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Teachers as leaders: Building capacity to serve ELs

5 min read


SmartBlog on Education will highlight summer learning and enrichment for educators during June. In this blog post, advocate and author Ayanna Cooper explores professional development models for teachers of English learners.

In an effort to improve outcomes for students identified as English learners (ELs) a number of initiatives, program models, standards and assessments, model curriculum units, etc., have been created, spearheaded, implemented and evaluated. Despite all of this, in some places, a complex step has been inadvertently missed: supporting teachers of ELs as leaders. One shot professional development sessions, although not supported by research as effective, still exist. Diverse and creative professional development offerings are imperative. When school leaders are autonomous and vested in improving outcomes for ELs, the focus shifts from isolated student achievement to investing in teachers as leaders.

The following scenarios are examples of approaches to professional development for educators of ELs. The list is by no means exhaustive of what is available but it illustrates three distinct approaches to building teacher capacity to serve ELs.

Scenario one:

District provides on-going professional development for all educators of ELs. These professional development sessions include whole group, one-on-one, coaching, modeling strategies, working with content area teachers and team leaders, administrators and guidance counselors. EL staff members are coached to serve as leaders within their assigned schools. Schools, staff and students are arranged by priority with an emphasis on areas of need. Data is used to analyze student progress and instructional models implemented throughout the district (e.g., co-teaching, small group, block scheduling etc.). Parents of ELs are invited to district wide meetings that inform them of standards and assessments related to their child’s academic success. Teachers attend and participate in national, regional and local professional development offerings. Candid conversations are a regular part of the district’s capacity to serve ELs. Is what we are doing working? If not, what else do we need to do? Highlighted is the sense of responsibility for ELs by all educators and the need for more certified teachers who are prepared to teach and advocate for linguistically diverse learners.

Scenario two:

District provides professional development for selected educators. Professional development focuses on “the basics” of teaching ELs. Who students are, how they are identified, classes they take, how to communicate with parents, etc. Teachers are partly viewed as messengers who are to take information back to their schools and reiterate information. The focus is on assuring that everyone receives the same information and who to go to for help. Pressing needs regarding (a) administrators with a lack of depth of knowledge for serving ELs who look to teachers for guidance (b) teacher turnover (c) outdated program models, “we’ve always done it this way” and (d) a perception of ELs as “us” vs. “them” and staying compliant. Teachers do not attend professional development outside of the district and rely on what others can bring in or forward to them via email. Educators feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to effectively serve ELs. They mainly work in isolation or don’t feel autonomous as practitioners to do what’s best for students. For example, when the English language arts teacher wants the EL teacher to help a newcomer ELs prepare for a quiz when in fact the teachers didn’t work together to plan the curriculum. Highlighted here is the functioning in the default mode of doing enough to get by, stay out of trouble and not cause any waves. Representatives may serve as the go-to person for their schools but no real sense of shared responsibility is established.

Scenario three:

Leadership has changed a number of times and teachers are literally “doing their own thing.” Smatterings of highlights are apparent here depending upon the teacher’s sense of efficacy. Some teachers have an extensive background in second language acquisition, are vocal about student and parent needs, want to hold the district accountable and be part of that process. Other teachers are new to the profession, career changers or counting down until retirement. They focus more on administrative side of teaching instead of the individual needs of their students, especially ELs. Student achievement is boiled down to who is passing, completing their home, is an overall good student and who is not. No discussion around teacher quality, EL program models or parent involvement is ever considered. Highlighted here is a lack of vision and leadership that leaves teachers feeling isolated and powerless.

Which setting described above is most similar or different from your teaching context? How can we begin to implement and sustain professional development models that focus on developing teachers as leaders and advocates for ELs? How do ELs benefit or suffer based upon professional development initiatives adopted by their districts? Summer learning is great time to re-evaluate professional development plans and implement more activities that support teachers as leaders. Participating in Training-of-trainers, independent studying, taking online courses, professional reading with colleagues and engaging in conversations before the start of a new school year are just some ways to build teacher capacity to serve ELs.

Ayanna Cooper is an advocate and author for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. She is a co-author of Evaluating ALL teachers of English learners and students with disabilities: Supporting great teaching and has contributed to WIDA publications such as the Essential Actions Handbook.  She has held positions as an English as a second language teacher, ELL instructional coach, urban education teacher supervisor and ELL/Title III director.

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