To improve instruction and services for all English language learners, teachers are stepping into leadership roles.
By Felice Atesoglu Russell and Kerry Soo Von Esch
At a time when school districts across the country are experiencing fast-growing enrollments of English language learners (ELLs), many K-12 educators are asking what they can do to meet those students’ needs. For example, what does it mean to teach in a culturally and linguistically responsive manner? What kinds of knowledge and skills will teachers require? And what should instructional leaders be doing to help teachers develop such knowledge and skills?
Currently, districts are pursuing a range of promising strategies: For example, some require teachers to obtain an endorsement in English to Speakers of Other Languages; others require teachers to complete training in the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol; and others favor an instructional coaching model, assigning a cadre of teachers to provide districtwide support for effective ELL instruction. Whichever strategy districts choose, though, teachers themselves tend to be the ones leading the way.
Successful schools have a clear and coherent vision of how best to educate their ELLs, with careful attention to teaching, learning, and professional development (Elfers & Stritikus, 2014; Hakuta, 2011). But in many parts of the country, veteran classroom teachers are far better equipped than their principals and other administrators to develop that vision and create the conditions, opportunities, and structures needed to meet the needs of these students (McGee, Haworth, & MacIntyre, 2014).
As teacher educators and researchers, we have had many opportunities to look closely at schools and districts that are implementing meaningful supports for ELL instruction, and we’ve found that effective teacher leadership in this area tends to involve two strategies in particular, which we illustrate with a pair of examples below.
Effective teacher leaders leverage their position and expertise
Our first example is drawn from our observations of two successful teacher leaders, Robin and Beth, who worked in the urban Horizon School District, which enrolled high numbers of ELLs, representing more than 100 native languages. Both were experienced classroom and ELL teachers with extensive training in the field. Also, both were advanced professional development trainers and instructional coaches in Guided Language Acquisition Design (a teaching model that emphasizes explicit instruction in academic English).
At this point in their careers, Robin and Beth were both employees of Horizon’s ELL department at the district office, but they spent much of their time in area schools. The district had recently mainstreamed most of its ELLs into general education classrooms. Therefore, Robin and Beth’s work involved both identifying what was needed to support ELLs overall and adapting that strategy to fit specific schools and subject-area classrooms.
Robin and Beth knew that, to advocate for and implement instructional changes, it would be critical to cultivate trusting relationships with teachers, principals, and other teacher leaders and administrators — and they did this primarily by demonstrating and leveraging their expertise (Manno & Firestone, 2008). For example, they provided direct professional development through whole-staff training and grade-level meetings and by coaching and modeling effective ELL instruction for individual teachers. They worked with teachers to identify problems of practice, and they showed that they were well prepared to offer specific, actionable, and research-based solutions.
Sharing local knowledge
Because Robin and Beth worked with various schools across the district, they also had opportunities to let teachers know about successful practices that local colleagues were using. In addition to sharing and spreading good ideas about ELL instruction and assessment, this also helped to legitimize the larger effort to take ELL instruction seriously. By showing that teachers throughout the district were coming up with creative ways to meet the needs of ELLs, they built a sense of urgency behind the efforts underway within each school, and they highlighted the expertise of nearby teachers who were having success working with ELLs.
Bringing principals on board
Robin and Beth varied their approach depending upon the size of the given school’s ELL population and its cultural and linguistic makeup. To an even greater extent, though, they adapted their work in response to the philosophy and commitment of the school’s principal.
To differentiate their strategy, they relied on what they called an “ELL service plan,” a document that all principals were required to complete and submit to the district, spelling out precisely how they intended to spend funds allocated to support ELLs. This plan covered areas such as professional development, the hiring of bilingual paraeducators, the purchasing and development of ELL materials, and the engagement of ELL parents; it also required each school to commit to working with Robin or Beth for at least 10-15 days over the course of the year.
Having to submit these service plans forced principals to think more intentionally about how they could meet the needs of their English learners. Perhaps even more important, though, they gave Robin and Beth a way to influence the design of each school’s programs and a means of holding principals accountable. Often, they would provide guidance to principals as they wrote their plans, and during the school year they would refer back to those plans when trying to get principals to resolve specific problems, adopt new ELL resources, and carve out time for professional development.
Having to submit these service plans forced principals to think more intentionally about how they could meet the needs of their English learners.
Effective teacher leaders work on multiple levels
Our second example focuses on Vista International High School (VIHS), a diverse urban high school in Washington state, with ELLs making up nearly a third of its enrollment. Sarah, a veteran English language development (ELD) teacher, was tapped by her principal to take the newly created position of ELL facilitator, devoting 30% of her time to guiding and facilitating the professional learning of mainstream content teachers, while continuing to teach for the remaining 70% of her time.
Thus, in a single school day, Sarah would often work directly with English learners, advise teachers, and talk strategy with the principal, shifting back and forth among her roles as teacher, teacher leader, and advocate. But it didn’t feel like a juggling act, she told us, since “it’s all about ELL support.”
Working directly with ELLs
A well-trained and experienced ELL teacher, Sarah provided high-quality instruction in her own ELD classroom as well as providing support to ELLs in their content-area classes. In each setting, she made a point of modeling her practices, often encouraging other teachers to observe her work — not only to demonstrate specific teaching strategies but also to highlight the ways she interacted with students and made the classroom a safe space for them. First, she wanted the content-area teachers to see how she presented herself as an advocate for ELLs, encouraging the students to speak up for themselves but also letting them know that she would take it upon herself to ensure they got the resources and supports they needed. Second, she wanted the other teachers to see how carefully she talked with and listened to her students, constantly assessing their comprehension of specific words and academic content in general.
Working with content-area teachers and the literacy team
In addition to modeling her own teaching, Sarah helped content-area teachers plan lessons, suggested appropriate classroom materials and tools, coached novice teachers in the fundamentals of ELL instruction, and coordinated among teachers to ensure that they used consistent instructional practices. In regular faculty meetings, she led discussions about the importance of assessing and drawing upon students’ prior school experiences, helping them maintain their native language skills, learning about their home lives, and remaining patient with them as they strengthened their command of English. Above all, her goal was to help teachers understand that they can and should set high expectations for ELLs and encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning.
Further, as part of the literacy team, which included three language arts teachers and two ELD teachers, Sarah was deeply involved in decision making about reading and writing instruction and assessment, making sure that her colleagues were attentive to distinct needs of ELLs in these areas.
Working with the principal and other school staff
Sarah consistently advocated for needs of ELLs at whole-staff meetings and during weekly Professional Collaboration Time. Further, she served as an informal adviser to the principal, helping him define and articulate a school mission that made an explicit commitment to supporting ELLs. And whenever she became aware of a flaw in the organization and structure of the ELL program, or when she discovered a problem that ELLs were experiencing, she would bring it to the principal’s attention and press him to take action.
Priorities to consider
Whatever the approach to strengthening services and instruction for English language learners — whether the strategies that we’ve described or one that relies less directly on teacher leadership — advocates should keep in mind a number of critical priorities.
First, every school that enrolls ELLs should come up with an explicit plan for how to serve them effectively. Especially at schools that have never before enrolled many ELLs, it’s critical for teachers, staff, and administrators to articulate a clear and shared vision of what they hope to achieve for these students, and how.
At a minimum, every school should make a commitment to meeting these students’ needs, valuing their presence, viewing them as fully competent learners, and creating a learning environment that is culturally sustaining and linguistically responsive, building on the strengths that students bring with them from their home culture.
Further, every school should make it a priority to help teachers provide high-quality ELL instruction across the curriculum. And where schools already have skilled ELL teachers on the faculty, they should make it a priority to give them roles as instructional leaders and put them in positions where they can advocate successfully for ELLs and their families.
Also, because the population of English language learners is growing much faster than the numbers of well-trained specialists in ELL instruction, most schools will need to leverage their existing expertise by encouraging teachers to learn from and collaborate with skilled colleagues. But this requires teachers to be given regular opportunities to model and observe good instruction, plan together, discuss goals and challenges, agree on common teaching practices and tools, and ensure that professional learning opportunities are well aligned to the design of the ELL program. In short, to make it possible for teachers to learn from each other and improve their practice, school leaders will have to find ways to make available the time and resources that allow professionals to collaborate in meaningful ways.
Finally — and like Robin and Beth, in our first example — local advocates will have to find effective ways to hold school and district leaders accountable for meeting the needs of their English learners. It is easy to make promises about improving services for ELLs, but such changes rarely happen unless someone is there to make sure that local educators keep these learners in the forefront of their minds.
Elfers, A.M. & Stritikus, T. (2014). How school and district leaders support classroom teachers’ work with English language learners. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50 (2), 305-344.
Hakuta, K. (2011). Educating language minority students and affirming their equal rights: Research and practical perspectives. Educational Researcher, 40 (4), 163-174.
Manno, C.M. & Firestone, W.A. (2008). Content is the subject: How teacher leaders with different subject knowledge interact with teachers. In M.M. Mangin & S.R. Stoelinga (Eds.), Effective teacher leadership: Using research to inform and reform (pp. 36-54). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
McGee, A., Haworth, P., & MacIntyre, L. (2014). Leadership practices to support teaching and learning for English language learners. TESOL Quarterly, 49 (1), 92-114.
FELICE ATESOGLU RUSSELL (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of education at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, N.Y., and KERRY SOO VON ESCH (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of education at Seattle University, in Seattle, Wash.
Originally published in April 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (7) 52-56. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.