Leading For Change In Schools To Benefit English Learners: Educate, Listen, and Reflect

By: Sarah Said

Lately I have been really thinking about my leadership style.  Reflecting on past triumphs and mistakes, I have had to ask myself, “What can I do about how I implement change to really get staff to embrace better programming and practices for English Learners?” Remember, it’s not just about “different"; it’s about “better”.

The last post I wrote about leadership in ELL programs, We Assure Harmony for English Learners We All Play Our Parts In The Symphony discusses how ELL students are all of our students and we need to embrace that.  Well, we can’t expect general education staff, principals, and stakeholders to embrace and own English Learner programming changes if they are not part of the decision making process. In order to be part of the decision making process we need to educate all on what changes are possible and how they can impact students for the better. In doing this, the way we deliver the message has be a way which is clear and understandable to all in order to really be part of the decision and as we say “buy in” to them.

Educating All On ELL Students and Programming Benefits

When people have backgrounds from many different places in their lives, educational experiences, past work experiences, and belief systems they are several different perspectives of what English Learner programs “should” look like.  All populations, districts, and schools are different. What may be stronger English Learner programming in one community may be ineffective in another. For example, when dual language programs are properly implemented, they can make a world of difference for the English Learners they serve.  But you have to have the right population of English Learners for that type of programming and the right kind of investment from the community. Read our Dual Language series here.

In my experience, when people are not educated about the different types of programming models, one of three things can happen:

1) They don’t embrace them or own them

2) They choose to implement models that are not appropriate for their population

3) They do not appropriately implement models that could be effective.

Educate Yourself as a Leader First

Currently, I am designing English Learner programming in a new place.  The first thing I have do it is educate myself. This is hard. Using the metaphor of the leader being the conductor of a symphony, when the conductor tells the symphony what to do without knowing the symphony well, they make terrible music. The conductor has to learn about every instrument in the orchestra.  How am I doing this in my current work? I am watching and I learning. I get to work early and I drive around the community at least once a week to learn about the people in it. I interact with people in the community to get a history about it. I meet parents. I learn about parents in non-threatening ways. This year, I went with parents on a nature walk (our campus is on a forest preserve) and just talked to them.  I hold meetings where there is babysitting. I understand the native language of the community and I have conversations with parents who only speak it. I’m in classrooms watching students and teachers interact. I teach students in classrooms. I interact with students and build relationships. I interact with teachers and build relationships with teachers. I learn the school’s curriculum. This is how I educate myself.

In the book The 6 Principles For Exemplary Teaching of English Learners, the first thing this writing team emphasizes on is “Knowing your Learners”.  As they state “Teachers learn basic information about their students’ families, cultures, and educational backgrounds to engage them in the classroom and prepare and deliver lessons more effectively.” (Short, Becker, Cloud, Hellman & Levine pg. 8).  If teachers need to have all of that information about students to effectively teach them, then leaders and program designers like myself need this information to effectively lead and design programs. From this information, a program that is an appropriate fit for the English Learners you serve will come to surface when the information is used well.

I’ve made the mistake of just skipping this step and just doing what I know in past situations.  This has cost me. It has given me implementations where I have had to play catch up with many groups of people. It has also given me push back on a lot of my ideas.  You want to spend time really learning so you are not having to clean up mistakes later. Learning about your community of learners, families and staff will take time. That’s okay!  You don’t have to work to design a new and improved program with your team right away.

Understand the Varying Perspectives of Your Community

As you learn about your families, students, and staff you will learn that everyone has different definition of what different types of programming look like. For example, some people see dual language programming as programming where groups of English and the LOTE (Language Other Than English) support each other in language learning together to get a strong acquisition of both, where others see it as a bilingual program with a fancy name. When talking to stakeholders about programming you need to need to give them straight forward definitions of what that programming may look like and how it can create changes all around. What I like to do is give families the Illinois definitions of programming. Now Illinois actually has professional development modules that you can pull information from regarding programming to explain to administrators, teachers, and families.  Resources that your state may have on hand may provide you with a tool that really spells out programming for people.

With staff and parents, it may not only be educating on what programming can look like it, there may more layers than this.  I have had students who were born in the USA and have a strong command for social English. I have been questioned by non-ELL and even ELL staff on why my team is servicing certain students who fit this profile. The team of adults you are working with in your building may need an education on “who” an English Learner is and how they came to be identified as an English Learner before you even have conversations about English Learner programming.  There are parents who may wonder about why their child qualified for programming. You need to be transparent in this situation as well. People have questions. They are not questioning you. They really just need to develop an understanding of this field-which is always changing anyway.

The more you explain things to people they better it is for having them invest in programming decisions.  I encourage you to not assume that people know everything. Sometimes the communication can be blurry. Spelling things out for everyone helps all in supporting children.  

We’re All Part of The Decision

I am one of those people that really likes to be lead the team and just do all of the thinking for people. I just want to give people answers. This is not humanly possible. This year I have been part of a book study of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work by David Rock. This book spoke to me about what I need to change about myself as a leader.  I’ve always been the “sage on the stage”. I know..I am currently am being that right now as I am writing this piece.  But, I had to work harder to be the guide on the side. Why is this hard? I’m loud. I’m a control freak and kind of a type A personality.  I can’t just let things pan out. Yet, if we want people to own the changes that are happening in an ELL program and creating a better community for English Learners as a whole then we need to guide them to finding the answers we all need for creating effective practices for our learners.

How do we do this?  Ask questions that guide your team and stakeholders to the answers you all need for effective change.  One of the administrators on my current team actually created an editable document with question stems and conversation stems to use when you are trying to lead people to ideas on their own.  More ideas are better than one person’s. You may have an idea of what you would like to see in changes and that’s great. But someone else may have an idea that enhances your idea further. That is important to understand.

One time when I was creating an English learning plan for changes in a school district, I used a design thinking model.  First, I asked teachers and staff a “how do we …?” question. My question was “How do we create an English Learner program that fits the needs of all students?”  From there, teachers and staff began to draw out what they thought their program should look like. Later, we put stickers on what our favorite ideas where. From there, we built a prototype of an ideal English Learner program. From there, we began to have discussions (this was for months) of how to implement these prototypes into one vision. I also had discussions with families on student needs and questioned what they would like to see in a program. This is how design thinking really gets conversations going between people.  All voices are at the table to support creating change.

How Do We Deliver the Message of a Need for Change?

In his book, Rock discusses how the human mind is mapped into its ways and routines. We tend to think about brain science with our students.  We look for ways and strategies to get through to our students that are brain based. But, we forget about brain science when we talk to the adults in our buildings. Different people react to different messages of change in different ways because we are all wired differently.

It’s very easy for us to tell people what needs to change and why it needs to change.  My question is, do we think about, as Rock would put it, “Process before content”? I’ve mentioned it with educating people about programming and letting others have a voice in the change.  But, do we openly explain that process to our teams and stakeholders? Yes, we do. We have to be transparent.

In that delivery, we also need to, as Rock would say, “accentuate the positive.”  I have seen too many leaders of ELL programs come into a new setting and just go on and on about “what is wrong with instruction” and “what is wrong with compliance..”  Have we all stopped and talk to our teams about “what is wonderful”? We need to accentuate on the positive. We need to accentuate on what our team is doing well. I see people do this with leaving compliments via post it on a teacher’s desk. I like to highlight what teachers are doing via social media. Make whatever fits your personality organic, meaningful, and authentic.  In addition, we need deliver positive messages about what they are currently doing and provide support for what is coming down the pipeline of change for that team. Teams need to feel valued, excited, and most importantly inspired. When a team isn’t inspired to change, the change will be unauthentic and it will not benefit student learning.

When you deliver the message of change, you need to explain to your team that you understand how the changes and the process may make them feel.  I had a supervising administrator tell me that “when you are growing, you feel uncomfortable.” She assured me that my discomfort with changing my ways was natural and I should just keep pushing through the changes I was trying to make.

A conductor needs to let the symphony know that it can make mistakes and flounder when it is playing a new piece of music.  Once they have really tried a new style of music, they will get hang of it and keep moving with it. As Rock would put it, “remember to stretch.”  People will have to remember to stretch out of their comfort zone. Once we model that for them and have crucial conversations about it the stretch will become part of who they are.

Change can be exhausting.  But once we make student-centered decisions where all staff and stakeholders have a voice, we need to see that change through the end. By giving members of the orchestra a voice, a conductor can be emphatic and effective during the change in tone of the symphony.  They can and will create harmony for English Learners.


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

Rock, David. (2006) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. New York, NY. HarperCollins.Inc



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