Could Teaching English Learners Be One of the Secrets to Great Educational Leadership?

by Dr. Stephen Fleenor

Author’s Note: While I have been planning this blog post for months, the recent COVID-19 outbreak and resulting upending of our schools makes this post all the more timely. The takeaways from this post, which are more important in the COVID-19 outbreak than ever, are: communication with our students and teachers needs to be clear, consistent, and reinforced, and teacher voice is more valuable than ever in crafting new solutions in an ever-changing world.Sketchnote: Leading Through Language

Spoiler alert: the answer to the question above is yes, teaching English learners is one of the secrets to great educational leadership! Great leadership looks different in different contexts, but what all great leaders have in common is how they empower the people in their charge to reach their fullest potential. In the classroom, we often see that ESL strategies help all students reach their fullest potential. And in my work supporting teachers and administrators, I have found that adopting these language-rich/language-focused strategies when leading teachers results in teachers similarly reaching their fullest potential.  

This is simply because ESL strategies are based on  two key elements that are relevant for both students’ learning and teachers’ professional development: (1) the role of language in learning; and (2) the importance of asset mindsets in leading.

The Role of Language in Learning

The research is very clear about what students need to acquire academic language: (a) input (such as new content) needs to be comprehensible to the students (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) and (b) students need to be given low-stress opportunities for output (Swain, 2005). For example, input is comprehensible when it is simplified, repeated, and contextualized, and output is low-stress when students engage in such things as peer-to-peer discussions or practice writing that is not for a grade — that is, writing that’s for the purpose of communicating content rather than assessment. In addition to supporting language acquisition, comprehensible input and low-stress output help students process their learning within their zones of proximal development (ZPDs) (Vygotsky, 1978). The ZPD is the space just outside each learner’s comfort zone where learning of new information or skills happens, but which he/she can only access with the right supports. 

zpd graphic HR

Teachers, as learners on their own paths of professional development, must receive instruction within their own ZPDs in order to develop new teaching strategies or learn new skills. And like all learners, teachers need the supports of comprehensible input and low-stress opportunities for output in order to best learn how to implement the instructional strategies that the campus administration wants to focus on. 

With regard to comprehensible input, it is important that school leaders consider whether the instructional strategies we are promoting are clear, simple, and reinforced.  

Consider two ways school leaders might try to promote an instructional strategy on their campus. 

Scenario 1

Scenario 2

The instructional strategy was discussed during in-service at the beginning of the year but was brought up sporadically throughout the year. Different teachers walked away with different ideas about what the strategy should look like in the classroom. Clear indicators of successful implementation of the instructional strategy were shown and the strategy was modelled during in-service at the beginning of the year. The strategy continued to be discussed and modeled at each faculty meeting throughout the year. 

Which scenario is more likely to result in broad implementation of the instructional strategy? Scenario 2 is the approach that makes the instructional strategy comprehensible with clear indicators of success and is reinforced with modeling and continuous discussion.

Equally important to mastering an instructional strategy are the structure and space for teachers to process their learning of the strategy within their own context. This might look like structured discussions within PLCs or coaching conversations about challenges and solutions to implementing the strategy. It might also look like teacher leadership committees addressing school-wide issues related to the strategy. Be it in a PLC, a one-on-one conversation, or a leadership committee, here are some questions we can ask to solicit teacher voice: 

  • What would this strategy look like in your classroom?
  • Have you ever tried…? How did it go?
  • What might be some challenges in implementing this strategy?

The Importance of Asset Mindsets in Leading

When addressing how to serve the needs of English learners, we are talking more and more every day about the need to shift away from deficit mindsets (what learners lack) to asset mindsets (what strengths learners already bring to the table). Yet we often default to thinking about teachers with a deficit lens. For example, I once observed a classroom with an administrator who appeared very frustrated when we stepped out. To paraphrase her commentary:

I just don’t know what to do about that teacher. She has such a deficit mindset about her ELs. I mean, did you see how she just ignored those kids in the corner? Where were the sentence stems? And her walls were bare! She could have at least had one visual. She obviously doesn’t believe in her kids.

The irony of this administrator’s frustration lies in the deficit mindset she exhibits in regards to the deficit mindset she perceives in the teacher. The coaching conversation that this mindset might lead – one that’s driven by what the teacher lacks and needs to correct – would put down the teacher and discourage her from taking risks. Instead, we can embolden teachers by having coaching conversations within their ZPDs, focusing on what they are doing well and encouraging them to take the next steps. This is how I modeled an asset mindset in my response to the administrator: 

I loved how the teacher encouraged the students to work together on the worksheet. And did you notice how she had them repeat back to her which problems they’re supposed to work on? I’ll bet she could get them to chorally repeat a sentence stem and have a lot of participation in a structured conversation.

The coaching conversation led by this mindset could be uplifting and confidence-building while giving the teacher a clear next step of professional growth. With this frame of thinking, we rid ourselves of the unproductive language of “good teachers” versus “bad teachers” or “teachers in need of improvement” versus “proficient teachers.” Instead, we talk about every teacher as being on a path of professional growth by highlighting the things they’re doing well and leveraging those strengths to brainstorm what the next step might be. I summarize this approach with a mantra I say whenever I talk about professional development: people don’t have flaws, they have needs.

Four Approaches School Leadership Teams Can Take Now

  1. Put every teacher on an asset-based coaching cycle with regular observations and strengths-based feedback that identifies a goal for the next observation
  2. Create a central focus for each PLC (campus initiatives, lesson planning process, classroom issues, etc.), and promote the focus by modelling norms of discussion and facilitating the PLCs
  3. Create and honor teacher leadership committees (addressing attendance, dropout prevention, master scheduling, etc.)
  4. In every interaction you have with anyone on campus, remind yourself frequently to soften your face and smile!





Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Alemany.

Swain, M. (2005). The output hypothesis: Theory and research. In: E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 471-483). New York: Routledge.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


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