What I Wish I Knew: Reflections From An ESL Teacher

by Valentina Gonzalez

Before becoming an ESL teacher, I was a general education classroom teacher for several years. I taught language arts in elementary school and loved every single year and every set of students. You see, I didn’t set out to become an ESL teacher. But it happened, and I’m grateful that my journey led me here. It was a beautiful, surprising next step in my career as an educator. 

Looking back on those first years as an ESL teacher, there are many things I wish I had known. There are many things I wish I could go back and whisper into the ear of the younger Mrs. Gonzalez. Here are a few: 

  1. Collaboration, Not Isolation

Being an ESL teacher, in many ways, can feel lonely. Depending on the circumstances, you may have an ESL “team” on your campus, or you may be the only ESL teacher for your district. Even with a “team” of five ESL teachers on the campus where I worked, initially, the feeling of isolation was resounding. I quickly found myself without a group of colleagues that taught the same grade level and content and with whom I could plan instruction. Who could I bounce ideas off of? Who would share lessons with me? Who would offer me advice about strategies for working with students? 

Staying plugged in to the core of instruction is important for ESL teachers. Being an integral part of the school system and culture and working closely with grade-level teachers helps us maintain grade-level curriculum expectations for emergent bilinguals and provides opportunities to share ways to accommodate instruction. No matter your circumstances as an ESL teacher, create opportunities to collaborate with general education teachers over content and curriculum. Keeping a constant pulse of what’s happening in classrooms helps us develop language lessons aligned with content and curriculum. 

  1.  Embrace Languages, Embrace Students

“We teach English.” That was not an uncommon statement, even among the ESL teaching community, when I began teaching ESL. There was not a lot of talk about including other languages, listening to students speak or read in their primary languages (L1), or purchasing books and resources in students’ L1. Interestingly, as I started working closely with multilingual learners and their families from around the globe, I began to see my role less and less as an English teacher and more as a language teacher. 

While helping students acquire English is the main goal, all language, at the core, is about communication. 

And embracing all languages and using students’ primary languages in the general education classroom helps in many ways. When we embrace our students’ languages, we embrace our students, their identities, and their cultures. We send messages of value and affirmation. All of this is important in the education of students. A child that enters our school as a newly arrived student with little proficiency in English will flourish in an environment where they feel accepted as they are, rather than in one where they feel the need to change and become someone different. Students should never feel they have to leave part of themselves at the door before entering our classrooms. 

  1. Focusing Exclusively on Test Scores Is a False Choice

Where test scores are concerned, proceed with caution. The push for better scores can come at the students’ expense. Don’t get me wrong here. I’ve worked in districts for over two decades. I know about state assessments. I understand the demands teachers are under and the pressure placed on students. But the narrow view of state exams is not what our students deserve. I remember sitting in a meeting, listening as the district representative shared state exam data on how well monolingual students did on the reading exam and how English learners did. And suddenly, there was a buzz in the room. “Oh no, English learners aren’t doing well. They aren’t scoring like monolingual students,” someone proclaimed. Well, they may not score like monolingual students. After all, they aren’t yet proficient in the language of the exam, so perhaps we should look at growth differently and compare apples to apples. Instead of looking at scores in isolation like a single snapshot, we can take an “album” approach. It’s more important to see how a score changes over time than to see where a student is at a particular point.  

When I look at those faces and see the students in front of me, I know they’re more than capable of making progress, thinking, creating, analyzing, debating, and growing ideas. In fact, many of them can do all of that in multiple languages. A test score will never tell me how brilliant and talented Mariam is or how creative Yousef is. Then I think about exams that multilingual students have been asked to take, and I wonder about the equity and validity. What is truly being assessed? If you moved to a new country where the language was new to you, ask yourself how you would do on a state exam like the one students are given. We can emphasize instructional methods, like Free Voluntary Reading, that are relevant and compelling to students, and one of the byproducts will be higher scores on exams. You can read more about how one school did just that here

Being an ESL teacher or language teacher is a unique opportunity, and it’s one that many educators will never fully understand. Those who are lucky enough to be called to this role have a special part in supporting our future global leaders. What an amazing honor! 

What would you go back and whisper to your younger teacher-self? 

Valentina Gonzalez is a content creator, educational consultant for Seidlitz Education, and the co-author of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5. 

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