Beyond the Kidney Table in the Back of the General Education Classroom: The Role of the Language Specialist in the 21st Century

 By Sarah Said

It’s 2019, and you’re starting to see your role shift. Yes, you are the building ELL specialist. And, you’re not doing your job quietly in the back of a General Education teacher’s classroom on a kidney table hoping you and your students don’t frighten the third grade teacher whose room you are servicing today.  That’s right, you service students now--not teachers. Your services benefit the whole class, not just the four kids who you are supposed to service. You’re not tip-toeing out of the classroom with your group as you carry the ELL edition of the series your school uses for “curriculum” and hoping you’re on the same page as “their actual teacher” as you go to your tiny closet of a room to serve “your” students.  You actually co-teach now--not “I push in but we call it co-teaching," you really co-plan and co-teach.

Wow!  That is too good to be true. But in the 21st century, the ELL specialist’s wildest dreams may have to actually become true.  It’s like eating ice cream and the calories not even counting. Here is what I mean, in 2015, Confianza’s first year, we had predicted that by 2025 one in every four students in a US classroom will be an English Learner. It is 2019, and the entity that I work in has figures close to that ratio. With this increase in numbers, schools really have to change their mindsets on how they view the ELL specialist. We are a resource, not the person who takes “those kids” out of the classroom.  We are multilingual, not just the person who’s door you are knocking on for translation when you need it because “that parent doesn’t speak English.” We support students and classrooms, not just help “those kids learn English.”

My friends, things are a changin’!  Schools and specialists need to understand that the role of the ELL specialist is adapting to the growing needs and population of learners. The idea of this post is to help everyone understand that we are really moving beyond the kidney table in the back of the general education classroom to becoming stronger partners and leaders in our buildings. Our roles in making a huge shift that we really need to keep up with.

Partnering as Co-Teacher and Co-Planner

When the ELL specialist stepping out from behind that kidney table and co-teaches and co-plans with the General Education teacher, it really benefits all who are in the room.  The ELL specialist benefits from having an equitable space in the classroom where they can see their own instructional practices flourish, thus becoming a stronger teacher in that space. They improve their leadership skills through “live coaching” as they serve their students but also educate the classroom teacher. Their voice is heard on instructional practices for all thus improving their scale of planning and giving them opportunities to serve the classroom and school in different capacities.

The general education teacher benefits from learning the practices of the ELL specialist.  How many classroom teachers in the past knew what a language objective was or how to properly execute TPR? Those who have the support of the ELL Specialist co-teaching in their classrooms can learn through the coaching support of that specialist. Isn’t that what we want?  Don’t we want ALL teachers to support English Learners?

And of course, the students- ELL and Non-ELL- benefit from an inclusive environment where all students are being taught. Being in a building with a unique population of first and second generation American English Learners, we try to hold true to a co-teaching model.  This means that a lot of language scaffolding and translanguaging happens in the classroom. I have been approached by others outside of my building who ask if it is a distraction to “general education students.” If executed correctly, no. In fact, having English Learners in the classroom gives general education students a more worldly view of people.  For students, being together means opportunities for learning about each other. I have been referred to as “maestra” by Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers in a co-teaching setting. For me, I feel that non-English Learners are embracing their peers by using their language in the classroom. This is what 21st century learning is about- equity, inclusion, and developing a global understanding. Non-English learners can come to see their peers’ language abilities as assets- not deficits.

As Jaime Ponce stated in a Teaching Channel blog titled  “The Far Reaching Benefits of Co-Teaching  For ELLs,” “English language learning was seen as less of a negative by all stakeholders -- there are so many cognitive benefits of speaking two languages. Bilingualism should be celebrated and not seen as a disability.” (Ponce 2017). When English Learners are in the classroom with their peers, their peers develop that sense of asset based thinking. When they do, it boosts the confidence of English Learners. They participate more in classroom practices meant to build their language- such as presentations and cooperative learning activities- and they flourish in their learning.  They also become proud of their native language heritage and value the ability to keep that native language.

When co-planning and co-teaching for English Learners properly happens, key word here is properly, all staff and students are catapulted into the 21st century.  All students become exposed to the same content and vocabulary. This gives them an equitable chance of success outside of the classroom.

ELL Specialist as an  Instructional Leader

Yes,  you read that right, “ELL Specialist as an Instructional Leader.”  You are the engine that will support all teachers, supporting English Learners.  How are you doing that? You are going to lead ALL staff in professional development so that English Learners are seen as “Our Students” and not “Your Kids.”  Don’t not be scared. Fearlessly, leave that comfortable seat with “your stuff” on it behind the kidney table and help others to learn how to support our children.  

Frameworks like Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), are as Jana Echevarria would put it “good for all students.” That magical box of components needs to be open to everyone and you are the person with the key.  Work with your administration to not only become more knowledgeable in those practices, but coach others in doing the same. Interaction (a SIOP component) is powerful in a whole classroom than it is with four kids on your safe table. Also, you can’t be in that classroom all day long.  Students will have more time for language instruction when the general education teacher is knowledgeable in this framework.

We are in a day and age where your colleagues need your support in building their instructional practices more than they need to you to “take these kids.” As an ELL Specialist of the 21st century, you need to be up for the challenge.  As Rachel Hollis writes in Girl, Wash Your Face, “a caterpillar is awesome, but it the caterpillar stopped there- if she decided that good is good enough- we would all miss out on the beautiful creature she would become.” (Hollis 2018). You need to expand your practices now in 2019. Yes, it’s scary to have to train “Debbie Downer” in SIOP practices because she doesn’t want “one more thing.” However, to create that beauty for you and your kids, you have to be the butterfly who supports her and be that leader in your building.

With this all in mind, it is important to understand that “The skills required for working with adults are different from those needed for working with children. It cannot be assumed that all English language teachers are prepared for this changing role.” (Short, Becker, Cloud, Hellman,& Levine 2018). Relationship building, leadership skill sets, and passion are important elements in becoming leaders in our buildings. The trust or Confianza we build with our colleagues is pivotal in having that success with teams. They need to trust our abilities, but also trust us as people.  That trust is earned over time. This will not happen overnight. We need to have candid conversations with our building and district leaders to prepare for this change.  They can lead you to the appropriate avenues and resources you need to build your own skill set.

Champions For Equity

As Sara Ahmed puts it, “Our lives as educators are full of rich and diverse experiences, but we cannot possibly have an understanding of every hand that has been dealt to our students.” (Ahmed 2018). As educators of English Learners, we know how to have dialogue with students to be the listener in learning about life experience.  We try to understand that the home lives of our students may not be what is typical in a school setting. At times, there are obstacles that prevent learning. Having those conversations with students and building relationships helps us understand what they need in a school setting.

The 21st century ELL Specialist goes beyond a thirty-five minute service session to advocate for their students inside and outside of the classroom.  They work with their general education counterparts to work together to create an environment that is responsive to their needs. We support our teams in understanding the perspectives of the home cultures of the students in their classrooms. We advocate… we advocate… we advocate… and then we educate.

With the political landscape we are facing in this country, we need to be passionate in helping others understand the face and story behind the statistics.  What we hear on the news, may be the reality of a students’ past or what is happening in their households. We need to help our colleagues understand this without being patronizing or antagonizing.

Whether we are having a conversation with peers in the teachers’ lounge, or speaking to our school boards to explain what our English Learner programs look like, we are responsible for being champions for equity.  As those champions, we need to assure that our students can access content, native language support and any other types of service that they or their families may need. For some families, you are the life line that is helping them navigate the system.

Artist of the Multilingual and Multicultural Landscape

Being the artist of this landscape is more than translating paperwork and putting on a multicultural potluck to engage parents once a year.  You are building this in the classroom by assuring that all classrooms have native language resources, multilingual word walls, and a space to build that translanguaging corriente.  You are working with the classroom teacher to have handouts with native language support. In your role, you may help them find culture artifacts from student cultures to display in their rooms. The classroom is set up to be responsive to student needs with your help,  And you working with the students to take pride in their home language in culture in the classroom.

Outside of the classroom, you are finding ways to celebrate student cultures and languages in your building. This celebration educates peers and they begin to value their friends’ identities as well as take pride in their own. In my school we have a weekly assembly called “Community Crew” (this is an EL Education concept), we have created a segment called culture crew.  As a team, we chose a culture, holiday, or event to highlight.  The presentations are student driven and there is parent collaboration.  We have honored Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, International Women’s Day, Passover, Diwali, Korean Lunar New Year, Highlighted Christmas in many parts of the world, and the list keeps growing… It is important to have consistent education for students and staff on the traditions of our families. Culture fests and multicultural potlucks are not a bad thing to have, they’re great.  It just should not be your only cultural celebration. In your role, you lead this wonderfulness now!

In addition to celebrating cultures outside of the classroom, we also need to celebrate languages. As a 21st Century ELL Specialist, part of your responsibility to your school community is assuring that all languages are displayed, represented and honored in your building. This can be something as little as teaching your principal how to say hello in a newcomer’s language (which can go a long way) or supporting your leadership team in having every child say thank you in their language on your school’s community night in front of everyone. In my building, we have a tradition of school wide cheers that teachers use daily in the classroom, but are also honored at school events. Our ELL team has worked with families to create multilingual cheers that are said by all members of our school community.  Having students hear and see their language is comforting and a confidence builder for them. 21st Century ELL Specialists make this happen.

Community Liaison

An ELL program is a strong as its parent and community backing. Your education and professional development goes beyond the classroom and school building. A mentor of mine and superstar ELL Educator Barbara Marler, once told me that when she takes on a new role in a new community, she rides the school bus. She rides the school bus to learn the community, but she also rides the school bus when a newcomer arrives as a comfort to that student.  In the 21st Century we need to be on the ground learning, this may be attending a service in a place of worship or attending a community festival. You will get a ton of insight just watching and being in the community.

Also, be visible in that community. When people start to see you in the community, they invite you in more.  When you are an educator of English Learners, you have to be connected to the communities that your learners come from.  The more connected you are, the more powerful your program’s impact will be on the students that the program serves. When you are not connected to the community you are blindly teaching your learners. Open your eyes and learn-- this is the 21st Century.

We Can Do It!

Many of us already are “Beyond the Kidney Table” and really empowering our peers and students to grow together.  Being positive about your impact will help you be successful in your implementation of a new type of programming.  Trust is the Confianza Way. Trust in yourself and your abilities.


Ahmed, Sara K. (2018) Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Heinemann

The Far-Reaching Benefits of Co-Teaching for ELLs from Teaching Channel

Short, Deborah. Becker, Helene. Cloud, Nancy. Hellman, Andrea. New Levine, Linda. (2018) The Six Principles For Exemplary Teaching of English Learners.  Alexandria, VA. TESOL Press


To Further Your Learning:

Why Schools Should Be Organized to Prioritize Relationships--from KQED

Teaching English Learners: What Does Research Say?--from Jana Echevarria


See our set of professional learning offering options.



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