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May 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 8
ASCD Champions in Education

Supporting English Language Teaching Specialists

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Good leaders cultivate an environment that promotes understanding, collaboration, and success.

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LeadershipSchool Culture
Portrait of article author Xatli Stox, smiling, with dark brown hair
Reflecting on my journey in the English language teaching (ELT) profession, I think about the opportunities I have had to represent and advocate for students and educators. These experiences have impacted my own path, igniting my passion to support others navigating their roles as ELT educators. My journey has involved experiences in various roles—as an ELT specialist (aka ESL teacher), administrator, and education consultant. Through these roles, I’ve identified what I believe are key elements for improving ELT ­specialists’ environments and positively impacting their students’ success.

First, Provide Good Conditions and Respect

If your school can implement any (or all) of these practices, you’ll create conditions that will help support your ELT professionals/ESL teachers:
  • Reserve a comfortable physical space for ESL services. Consider these services when building the schedule. Most important, protect the time allotted for them.
  • Get familiar with the language program models common in your state and what curriculum your ELT ­specialist uses based on your school’s needs.
  • Convey that the role of the ELT specialist is an asset for the school, creating a climate in which all teachers respect and understand each other’s work.
  • Establish a culture of shared responsibility in which all educators identify best practices to support multilingual learners and incorporate scaffolds and modifications into their instruction.
  • Encourage ELT specialists to participate in communities of practice, either professional learning teams in the school and district or networking opportunities across the state, specifically geared toward collaborative planning for the benefit of multilingual students.

Then, Get Teachers Working Together to Build Understanding

Building relationships between ELT specialists and other teachers is essential. Educators of multilingual learners frequently hear administrators and colleagues say things like, “You can’t pull them out today, we’re completing an assessment” or “You come to the school only twice a week? What are their teachers supposed to do the rest of the time?” Some even describe the ELT specialist’s services more as a class disruption than effective support. But collaboration leads to deeper understanding, so leaders should create opportunities for relationship building and partnership between ELT specialists and content-area teachers. This helps content-area teachers know how the ELT specialist is working with students on specific skills, so they feel more positive when students are pulled out of their classes (or even get interested in co-planning and ­co-teaching lessons).
When I was an itinerant teacher traveling between schools during the day to pull out students from their regular classes for ESL services, the tiny space I had for my classes wasn’t always the most comfortable, but I tried to make the space welcoming for my students. I allowed them to share their own languages and cultures as they developed English language skills. When I taught elective classes in high school, things were better: I had my own classroom, and my students could earn credits that counted toward their graduation requirements. However, other teachers would still give me content-specific assessments and assignments to translate for my students. ELT specialists have specific standards and curricula designed to facilitate the development of academic language and communication skills among their students. In my experience, engaging in tasks such as translating or completing assignments from other classes is not aligned with these objectives and represents a misuse of their time, as such activities do not effectively promote language development.
It’s ironic that ELT professionals are often underestimated by the school community because these same professionals hear constant requests to do something to get multilingual students to the same language proficiency level as their native English-speaking peers. ELT specialists actually love providing support for teachers, students, and families. But I wish we had more support from administrators so other teachers would accept us as professionals. In fact, ELT specialists are teacher leaders who model best practices for supporting students. Besides providing language instruction, we help students feel seen and ­welcomed as they adjust to their new environment—and we continue to support these students’ language skills throughout the years. We are vital to the success of all these children, and we are qualified to support them through their academic journeys. ELT educators shouldn’t have to constantly explain how and why our work is important.

I see hopeful signs that ELT specialists and content-area teachers are working together effectively.

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Encouraging Signs

I do see hopeful signs that ELT specialists and content-area teachers are working together effectively. In 2018, I created a network for ELT educators to reflect on their practice, share experiences, and identify strategies for professional growth. All educators in this group expressed a desire to identify ways in which they could collaborate more with content-area teachers.
I’m also encouraged that ELT specialists’ contributions—and the strengths of multilingual learners—are being recognized more. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has initiated conversations about bilingualism and the value of students’ cultures and home languages, giving the issue greater attention across the nation. These conversations have amplified educators’ voices; work done by researchers and in-service teachers to find best ways to support language learners and bilingualism is finally being seen and recognized at a larger scale. As another good sign, the field now refers to our students as multilingual learners (recognizing the value these students embody) rather than limited English proficient or English learners. The academic community is beginning to see this student population from an asset-based approach.
ELT professionals see these encouraging signs. We smile at the thought that finally the value we bring to our school communities is becoming clear, enabling more teachers to work together to create an environment that promotes understanding, ­collaboration, and success for ­students.
End Notes

Corrigan, O., Frey, N, Fisher, D., & Hattie, J. (2023). Kids come in all languages. Visible learning for multilingual learners. Corwin Press.

Xatli Stox is an ASCD Champion in Education and advocate for classroom educators serving multilingual learners. Stox is currently a policy and planning analyst/state relations specialist for WIDA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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