Out of the ER: Towards a More Comprehensive and Democratic Approach for Serving English Language Learners

by Sarah Ottow

When I started as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, I had a caseload of over 200 students from more than 30 linguistic groups, and spread across six schools.  Yes, you read that correctly—200 students, one teacher, six schools.  You could say I didn’t know what I was getting into.

I was the new, and more importantly the first, elementary “ELL specialist” in a predominantly white, middle class, suburban Milwaukee district.  Admittedly, I was an idealistic, ready-to-do-whatever-it-takes young teacher, hired in a frenzy the day before school started (I look back now wondering if no one else would take the job...).  I learned right away that the district model for “ELL services” had just undergone a dramatic shift and that my unwritten job responsibility was to deal head-on with all of the resulting complexities.

For the previous fifteen years, all English Language Learning students attended one K-5 magnet school with a traditional pull-out ESL classroom.  Now, with a change in philosophy, and in policyELLs were now dispersed to attend their neighborhood schools.  Nice idea --in theory--have the students close to home and build a more inclusive model.  Not so nice in practice, though  --a classic case of discrepancy between intention and impact, not to mention the serious lack of resources needed to support this new model.  As one can imagine, having one ELL teacher (me!) stretched so thin was insufficient to address the complex needs of this fragile population, nor the limited skills and fragile egos of many educators in the five schools who had never met a student whose home language was not English and whose culture was not Midwestern.

So, my first year was spent putting out fires and cleaning up messes.  I felt like an emergency room doctor, tending to crisis after crisis.  I did my best to thwart “interventions” that were unacceptable and worse --unethical, like placing students at the back of the room to “do something different” from the rest of the class, like coloring, or playing computer games all day, because the teacher didn’t know what else to do with a student just starting to learn English.  I explained to teachers and principals that, as a function of their prior model, a critical mass of students had never been identified as ELLs.  Therefore, retaining students in the previous grade was not necessarily the most appropriate placement.

I had to do my best to derail attempts to penalize ELL parents because they weren’t showing up for open house nights or providing money for field trips.  I spent time back-mapping IEP files, noting that when testing was not administered in the home language, the factor of language acquisition was not accounted for.  So, when it came time to “label” students, I found myself on the front lines of racism and classism when working with teachers who thought “these kids come with no background knowledge”, or worse, some who expressed that they didn’t want “those families” in my country or in my classroom.

Over time, I began to have some success, even though there was still largely an atmosphere of reactivity and triage. But the issues I faced pointed to larger, systemic problems.  I was able to create some time with the untrained instructional aides to use basic ESL strategies when “pushing in” to content area classes.  I kept track of and shared the incessant, unexplained idioms teachers unconsciously used that create unnecessary barriers in the already complex linguistic gymnastics ELL students face every day.  I got some funding to order science and social studies supplemental texts for intermediate grades so that teachers had viable options for ELLs (and other struggling readers) who could not access the material in the traditional textbook.  I adapted teachers’ tests and quizzes and designed more authentic,  “performance-based” assessments so that students had a chance to show what they knew beyond the ubiquitous paper and pencil test.  I sat one-on-one with families to fill out Title I free and reduced lunch forms and found the forms in other languages so students wouldn’t be denied lunch because their parents had not understood the paperwork when they enrolled their child in school.  I went on home visits to get to know families and share insights with student support, insights that flowed from the complex issues of poverty, immigration and acculturation.   It was life in the ER, to be sure, but we were making a difference.

During my third and fourth years, there were fewer fires to put out. I could even start preventing some of them in the first place.  I began to feel more like a primary care physician, starting to focus on preventative health care and systemic issues.  I went from teaching in closets and hallways to enjoying the small luxury of partitioned spaces in computer labs and libraries.  I built relationships with responsive principals and teacher leaders.  Together, we began to audit their procedures, and the cultures of their schools.

With support from a few key district administrators, I was able to offer after-school and summer professional development for teachers on best practices for ELLs.  I got to know the ELL-friendly teachers at buildings.  We started co-teaching and learning from each other about strategies that worked.  We had conversations about how to promote an asset-based mindset and initiated some school-wide projects and improvement efforts.  Social workers and classroom teachers started accompanying me on home visits and asking for my input in student support team meetings.  With district funding, I piloted an ESL after school family literacy program and an ESL summer school balanced literacy program.  Students had more and more chances to flourish and people were working together for their success.  I got more and more dinner invitations from families, too!

Eventually the district hired a few more ELL teachers for its rapidly growing population.  The idea became to have the most qualified educators working with the students with the most need . Meanwhile, we were doing our best to build the capacity of more and more classroom teachers and leaders via a nascent and evolving Response to Intervention model.  I came to see how, in real time, expertise cannot lie with ELL specialists alone for inclusion to really work.  Critical elements must exist -a shared knowledge base, a common set of practices, conditions for optimal teacher learning, and a sense of urgency in serving every student. It’s a comprehensive care model we’d recognize from the health care world, looking at the whole child and the whole system and focusing on wellness not “fixing” or “treating” perceived deficits.

Ultimately, I left the position to work in an urban district. It proved to be more progressive and culturally responsive, therefore more satisfying, but I look back at these formative years with both fondness and fervor.  I am so appreciative of the many families I was able to get to know and their children who taught me so much.  I carry their stories with me as constant reminders of the reasons to do this work. I have gained the deepest respect for the perseverance it takes to live, work and be educated in another culture and language.

I’m grateful for the positive experiences I had with other educators and all that I learned about myself.  This experience reaffirmed for me that, as public school teachers in a democratic society, that we are all language teachers, we are all part of a web of experiences and personalities that determine the kind of “welcome mat” those families find put out for them, that we are all agents of change.  Teachers can make a difference.  Schools can change.  Systems can improve.  But we have to treat the causes of a dysfunctional system, not just continue to react to the symptoms.  In order to make a real difference with our historically underserved populations like ELLs, the people that make up the system need to believe in, talk about and proactively work for equity.

Sarah Ottow is the Director of Programming for English Language Learners at CCE-Boston, and has served as a program coordinator, instructional coach, reading specialist and teacher for schools in the Milwaukee area and in Puerto Rico. She has taught on balanced literacy, ESL and bilingual education, instructional mentoring and service learning.