thinking underwent a major transformation. I stopped victimizing myself and began to see how I can enact my agency to better serve my students and myself. I tell you my story so you may find hope to change your position (or at least your thinking).
In both districts, I always felt targeted by classroom/academic content teachers or administrators for not doing enough because there was such ambiguity surrounding my job description and responsibilities. Additionally, as a contract, per diem worker, there was no accountability for me. Throughout my 7-year teaching career, I was never been evaluated. Uniquely, at the very low incidence district, I floated between three different schools: elementary, middle, and high school during my first year. Because of the rotating and conflicting schedules at the different schools, I was often late or missing instructional time to the students on my roster. I constantly felt like I was letting my students down, that I was not doing enough.
I never felt like I had a voice or power over my position. This echoes Sewell’s (1992) concept of agency within cultural structures. Agency is stronger in numbers (Sewell, 1992); ESL teachers may be limited to one or two positions districtwide. Because I was an itinerant teacher, I did not belong to any school; I often had to pick and choose which grade level team meeting I could attend, if any at all. Even when my opinion was solicited, what I say rarely carried any weight.
I was told by the classroom/academic content teachers what to do and how to teach; in some instances, I was even given an iPad and just told to monitor as the EL I am supposed to provide services to plays different applications on the iPad. I have been asked to report back to classroom/academic content teachers what I taught during my pull-out session but without collaboration or talk about how to best serve the EL’s needs together. At the higher grades (middle and high school), I merely assisted with homework, translating tests, or clarifying instructions and directions. I often felt like my job function was more that of a paraprofessional and not teacher.
However, my thinking underwent a significant change when I adopted a proactive participant mindset. While structural barriers may exist, ESL teachers can find ways to seize power, to lead from the margins, to be part of a positive change for the better – both for your own situation as the ESL teacher, for the equitable education of your students, and for the district. ESL teachers can leverage their expert knowledge of what a successful and effective program needs to be and help their district better serve their ELs. In blaming others, you would give your power away and render yourself without agency.
You must recognize that you can effect change and be part of the larger teaching/professional community. You can make a difference in your students’ lives, in the formation of your professional identity, and in creating a system that works better to service the needs of your students. And only you, the expert with extensive knowledge of second language acquisition pedagogies and a teacher-researcher in the ESL field, can be most effective in helping your district begin to create a better program for their ELs.
One key point to keep in mind, however, is the importance of “fit.” Districts, like people, each have their own unique characteristics and personalities, compositions and needs, demographics and goals. Teachers, regardless of discipline, have similarly varied compositions of needs, wants, goals, and aspirations. The district (structure) and the teachers (agents) engage dialectically (Sewell, 1992), but if the district and the agents are not in sync and are pushing for different things, misalignment will occur. This misalignment can be detrimental to a teacher’s professional identity. Over time, it will add to a teacher’s sense of frustration, disempowerment, and lack of self-efficacy.
Still, there is hope. Our ELs rely on your expertise, advocacy and drive to ensure their meaningful and equitable access to a quality education. You must realize that you are indispensable – you are the expert with the power to help your students. And only you. No one can replace you. No one can do a better job than you, not even another ESL or bilingual certified teacher. Only you have the historic and background knowledge of your district, your community, to best enact practices to meet the students’ needs.