We are several months into the school year, and this blog is dedicated to one of my favorite topics, professional learning for the education of English learners (ELs). How many or how few of you have had at least one professional learning session, thus far, focused on supporting ELs? Regardless of your answer, it’s not too late to start or continue those conversations. All staff members, from the bus drivers to the school leadership team, must engage in learning opportunities about the ELs they are responsible for.
In regards to staffing and supporting EL programs,
School districts have an obligation to provide the personnel and resources necessary to effectively implement their chosen EL programs. This obligation includes having highly qualified teachers to provide language assistance services, trained administrators who can evaluate these teachers, and adequate and appropriate materials for the EL programs. (Office of English Language Acquisition, 2015 p. 14)
I’d like to reiterate: School districts must have
- highly qualified teachers,
- trained administrators who can evaluate them, and
- adequate and appropriate materials for the EL program.
Let’s assume all of the above has been done. In order to maintain highly effective programs for ELs, professional learning must be ongoing and job-embedded. Educators who support ELs must plan for following up with participants in between professional learning sessions, including following through with those plans and being flexible. All staff members, including support staff members, need to engage in professional learning—this engagement in professional learning with a focus on ELs may look as diverse as our student populations.
In between sessions, professional learning must be followed up on in authentic ways. Whether planned for groups of educators or pursued individually, the “drive-by” or “one and done” professional learning plans will not have a huge impact on supporting positive student outcomes. In fact, they may have the opposite effect.
Districts are often competing for the same allotted days and times for professional learning. How can we assure that our EL population and other traditionally marginalized groups of students remain a priority? Following up with professional learning plans is imperative if we are going to strengthen the alignment.
For example, a group of general education teachers were discussing informal assessments of their students. The teachers knew some of the students were Els, but they had never received their students’ score reports from the annual English language proficiency exam despite requests to receive this information.
Following through is important to professional learning because without it, the best-laid plans are not plans at all but, rather, ideas. For professional learning to gain momentum, it must first have traction; the planning and following through with the plan is what helps with that traction. Here are two ways a professional learning plan could be stalled:
- Self-imposed delays in professional learning: Educators of ELs engage in professional learning communities. Responsibilities are delegated or resources are promised, but there is no follow through.
- Access to information delay: Teachers need information to begin their professional learning plans. Resources or documents they need about their ELs are often left in mailboxes—this information has technically been “passed out,” but there is no follow through in a personal way.
- Access to information denied: Crucial information about ELs is never provided to their teachers.
How might we plan for time to engage as practitioners with a focus on ELs so that we are starting and remaining on task, gaining traction, versus experiencing lots of false starts and stops?
Professional Learning Scenario
A high school has plans to implement a peer-coaching model as one of their professional learning initiatives over the next 2 years. The school leadership team has created the list of required reading and an informal observation checklist. At the same time, the school experiences a 15% increase in their EL population. Most of the students are considered newcomers, those at beginner levels of English proficiency. Their families have recently resettled into the community, and the school does not offer a bilingual language support program.
Some of the teachers are concerned that they’ll be “evaluated” by their peers about their ability to teach ELs in content-area courses. Although the school has always had a small population of ELs, there is concern that the professional learning initiative doesn’t address how teachers can effectively support ELs at the secondary level.
Questions to Think About
- How should the leadership team respond to the teachers’ concerns?
- Is the current professional learning plan specific enough to address the needs of ELs, or is it too general?
- How might the teachers address the professional learning plan as it aligns to following up, following through, and being flexible?
Flexibility Is a Must
The preceding scenario outlines how one district has a professional learning plan and recent changes in their EL population indicate a new plan may be needed. The plan they have, while perhaps initially sufficient, may not meet the needs of the teachers and support personnel. Being flexible and responsive enough to know when adjustments are needed to professional learning plans is crucial if student achievement is the ultimate goal, especially for linguistically diverse student populations.
For example, one elementary school leader implemented a professional learning session that helped the teachers to work more closely with interpreters. Instead of interpreters showing up at the scheduled times with the families they were going to be interpreting for, the teachers and interpreters had time to meet and work together before working with linguistically diverse families. The educators planned best practices, such as body language and eye contact, and the topics to be discussed, all with the intent of making sure the family members felt welcomed and were heard, and partnerships were fostered. This was a new professional learning topic for this learning community, but one that was needed as a result of their student population.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Does your school community have a professional learning plan that is inclusive of its EL population?
- To what extent are professional learning plans following up, following through, and being flexible?
- Are any of these recommendations in your immediate control? Do you have what you need?
What You Can Do
What I mean by the last question is that if you are a teacher who is reading this blog, what is in your sphere of influence? You can ask for information you are entitled to have, even if you are not exactly sure what that information might be, to meet the needs of the students you have. This may require you to ask more than one person. Remember, to adhere to the federal guidance, to be prepared for the ELs you have, you must engage in professional learning practices whether as part of a group or independently. This is a form of authentic advocacy! How can anyone ask you to teach harder, reach all learners, implement culturally responsive pedagogy, use data to drive instruction without providing you with all of the information you need about your students?
How do your school’s professional learning practices stack up? What have you done or can you do to improve them? I’d love to hear from you. Please share in the comments, below!
Next month’s blog will highlight the need to ensure ELs have equal opportunities to participate in all curricular and extracurricular activities. This includes the core curriculum, graduation requirements, advanced courses, sports, and clubs.
U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf
I really enjoyed reading this, Dr. Cooper. So many nuggets of wisdom are included in this blog post. My hope is that all admins, EL teachers, and support staff read this and evaluate their practices.