Your first year of teaching isn’t usually filled with victories, but I’ll never forget the brightest moment of mine. It was a Friday in early May, right around state testing time, when a student brought me a recommendation letter for Teacher of the Year written proudly in Spanish.
Let me explain. The student had moved to our school earlier in the year from Mexico and she spoke no English whatsoever. Since no other adults in our building knew Spanish, I guess you could say I was her unofficial point of contact. I’m not really sure how much science she learned from me that year, but it felt good to know that I made some sort of a difference in her first year here in the U.S.
Now that I’m a few years in, I look back at my experiences teaching English-language learners (ELLs) as some of the most fulfilling moments of my career. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but it’s so, so rewarding to watch as students who once struggled to learn English begin to fully realize their potential.
An Impending Crisis
Much has been made of America’s teacher shortage crisis, and while we’ve gotten it wrong in a few ways, there is indeed a serious shortage of educators who can support English-language learners. ELLs are the fastest-growing student population among America’s public schools. Currently, they make up roughly 10% of all public school students, but that number is expected to hit 25% by as early as 2025. Oh, and by the way, the vast majority of these students speak Spanish at home.
These numbers are pushing me to consider the many ways in which we’re still behind in giving our ELL students the support they need and deserve. It may seem like we’re hobbling by just fine for now, but based on those projections, we’re actually staring an impending crisis in the eye.
Instructional measures like embedding students’ cultures into the curriculum and developing culturally responsive classrooms are popular and important, but they are not a substitute for supporting students’ language development in both English and, ideally, their home language.
All students benefit from windows and mirrors, of course, but America’s rising ELL population also desperately needs high-quality, tailored instruction. That’s no small task.
The Adjustments English-Language Learners Need
Around 90% of English-language learners are enrolled in specialized programs, but the persistence of lower test scores among ELLs suggests those programs aren’t serving them effectively. ELLs need intensive English instruction, for sure, but they also need exposure to essential, rigorous content in classes like math, science and history as well. Lacking the ability to speak English doesn’t make a student any less intelligent, nor should it prevent them from having the same access to high-quality learning experiences that other students receive.
Undoubtedly, we can work to achieve those goals by recruiting more bilingual and ESL educators into high-need areas and by restructuring teacher preparation programs to better meet the needs of ELL students. In a nation where 1 in 4 public school students will soon be English-language learners, it should be imperative for pre-service educators to have exposure to diverse schools.
It can’t stop there, though. As the number of ELL students continues to rise, policymakers at local and state levels need to start having tough, bold conversations about rethinking funding for ESL programs and about differentiating pay for the inspiring educators doing the tough work in the trenches each day. Funding isn’t everything, obviously, but it’s an important, foundational step to ensuring that our most marginalized students are our biggest priority. Naturally, ELL students are among them, and it’s on us to ensure they have the support they need to excel.