Out of the Peaceable Kingdom: The Three Roles of the ESL Teacher

By John Wolfe and Rita Platt

Not too many years ago, the ESL classroom was a space apart. It often served as a warm refuge from what were often unreasonable demands of the rest of the school day. It was its own corner of the school characterized by diversity, acceptance, and comprehensible input. Sounds good, right? And, maybe it was good while the students where in that little peaceable kingdom.

So, why did so many of us become uncomfortable with the system as it was? We realized that creating a space apart for our services didn’t meet the learning needs of ESL students in the rest of the school or out in wider the world. We realized that our students didn’t need a refuge from the world as much as they needed tools and advocacy to be successful there.

Today the roles and responsibilities of the ESL teacher have been greatly broadened. As Ruslana mentioned in a previous post. Sometimes that broadening means stretching ESL teachers into the wrong places. Ruslana mentions ESL teachers who are used as reading interventionists and testing specialists. We’ve seen ESL teachers used as everything from on-call emergency substitutes, math tutors, assistant principals, interpreters, glorified paraprofessionals and more.

What is the rightful role of an ESL teacher? In a nutshell we believe it is to help students learn English. That seems so obvious, but in our experiences working with schools, teachers, and students all over the county, we find it is often overlooked in favor keeping the system running smoothly. ESL teachers too often get trapped into serving as grease for the wheel by helping students finish homework and pass classes. This makes a lot of people feel better. The kids pass their classes. The teachers aren’t forced to fail them. The parents see their students getting good grades. But, ultimately, the learning needs of the students are not being served. The actual achievement gap doesn’t close.

How do we fix this? By embracing and growing into what we see as the three key roles for every ESL teacher.

  1. Supporting systematic English Language Development
  2. Supporting access to grade-level content learning, and
  3. Serving as an advocate and local expert to support colleagues and the school in meeting ELs’ needs.

Below we will define each and share resources for you to explore.

Role 1: Support English language development (ELD).

We realize this is controversial, so we’re just going to say it outright. Students at all levels of language proficiency need systematic stand-alone ELD instruction. Yes, we’re advocating for a pull-out class with a dedicated ESL teacher for 30 to 45 minutes of every day. (But this wouldn’t be a peaceable kingdom so much as an intensive language workout; kids should leave the class with their ears and tongues and minds ringing.)  This instruction should be focused on forms, helping students to understand and master increasing sophisticated language structures in communicative practice. Why? This is what the convergence of recent research supports. Don’t believe us? We get that, like we said, we realize it’s controversial. Check the summaries of the research yourself or link to our ESL wiki-site for tools.

For tools to assess ELD in a quick and easy way, check out our work on CBM3D (Curriculum Based Measurement 3 Domains) here.

Role 2: Provide meaningful access to grade-level content learning.

This is often where co-teaching comes in. ESL teachers know that their students’ language abilities are an asset. They also know that their students are capable of learning grade-level content. But, to make it happen the ESL teacher has to work to make sure that learning targets are clear, teaching is comprehensible, and the assignments, activities, and assessments are appropriate to the students’ language abilities.

In our experience the struggle is that mainstream content teachers have an impulse to maximize the content they teach, which can drown the specific standards-based learning targets and leave our ESL students in the dust. Part of the role of the ESL teacher is to help content teachers tighten their focus and pinpoint the most important learnings so that we can help scaffold and differentiate to meet ESL needs.

Below are resources you might find helpful in this role.

  • Start with your state standards. Here’s the deal. It’s hard for us to tell you that you have to master the standards in every content area and grade you support. But, sorry, that is what you have to do. Standards identify the key understanding that students should achieve as the result of instruction. What you really don’t have time to do is support teachers in instruction that is not standards-based.
  • Our wiki page on WIDA Tools 
  • Coteaching Models and Tools 
  • Four Key Moments in Co-Teaching 
  • For a provocative discussion of clarity and instruction, see Richard Clark and colleague’s great 2012 American Educator article on “The Case for Fully Guided Instruction”

Role 3: Capacity Building and Advocacy

This is the newest role of the ESL teacher and an incredibly important one. If you haven’t been overwhelmed reading the above, you are one cool customer, but we’re going to bite the bullet and place one more big job on your to-do list.

An ESL teacher’s job is increasingly difficult and more and more seems to be heaped on our shoulders each year. We cannot do it alone. Part of an ESL teacher’s job is to serve as an expert. We must not be afraid to share our expertise. We have to have the goal of being a resource to all who serve English language learners.

This means that the goal of co-teaching cannot just be to bolster student success it must also be to transfer skills, strategies, and understandings to classroom teachers so that they themselves can serve language learners well.

Additionally, we must be loud and proud advocates for our students’ needs inside and outside of the classroom. This is another situation where you are going to need broad expertise about community resources and issues that surround the ESL community.

So, there you have it. The three roles of the ESL teacher. We will be the first to tell you, it is hard. But, there may not be a more important job or a job more in synch the American dream. ESL teachers, you are the keepers of the American dream. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and consults with local school districts.

John Wolfe (@johnwolfe3rd) is a teacher on special assignment for the Multilingual Department at the Minneapolis Public School District. He has worked with students at all levels as well as provided professional development to fellow teachers. His areas of expertise include English Language Learners, literacy, and integrated technology.


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