"Our Kids": The Role of the Language Specialist (ELL/ESL/EAL/ELD/ENL)

by Sarah Ottow

We, as ELL teachers, already know how to work well with English learners.  We know what we need to do to help them succeed.  But classroom teachers don't always know what to do and they don't always understand that we can help!  We are there to be a resource and an advocate.  At the end of the day, the questions are: "How do we, ELL specialists, establish strong relationships with general education teachers?  How do we keep focused on a shared mission of supporting ELLs and set everyone up for success within a system that is often setting us up for failure?"

Note: In this blog, we are using the term "ELL teacher" but that can also mean one who works in any of the following programs--ESL, EAL, ELD, ENL.

This was spoken by an ELL teacher during a recent workshop and planning session I facilitated for an urban district in Massachusetts.  This group of teachers was comprised entirely of ELL specialists from across all schools K-12 in the district.  It was our third meeting together. These ELL specialists came during their free time, after school, until 7:00PM each time to work together to improve their craft.  Talk about dedication!  I saw this dedication with the group and I have seen it many times before.

As one teacher expressed, I love my kids so much, but they are not always with me; I only see them an hour each day.  So I need to figure out how to better manage how I communicate with the other teachers my kids come in contact with.  I see them shutting down and that scares me. I want them to be successful in every classroom, not just mine.  The job of the ELL specialist, as I will discuss here, is largely one of a change agent who manages relationships, looking for "entry points" into collaboration.  Relationships can be tricky and we are often unprepared for this work.  However, in our quest for equitable schooling for ELLs, we must find ways to collaborate effectively.  Our students deserve it.

ELL Specialist = Teacher Leader by Default We know that there is a major opportunity gap for our ELLs given that a vast amount of educators are underprepared to meet their needs.  It is especially concerning when we consider that ELLs are the fastest growing student subgroup across the country comprising almost 10% of the total student population with many district experiencing much higher percentage growth.

For those of us that are ELL specialists, we find ourselves in the position of being an ambassador for ELL students, whether we make it happen intentionally or this simply occurs by default.  We often find that other educators who work with ELLs don't necessarily have the same skill set we do.  It can be frustrating and alarming.  I previously wrote about my formative experiences in my ELL specialist assignment which I call the all-too-ineffective "emergency room" approach.  When we are stressed and see inequities happening to kids, it can be tempting to approach other educators from a perspective that protects our kids or shelters ELLs from other teachers' lack of preparedness.

I want to tell other teachers that these are "my kids" so that they see they have unique assets and needs, so that they see their gifts and their stories that don't always get told or aren't part of the general ed curriculum.  I want other teachers to see that ELLs need instruction that is slightly different sometimes in order to learn new language and content.  I want them to see that kids aren't dumb and can sense when a teacher doesn't like them or isn't sure how to reach them.  I want to help and also protect "my kids".  But, at the same time, I don't want to perpetuate an "ELL silo" or accidentally send a message that ELLs are separate and shouldn't be held to the same standards as other non-ELL students.  

Promoting Shared Responsibility It's important to frame our thinking around the fact that the students we share in a public school are, in fact, "our kids".  We need to remember and communicate that ELLs are everyone's kids.  In order to have true shared responsibility across schools and districts, we need to reframe our thinking--and our language--when we collaborate with other educators of ELLs.  In this way, we become teacher leaders, like it or not.

Sometimes I meet ELL teachers who may not want to be in a teacher leadership role, who say, I just want to teach; I don't want to have to deal with ineffective content teachers!  Yet I am so sad for "my kids" when they have to go back to that teacher who simply ignores them.  Or I get so frustrated every time I go into that one classroom because I'm treated like a glorified teacher's aide; I just don't know what to do!  I hate to have the kids see my frustration and confusion.  Yes, it can be a terrible shock to learn that sometimes ELL students' only "lifeline" is you, the ELL specialist, and you are the one that help change the conditions our students experience at school.  You are the change agent that can make one difference at a time.

Advocate vs. Ambassador  My friend and colleague, Tim Boals, Executive Director of the WIDA Consortium, has encouraged me over the years to shift my approach from that of an advocate to one of an ambassador.  Why?  Well, an advocate can be perceived as a relentless supporter, often very visible, and sometimes harsh.  When I saw myself as an ELL advocate, especially in my formative years of teaching, I practically wore a sandwich board around me marching around, protesting other teachers' ineffectiveness.  Injustices everywhere!  Let me tell you--for me, that didn't always work.  (Again, please read my "emergency room" blog to hear my story and lessons learned.)  On the other hand, an ambassador is someone who serves as a diplomat to represent a group.  If we view ourselves as ambassadors rather than simply advocates, perhaps the way we are perceived will be more open and welcoming in different classrooms and school settings.  As we know, perception can be everything.  The difference between intent and impact can truly make or break the change we are trying to be in the world.

Strategies for Effective Collaboration So, where do we start in forging effective relationships as ELL specialists?  First, let's get clear about your role.  ELL teachers may not always be clear about their job description and other teachers may not be clear about the ELL teacher's job either.  It's not surprising that research shows that, in any industry, clarity of one's role has a direct correlation to job satisfaction.  Thus, clarifying what the ELL specialist by communicating your "Can Do's" is a positive first step in establishing strong relationships.  You can do this by sharing a list of things you can do with other teachers--e.g. show how to modify grade level text, redesign classroom assessments, label classroom items in other languages, create student vocabulary notebooks, etc.

Next, examine what is in your "circle of influence" so you are not wasting your precious energy on what you can't actually change.  Understand that we are faced with two different types of issues in our work--situational and systemic.  Those issues that aren't directly in our "circle of influence" are typically more systemic--i.e. grading policies, class size, lack of diverse teaching force, etc.  Issues that are situational are those we can usually influence, even if it's just moving the issue along one tiny step at a time--i.e. modeling positive body language and social-emotional support for another teacher, providing more authentic assessment opportunities for a content teacher, etc.  Get clear about the difference between what's in your circle of influence and what's not so you can focus your energy on the issues that are truly situational.  And don't forget, that by addressing situational inequities, one at a time, we can potentially influence system issues.

Finally, fine-tune your communication approach.  This includes the language we use when interacting with other educators.  It's important to assume good intentions of others even if their impact is off base.  Be sure your own body language, tone and eye contact conveys a sense of shared respect, trust and confidence--confianza--with those you collaborate with.  Remember, we may unintentionally be putting up an affront with how we present ourselves just like with how we approach our students.  It may help to visualize yourself as that "ambassador" who uses his or her role as a diplomatic agent who educates and enacts change.

Brush up on what it takes to have an effective collaborative conversation and ground yourself in the research of "what works".  In WIDA's Essential Actions Handbook by Margot Gottlieb, Essential Action #14 is "Coordinate and collaborate in planning for language and content teaching and learning" (p. 58-63).  This is an excellent resource that can refresh your research-based strategies and provide some "entry point" ideas for collaborating with content teachers.  I refer to this handbook a lot in my work and encourage ELL specialist to as well.  I also highly recommend practicing critical conversations by role playing to better prepare yourself for tricky situations.

Change management and relationships can be tricky!  We have to work hard and work efficiently, tailoring our approach for each person we come in contact with.  Unfortunately, there is no one right way to work effectively with others, no "silver bullet" or "magic dust".  As one teacher recently told me, Classroom teachers tell me, "Do your magic!" like I have some kind of fairy dust that magically accelerates English for my kids.  I say back kindly, "There is no dust.  There is no magic. I work hard every day and our students do, too."

Sarah Ottow is Confianza's Lead Coach who believes strongly in the words of bell hooks, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students [and their teachers!] is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”       



                                                                                                                                      To Further Your Learning:   

 TED-style talk at Harvard from Confianza's Founder, Sarah Ottow Our Kids: Equity, Language and Literacy

from Confianza Aligning Allies: ESL Teachers Supporting Content Teachers



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  • Posted by Jeremy Majeski on

    Great post, Sarah! I’ll be sharing this one with my EL support staff. I’ve always said they need to be advocates for their students and help facilitate collaboration around the unique needs of these students.

  • Posted by yGFIwRnVgmlp on


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