An ESL teacher reflects on her work, her role and her impact on the educational outcomes of her multilingual learners (ELs). She is seeking clarity around her role.

The ESL Identity Crisis

equity esl teachers inclusive practices inclusivepractices multilingual learners sheltered instruction Jan 03, 2023

"So, what do you do anyway?"

If you're an ESL teacher, you've likely been on the receiving end of this question. And it's also likely that your answer is different each time. Why is that? 

ESL, it seems, is the oobleck of teaching roles: we fit in everywhere - and nowhere - all at once. And that lack of clarity can cause issues that ultimately impact teacher wellness, student outcomes, and the health of the field in general. Let's unpack.

More than a job title

English as a Second Language (also known as ESOL) teachers, by title, seem to have a fairly straight forward job to do. We teach English, you see, to students who are learning the language while attending school in English. Yet, with the great variety of program models and approaches across the country, one thing is held in common for sure: they all do MUCH more than teach English. And focusing on English, is a daunting and often vaguely understood task.

In a recent Aligned ESL Teacher Cohort coaching session, I talked to ESL teachers from 4 different states about their roles and they all shared this same lack of clarity. "It seems so silly that I can't even explain what I do!" confessed one ESL teacher. One common theme? The many responsibilities competing for time. One teacher shared, "I am the one to make sure they have field trip money, and keep track of their due dates for assignments; I call parents and arrange a translator, and help them make sense of the math textbook. Sometimes I abandon my class plans because the kids are panicked about having to finish an essay on time. So, we drop everything and get them through." Others agreed, adding "worksheet finisher", "tutor", "newsletter translator", "advocate", "civil rights enforcer", "behaviorist" and "extra curricular explainer" to their list of many hats. 

 Federally, ESL is defined as, "A program of techniques, methodology and special curriculum designed to teach ELL students English language skills". So why, then, do so many teachers spend the majority of their time on tasks that are NOT directly teaching English language skills?

Who are we?

It has become clear, from both my personal experience in the role and directing ESL teachers, and as a trainer working with ESL teachers and teams in several regions, that ESL teachers are suffering from an identity crisis. Nationally, ESL teachers (just like my minivan) could use a good alignment job! And to make matters more complicated, they struggle to give up any one of their hats. Part of the core identity of an ESL teacher is often the caring advocate who wants to "make a difference". So how could these bleeding hearts ever turn a blind eye to a panicked high schooler with an essay due 6th period? How could they let the elementary annual ice cream social notice go home only in English?

Jaqueline of all Trades...

When ESL teachers take on all of the above roles in addition to teaching English, something has to give. And, quite often, it's our students' growth in English that gives way. Ultimately, the goal of ESL is to exit students when they have the English skills they need to "perform ordinary classroom work in English" (DOE). The data show we are struggling as a field. The percentage of LTELS (Long-term ELs) has increased in the period between 2008 ad 2016 from 62% to 82% of all English learners*

And other measures of English and academic growth (progress on WIDA ACCESS, subgroup performance on national content tests) show that we may not have failing students, but failing systems. Dr. José Medina addresses this very concept in his suggestion that we refer to LTELS as "historically marginalized emergent multilingual learners". 

The Upside

The good thing about an identity crisis, is that it's actually a necessary step in our development as a field. We need to question, grapple with and challenge our identity in order to evolve and grow. This crisis is an opportunity to Move UpRiver - to center teaching around the skills students need for full access to their education while revealing all the ways the entire educational ecosystem needs to step up in its ownership and support of ALL students. Advocacy with boundaries.

WHY English?

When I conduct trainings in schools I often present a graphic that shows a car with lots of cargo packed on top. The cargo is labeled "Content". The car beneath, is labeled "English". This serves as a reminder that English is the target of ESL not because it's an inherently better or superior language; English, in monolingual US schools, is simply access. When the vehicle to deliver content is English, then we need to provide the keys to all students through English language development (And during the phase when they are learning English, by the way, content classrooms create more access points through accommodation, sheltering, and scaffolded supports.)

Let them teach English

ESL-English is Language for Later (post on this coming soon!); these are the English skills that empower multilingual learners to access learning in English classrooms. But to do this, may mean revealing the places where ESL teachers are filling in the systemic gaps for multilingual students.  "How can I stick with my ESL plan about the language of compare and contrast when the kids are overwhelmed by their history article and need scaffolds?" This question came from a HS ESL teacher, for whom the struggle is real. She often finds herself in the position to forego her ESL content, scrap her plan so that she can support the content of her colleagues.

BRAVE communication

Brené Brown's crisp guidance, "Clear is kind" says it all. I encourage my ESL teams to get crystal clear about what they do, and what they don't do. This is often met with the reaction that they fear being perceived as lazy or not a team player. And letting go of that fear? That's some good personal development work right there! But by taking a stand, you also reveal what areas need wider support (administrators, take note!). Perhaps your colleagues need to know about the tears their English essay invokes. Maybe they think their phonics curriculum is working when, in fact, you've just been double-teaching it all along! We need to turn the lights on and see the realities of where we are missing the mark. How can we grow as systems if we don't understand our failures? Take a listen to Elena Aguilar's Bright Morning podcast #112 that addresses this topic. She says, "We can't go forward unless we have looked backward. We can't create new realities, new societies, new schools, new communities, new relationships, if we haven't looked backwards to recognize the pain and the suffering to recognize our part in it...the future is constructed through a reflection non the past." How. True. Let us be brave enough to stop masking the flaws of our systems and allow them to be seen. Recognize the pain to build a brighter future.

Postponing gratification

And then there's the part we need to recognize about putting out fires. It feels GOOD to fix a problem. It feels GREAT, in fact, to go home and say to your family, "I made sure a family got a field trip scholarship today. And without me, Ariela's mom would not have seen the newsletter in Portuguese. And Johanny was in near tears about his essay but I helped him get it in on time!" Wow, that feels good. Helped today? Check, check and check.

But English? Oof. That takes time and it's a slow, arduous climb. In fact, your efforts might not translate into accomplishments until next year, or longer. But in order to truly equip students with multilingual status, we need to hold sacred ESL time. And, we need to hold our entire system accountable for supporting them along the way. 

After all, if you're an ESL teacher, the identity you should strive for most is that of former teacher to your successful and supported, fully multilingual students. 

What is your ESL identity? Are you clear on what English you teach? Has your system stepped up to "radically welcome" (got that term from the amazing Dr. Melanie Desmuke-Battles, thank you) all students or are you masking the need for improvement in that arena?

I welcome thoughts and feedback.

In alignment, 


PD just for ESL teachers is here. Here's what they're saying:

"The Aligned ESL Teacher Cohort modules provided great clarification for me in my role as an ESL teacher and have had a great impact on my ESL teaching, planning, and collaborating. Although I have experience with working with ELs for almost 10 years, I came away from each of the modules with new knowledge and a deeper understanding of my role as an ESL teacher and the ways that I can tailor my EL curriculum while also working to collaborate with colleagues that also work with my ELs so we can work together to ensure their language development and success."

Click to learn more!

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