I am fortunate to work in a school district that prides itself on being one of the most diverse in Connecticut. Our school is home to students from all over the world, with over 30 different languages spoken at home. Many of our students are learning English as a second language, often starting that process when they arrive. As this happens more across this country, as educators, we need to ask ourselves: Are our teachers ACTUALLY prepared to support the needs of students who come to our schools with varying levels of English proficiency? This past year, I began to really consider this question.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of essays from Manchester High School English and Social Studies teachers who participated in this summer’s Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut. The program’s goal is to learn how to better prepare students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school.
I was given two Level One ELL students, which meant that they had little to no understanding of English. I have had several ELL students before, but never a Level One. They came from Egypt and Brazil, respectively. That night I lay in bed, thinking, “What in the world am I going to do?” All I knew was that they were not going to sit in my classroom all year learning nothing and feeling like outcasts.
I reached out to our ELL department and was provided with links to resources to help me develop lessons for the students. I spent hours combing the internet, including the websites I was given, but these were mostly geared toward students who speak Spanish or French. (This was a trend that I continued to see). I came up with nothing. I found a few readings online, but without a proper translation, I was not comfortable giving these to a student. I reached out to other staff members for help with lessons or translations, and although people were eager to help, results were limited. This was a case that left many of my colleagues scratching their heads.
I began to realize that many of my colleagues were in no way more prepared than I was for the needs of a student who didn’t speak, read, or write English, no matter what their first language. I felt let down by my teacher preparation program, which had taught me how to work with the gifted and talented and those with IEPs and 504s, but not with students who were learning English as a second language. Under the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, “no state shall deny equal education opportunity to any individual, by the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in an instructional program.” If our teachers are ill prepared to effectively teach ELL students, how are we possibly meeting this federal law?
When online resources are not enough and there is no room in the budget for qualified staff or training, how can we as teachers support students who have just arrived in this country? Perhaps the solution does not lie in websites or expensive third-party professional development, but at the root of teacher training. If teacher education programs provided coursework and training in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) for teacher candidates, I believe we would be ready to meet the needs of these students, providing them with an environment where they can learn and feel valued.
At the University of Texas, their Master of Education teacher preparation program has a focus called UTeach Urban Teachers. This program is focused on teachers who desire to work in urban or culturally diverse school districts. These teacher candidates are required to take courses ranging from “Second Language Acquisition” to “Methods of Teaching English as a Second Language.” Teacher candidates also take the ESL endorsement exam. Teacher candidate testimonials argue that the rigorous courses help them to understand the challenges facing urban teachers as well as provide them with the practical skills necessary to develop curricula that can meet the ever-changing needs of a linguistically and culturally diverse community.
Texas teacher preparation programs have evolved due to the increasing numbers of ELL students arriving at their primary and secondary schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Connecticut is also beginning to see this trend. In 2004, the number of public school students participating in programs for ELLs was 26,865, or 4.9% of the students in public schools. In 10 years, that number has grown to 33,525, or 6.6% of all students. These statistics have continued to grow.
Schools like the University of Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University turn out hundreds of teachers a year, many of whom remain to teach in local schools. In 2010, I was one of them. I am surprised to see that the coursework requirements have not changed since I graduated seven years ago, even though schools around the state and the populations of those who attend them have. The coursework offered includes a focus on multicultural education, but without a focus on the linguistic component. Such courses exist but are not required. They are electives.
Teacher education programs in Connecticut and across this country must take note. The time has come to step up and take a new look at the way teachers are prepared to meet the needs of ALL of their students.
Chelsea Schonvisky is in her seventh year of teaching high school social studies.
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