“What do you want your teacher to know about you?” Esther considered the question, sitting in a small room with Ms. Odette, the interpreter who was working with her to complete her learning profile—a tool that helped us learn about new students and tailor instruction to meet their needs. Ms. Odette guided Esther as she wrote her answers in English.
“I want my teacher to know I’m Smart in Swahili.”
I was Esther’s teacher. She wanted me to know that although she could not yet speak English, she felt confident as a learner in her first language. It’s so important that Esther spoke up about this. Research shows that students who are classified as English language learners may be perceived by teachers as less capable than their non-ELL peers. And universal assessments that test multilingual students in English can provide inaccurate information that teachers use to guide their practice or can wrongly indicate learning disabilities.
Esther was my student five years ago at my former school, where I taught in an accelerated learning pilot program designed to service students in danger of aging out of high school due to their age at enrollment. My students were all newcomers, which is defined differently across states, but generally refers to students enrolled in U.S. schools for less than two years. At the time, Esther was 19 years old, the mother of a toddler, living in a home with her extended family, speaking only Swahili. During the interview for her learner profile, she reported that her family emigrated from a refugee camp after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that her formal education in her home country was interrupted by events beyond her control.
What mattered most to Esther was that she felt understood.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to provide the support she asked for and needed. Esther was only in my class for two months before she and her family relocated to an adjoining state where other relatives had also immigrated. Our paths never crossed again, but her words have shaped my teaching and my brief time with her crystallized my understanding of the importance and necessity of identifying language acquisition and intellect as two distinctly separate realities for immigrant children.
My understanding of the dilemma for students who are both learning content and acquiring a new language deepened my focus the following year, when I asked students in my class what they thought Esther meant when she said, “I want my teacher to know I’m Smart in Swahili.” One student raised her hand and thoughtfully responded after a long pause. “Miss, she is telling you that you can’t see what she knows.” The student, who speaks five languages and is also from the DRC, looked directly at me—her monolingual teacher—mentally calculating whether or not it was safe to challenge me, but she bravely proceeded. Her peers waited and listened. Then she shared what she believed Esther would have said if her English was stronger: “She might say to you, I don’t think you can see (in English) what I know in Swahili.”
This student, in her direct, unflinching and logical assessment, identified my responsibility to gather data, to evaluate and assess each learner, to deeply understand their abilities across languages, and to plan strategies to provide instruction so all students can learn. Her calm, clear observation was intent on disrupting a system of oppression that weighed on her and her peers. A system in which many of their teachers, myself included, speak only English.
This advocate wanted me to understand that she knew that the success of an English language learner depends on their teachers’ ability to see them, to get to know them and to design learning experiences that meet their needs as a whole learner.
Acknowledging and Countering Bias
I am a teacher who speaks only English and works with multilingual learners. People often ask me how many languages I speak when they learn what I do, and are regularly taken aback when I respond: “just English.” I explain that I rely on proven instructional strategies and set high expectations for students to support their academic language acquisition. The reality is that I work daily without the support of bilingual instructors or interpreters. It’s just my students and I, without a live interpreter. I often rely on Google translate, teach students to use word-to-word dictionaries and integrate hands-on materials and visual aids—and my experience is typical for the field.
It is isolating to not understand and to not be understood. As an English-speaking teacher of English language learners, I need to sit with the discomfort of the truth that I play a role in that isolation. And in order to fully support my students, I need to acknowledge that while it might be a temporary problem for some students, and there are immediate strategies and accommodations I can make, it’s still a very real feeling that shapes my students’ daily experiences.
As I’ve moved forward over the years, working with other students in new classes and recently, a new school, I’ve carried Esther’s words with me. Today, I teach world history and geography to newcomers in a Title I school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where nearly 60 percent of the 1,550 students enrolled in our school are Hispanic and speak Spanish, and many speak a Mayan dialect. My roster is also much larger than it was in the pilot program at my prior school. I teach nearly 170 students, so I must modify my instructional strategies to accommodate working solo in my classroom, without co-teachers and with so many more students.
Since teaching Esther, I readily express respect that my students speak more than one language when I am only fluent in one, by really listening to their words and by collaborating with interpreters when I can, so my students have an opportunity to tell me what they want me to know about them. Esther’s words taught me that letting my guard down and being vulnerable with students evokes empathy, support and care. Being honest and forthright that what we’re experiencing in the classroom is a shared language barrier, not just a barrier for the student, establishes early respect.
How Monolingual Teachers Can Support English Language Acquisition
As a monolingual teacher of newcomers, I operate on the understanding that my students may not yet have the language skills to provide reliable evidence of their learning. That means as a teacher, I do not always have adequate academic evidence needed to fairly assess my students’ academic growth and development until they have had time to produce work in their new school. I need to provide ample time for students to settle into a new learning environment, offer opportunities for them to get to know their peers and develop my own understanding of who each student is as a person and a learner, before I can fairly evaluate where they are academically. Just the recognition of this counter narrative has changed my teaching. But there are also other steps I’ve taken to change my practice.
One of the critical goals of my role as a content teacher is to adapt curriculum, to design lessons and assignments to meet standards that are tailored to each learner, and to develop assessments that fairly evaluate each learner’s progress. But this is complicated because I currently teach six classes with an average of 25 students in each, spread out over a two-day rotating block schedule. I strive to get to know my students quickly and identify their needs and strengths, but it’s a lot to manage.
To do this, I rely on resources provided by WIDA, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for teachers supporting multilingual learners adopted by 41 states and U.S. territories, including Tennessee, and hundreds of schools across the globe. I regularly refer to the Can Do Descriptors, which provide standard guidance to educators for assessing the current language proficiency of students in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and for planning instruction based on what students “can do.” These easily accessible charts use grade level bands to identify what students are currently capable of and what they’ll be capable of in the future. Importantly, they create a universal, neutral platform for discussion of the language acquisition levels of students, free of judgment.
Every new school year I think about Esther’s words as I strive to create an environment for my students that supports language acquisition and learning through social studies content. I wish I could thank Esther and tell her how much I have learned from our brief acquaintance. I would tell her about Juan, a current student who recently reminded me that I was his first teacher in the United States last year and asked if I remembered how scared he was. He asked if I recalled that he didn’t believe he would ever speak English. Then he said, in English, “Look at us now.” It was a poignant reminder of how vulnerable students feel and how their interactions with teachers are critical for their success. I would tell Esther that she paved the way for the success of Juan and so many other students in my classes.
If given the chance to see her again, I’d tell her how impressed I was with the confidence she had in herself as a learner and by her recognition of the fact that while she needed time and space to acquire a new language, she was not limited by her intellect or ability to learn. I’d express how grateful I am that she was bold enough to speak up about it during that interview for her learner profile, because her words that day have impacted every student I have taught since. And I want all of my students to know that I recognize that they are smart in Swahili, and Spanish, and that I celebrate the richness that brings to our learning environment.