ELL Teacher Diary #6: What Do Teachers Think?

By Ámbar de Mejía, ELL Outlook™ Staff Writer

It was a dark and stormy night…
Actually, I can’t remember if it was day or night.

Suddenly, a shot rang out…
Not really: I was brewing coffee and roasting meat.

What really happens is that my brain works in overdrive while I am going about my chores—I mean housework, since it is my house and I ain’t no kid no more, so no more chores—but I digress, I digress, as always…

I was wondering about ESL teachers, what they face every day. Not just what I or my fellow ESL teachers in our county face, but what are ESL teachers in our state, or in other parts for that matter, facing day by day? What about NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and assessments, modifications, professional development, changes in our state assessments in both reading and math? What needs do other teachers have? What challenges are they facing? What professional development is needed? Are mainstream teachers being trained, too?

Well, if you want answers, you have to ask questions, and there is no other way than to get it straight from the horse’s mouth—not that I consider my fellow teachers horses, but you know what I mean. So I decided to conduct a survey of ESL teachers. After reading other surveys, I wanted to make this one as short and as palatable as possible by asking questions and offering some possible answers, with the opportunity to write comments. Then I sent out the survey, first to the teachers in Johnston County, NC, and finally to teachers throughout North Carolina. I assured my respondents that I would not identify them in any way, but requested that they give me permission to use their answers. Then the waiting began. And the wondering, too. Would I get answers to my survey, or would teachers be off on their Christmas vacations, too busy to think about answering a non-required survey? But, yes, they did, more responses than what I thought, a little more than 50. When I saw that a statewide survey in another state was answered by a mere 52 teachers, I decided that 50-something is not bad at all!

This is by no means a carefully controlled and crafted scientific study complete with standard deviations and the like. First of all, not every teacher answered every question, which made calculating averages difficult. This was partly my fault because of the way I worded some of the questions. Second, after I calculated each average and percentage individually because of reason #1 (not all questions being answered), I learned that if you want to calculate averages easily, you should use a program that does it for you. Third, counting each answer and answers within answers took time and was tedious, and if you know me, you already know what I did… Yes, a cup of café au lait, as always. It wasn’t until after I had done all the calculations that I discovered that I could have used a free on-line survey service!!! Sigh! Now YOU know, in case you wish to carry out a survey also.

The results? Well, here are some of the questions in the survey. Demographic information reveals that 96% of respondents are ESL teachers, 2% are Spanish bilingual teachers, and 2% serve as an ESL and mainstream teacher. By the way, each 2% is equivalent to one person. That’s statistics for you! Fifty-two percent are elementary school teachers, 21% are full-time middle school teachers, 15% are secondary school teachers, 10% are part-time elementary and part-time middle school teachers, and one poor soul, representing 2% of all respondents, works as an elementary, middle school, and high school teacher.

The first set of questions was general, about the need for staff development in various areas. Eighty-six percent see the need for assessment training; 15% disagree. Ninety-one percent agree or strongly agree that standards-aligned content instruction for ESL classrooms is needed; 9% disagree. An overwhelming majority, 95%, agree that developing home/school/parent/community programs and activities is needed; 5% disagree.

The results are extremely interesting once you see the percentages pertaining to math and reading, the two subject areas covered in the survey.

First, math. Ninety-six percent agree or strongly agree that professional development must address training in math-specific vocabulary; 87% agree or strongly agree that training must be applicable to mathematics; 71% agree or strongly agree that team-teaching opportunities are needed; but only 58% agree or strongly agree that mandatory training should be required.

Now let’s take a look at the reading results. Eighty-eight percent believe that the greatest training needs should be in tools and techniques proven to be useful; 72% believe that team-teaching opportunities are greatly needed; and only 70% believe that mandatory training should be required for all teachers.

These results baffle me, but before you accuse me of being opinionated in a survey discussion instead of being scientific and objective, hold it! Wait! Remember, this is my diary, is it not? So I can be baffled, surprised, aghast, and outraged as much as I can possibly muster on a Saturday morning before reaching my morning coffee limit, right? Seriously, I ask myself, how can we say that math vocabulary and training is the greatest need, but not make training mandatory for all teachers? Both math and reading are mostly taught by mainstream teachers, and I am convinced that if mainstream teachers do not receive specific training on how to present math and reading vocabulary, strategies, and concepts to novice and intermediate students, we will continue to see our students get frustrated in class or continue to be the “nice, quiet, no bother at all” students who make failing grades.

The comments submitted by about 18 of the teachers surveyed might help explain why so many teachers do not agree that training should be mandatory. One teacher wrote:

I would like to see mandatory training for all teachers, especially those new to teaching or those at schools where there has been a sharp increase in ESL population. If the training is mandatory every year, I can see it becoming just a time teachers use to socialize or to get paperwork done.

There is a way for socializing and paper work to diminish or disappear: “Inspect what you expect.” When administrators and/or presenters circulate through the room, I have seen this problem virtually controlled.

Nevertheless, the real problem is making content relevant to teachers. When the presentation addresses the teachers’ situation with examples or lessons from teachers’ own schools and textbooks, teachers listen, participate, and leave with valuable information and tools for getting the job done. Isn’t this just what we try to do with our own students, making the lesson or concept relevant to them? This is how one teacher stated this same idea:

There needs to be a way to provide strategies to content-area teachers without overwhelming them, because when they feel pressured, they resist spending the time learning new strategies.

Another teacher wrote:

Teachers are hesitant to scaffold instruction, because they need more training. Teaching colleges and universities should be ashamed when they send unprepared teachers out into this multilingual world, full of ELLs, without the training that they need to teach all of these children.

I am not sure about this one because I do not know what training mainstream teachers get at the universities and colleges in terms of modifying for English language learners.

Two other teachers commented:

Many teachers have no idea how to modify assignments and therefore do not modify anything.

I wish teachers had more freedom to modify for those students who can’t keep up. But NCLB and other laws require teachers to teach everyone to the highest standard—which is way too high for some students.

As for professional development for mainstream teachers, most teachers agree that even though training is offered, not enough emphasis is put on it. A few teachers think that administrators need to emphasize it and should even attend training themselves in Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP).

Here are some other comments that tell what ESL teachers are experiencing:

More emphasis is placed on the exceptional children’s needs than is on the ESL needs. Many times, their needs may be similar, but regular classroom teachers seem content for the ESL teacher to “fix” all ELL students. Many are reluctant to modify properly or refuse to do so.

ESL teachers need adequate teaching space. Get us out of the closets, cafeterias, hallways, and off the stages. A classroom where centers could be established would be great.

…the emphasis is more on African-American students.

I do not see any effort made to address the academic needs of ELLs. The primary concern in my school is behavior and conduct issues.

Here is an issue that affects us all, whether there is adequate training in other areas or not:

I would like more training to identify if a student has language problems verses learning problems. It is very difficult to determine this, especially since there are many students who really aren’t fluent in their first language. We need to study this group because I think that they have a completely different set of needs. We use the ELL student’s L1 to build on the L2. But if there isn’t a strong L1, then what do you have to build on?

I am reminded of Danny, my fifth grader from last year, and Gabi, his sister, who is experiencing many of the frustrations that Danny did, forgetting lessons from one day to the next, from one moment to the next! I can still hear him burst out, “I can’t remember anything!” while he held his head in his hands. I received training at a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) conference a few years ago in identifying learning versus language problems, but have not taken any more workshops since then and still do not feel that I can identify this type of problem as I would like to.

I am going to end with this survey comment:

Teachers cling to their old ways, because they don’t have the time to redo lesson plans during the school year.

I have seen that many teachers begin to modify after I show them how to modify for a particular student for a few weeks, and they see that the student can handle grade-level content if the quantity and length of expectations is decreased and the student is well-informed as to those expectations. Even so, there are still teachers who will not modify unless I am there during a test or quiz. Sad, but true.

What about the issue of redoing lesson plans? I would ask those teachers: How about adding to already existing lesson plans? When I was a mainstream teacher myself, that is exactly what I did. Every year, I added visuals for lessons, examples to clarify biology and chemistry concepts, brought in realia when possible for English and history, built background concepts to fill in learning gaps, found more stories to interest my students when teaching language, whether I was teaching English or Spanish. Hey! Isn’t that what good teachers are supposed to do anyway? English language learners are not the only students in our schools deficient in language, concepts, or experience! There is an alarmingly increasing number of students who practically fend for themselves and have little contact with their parents and therefore with the ties and language enrichment necessary during their younger years. Making connections to prior learning and experience, building background for understanding new concepts and terminology, and using visual aids can only set up all students for success, some more, some less—but lessons can and should be modified every year and changed when they don’t work for a particular group of students. All teachers receive training in differentiation, or don’t they? Why not for our ELL students?

There were more comments, but these included almost all the ideas expressed by the respondents. Thank you, teachers, for participating in this survey and giving me a chance to voice your concerns publicly but anonymously. Thank you for helping me in this project, even though a lot of you were already worn out by the time I sent out the survey in December. Thank you for taking the time to write comments that I hope will help others understand what needs you have with your students. Thank you for loving your students!!

There! I am off my soap box.