By Miranda Schornack, a doctoral student in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
The bright side
In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature enacted requirements for educator relicensure that focus on professional growth around working with English learners (ELs) (MN§122A.18, Subd. 4(b)) (also, see Appendix A). These new requirements are monumental for two distinct reasons. First, teachers like many of us—who care deeply about providing equitable education for ELs, have been longing for this our entire careers. We know first-hand the number of ELs has steadily risen across the nation (García & Kleifgen, 2010) and recent reports indicate Minnesota schools have seen a 300% increase in the past two decades (Zittlow, 2012). But, while our student demographics have diversified, our educator demographics have remained largely monolithic (Hill-Jackson & Lewis, 2007; Laine et al., 2010). The demographic divide between teachers and students matters in education because, as Banks, Cochran-Smith, Moll, Richert, Zeichner, LePage, Darling-Hammond, & Duffy (2005) articulated:
More important than simple differences in racial or language backgrounds, there are also marked differences in the biographies and experiences of most teachers and their students. Most U.S. teachers are European Americans from middle-class backgrounds who speak only English. Many of their students are racial and ethnic minorities, live in poverty, and speak a first language other than English. (p. 237)
This demographic divide between students and teachers can manifest in schools in heartbreaking ways. ELs have been ignored, passed on to the next grade or class, pitied, banned from using their home language(s), and subjected to myriad other acts of oppression. Some of us have seen our own colleagues engage in discriminatory practices and we have felt confined by a system and power structures that seemed to allow it, if not condone it. Frequently, when we have challenged those oppressive practices we, ourselves, have been ostracized by colleagues. This petty, collegial bullying feels like being exiled to a tiny island surrounded by ravenous sharks. Here is important to clarify two things that may or may not have caught your attention but that I feel compelled to speak to. One, it could be argued that school administrators have always had ethical responsibility to provide this type of professional development and they should not have needed a state statute to take up that work. I agree, but this post is focusing on how Minnesota policy is finally supporting this work.
Second, I do not believe the fear of being bullied or ostracized by colleagues (and even loved ones) should prevent us from advocating for a more just educative system. As Johnson (2006) described in detail, following the paths of least resistance, or, not advocating for more equitable approaches to education of ELs “perpetuates all the forms that privilege and oppression can take” (p. 84). In other words,
choosing to remain silent, or to engage in oppressive practices, is choosing to discriminate against those marginalized by the current structure. There is no neutrality.
I welcome responses and extensions of thought to either and both of these points.
Returning to the second reason these requirements are noteworthy involves their express focus on ‘growth.’ For once, we are not referring to student growth but, rather, an educator’s growth in their work with and for ELs. In other words, educators are being expected to engage in reflection around how they have grown in their approaches to working with ELs. In general, teacher development is organized around three core constructs: knowledge, skills, and dispositions (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). I propose that the focus on growth in the Minnesota statute elevates the importance of dispositions in our profession (for example, see Murrell Jr., Diez, Feiman-Nemser, & Schussler, 2010). ‘Growth’ does not inherently sound disposition-y; it sounds more like a measure of content knowledge or instructional skill. But, I would argue that inherent and simultaneous in shifting one’s pedagogical approaches is a shift in the internal processes that drive one. In other words, knowledge, skills, and dispositions are intertwined (Diez, 2007; Murrell Jr. et al., 2010) and this becomes increasingly apparent when focusing on topics that have been hyper politicized, such as policies on immigration and bilingual instruction. Therefore, the reason dispositions are core to ‘growing’ in one’s practice with ELs is that in order to engage in teaching and learning activities that are appropriate for ELs, teachers must also embody dispositions that facilitate teaching and learning. We should celebrate that the new Minnesota policy supports professional development and coaching around dispositions for teaching.
The grey area
Though the legislation is hopeful, there are two aspects that concern me. First, some of the language is too broad. In other words, how this legislation will be enacted any differently than other ineffective, professional development initiatives is much less clear (or bright). For example, to meet requirements of line item (a), an educator applying for relicensure must describe how they demonstrate “support for student learning”. ‘Support’ can be a nebulous construct—isn’t everything we do to support student learning? So, what will this support look like? How does the particular classroom, school, and district context inform the type of support that a teacher provides? Is the role of context even acknowledged?
School leaders are charged with coordinating professional development that allows for meaningful reflection on and changes to practice. So, on the one hand, the broad language allows districts to interpret it at the local level which, generally speaking, can be a good thing in order for a practice to take hold in ways that are authentic to the local context. But, on the other hand, having criteria that are too broad can be problematic because there can be considerable misinterpretation, particularly if the folks responsible for them are not experts in research, theory, and practices for working with ELs, their families, and the broader community. This broad policy language does not provide educators with coherent approaches to meeting the requirements. If the policy itself is not the text that will provide concrete guidance or accountability of implementation, then there must be some other mechanism in place to assess or gauge how and if teachers applying for relicensure are meeting this requirement.
This brings us to the second concern about the legislation, we are also missing the clear criteria against which these professional statements of growth will be evaluated. Further, and more concerning, it is not evident that the professional statements of growth will be evaluated in the first place. Is someone at the local school district supposed to ‘check them off’? Will someone at the Minnesota Department of Education be ‘grading’ them against rubrics that have been validated? Without this information, the reflection statement is superficial, a mere act of compliance, or, a hoop one jumps through every five years to keep their teaching license.
What can we do?
Despite of the two concerns described immediately above, hope is not lost. Remember, the focus of this post is on the ways the new policy supports teaching and learning practices for ELs. In other words, we should not wait for conditions to be perfect before we act, because, quite frankly, conditions will never be perfect. We can be thoughtful, though, about how we respond to this policy in our own role in education.
School and District Administrators
- Integrate best practices in working with ELs into your school’s and/or district’s staff development plan. Make sure all staff are engaged in this work in meaningful contexts and that they receive support from experts in this area.
- Remember the basics of effective professional development principles: on-going, job-embedded, and resist cutting any corners.
- Engage your bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in planning this professional development alongside mainstream teachers with recognizable skills, knowledge, and dispositions for working with ELs.
- Collaborate with other districts, of similar context, to identify how this policy can encourage a meaningful shift in the ways we work with ELs.
- Explore university and college partnerships for resources on the theory, research, and practices that could be taken up. Often, faculty and staff at teacher preparation programs also need this professional development so it could be an innovative area to partner around.
- Read this book: Hamayan, E. & Freeman, R. (Eds.). (2006). English language learners at school: A guide for administrators. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.
- Educate yourself on technical aspects of teaching ELs as well as the dispositional expectations.
- Advocate for a more comprehensive approach to professional development in this area. Connect with your building administrator. Contact your district’s staff development team (join, if you feel compelled!)
- Collaborate with bilingual and ESL teachers in your school and district.
- Engage in peer coaching with an ESL teacher.
- Read this book: Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
ESL & Bilingual Teachers
- Continue your own professional learning on technical aspects of teaching ELs as well as the dispositional expectations.
- Advocate for a more comprehensive approach to professional development in this
area. Connect with your building administrator. Contact your district’s staff development team (join, if you feel compelled!)
- Collaborate with mainstream teachers in your school and district to begin modeling some of the best practices you already know.
- Engage in peer coaching with a mainstream teacher.
- Read this book: García, O. & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating emergent bilinguals. Policies, programs, and practices for English language learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
What do you think?
How does your school district engage educators with professional development around working effectively with English learners?
Is ‘growth’ in professional practice part of your district’s approach?
What key resources do you consistently revisit as you work in this area?
Banks, J., Cochran-Smith, M., Moll, L., Richert, A., Zeichner, K., LePage, P., Darling-Hammond, L., & Duffy, H. (2005). Teaching diverse learners. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do, (232-274). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Board to Issue Licenses, MN§122A.18, Expiration and Renewal, Subd. 4(b) (2015). Retrieved from https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=122a.18
Darling-Hammond, L. & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Diez, M. E. (2007a). Looking back and moving forward: Three tensions in the teacher dispositions discourse. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 388-396.
García, O. & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating emergent bilinguals. Policies, programs, and practices for English language learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hill-Jackson, V., & Lewis, C. W. (2010). Dispositions matter: Advancing habits of the mind for social justice. In V. Hill-Jackson & C. W. Lewis (Eds.), Transforming teacher education: What went wrong with teacher training, and how we can fix it, 61-92. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc.
Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Laine, C., Bauer, A. M., Johnson, H., Kroeger, S. D., Troup, K. S., & Meyer, H. (2010). Moving from reaction to reflection. In P. C. Murrell Jr., M. E. Diez, S. Feiman-Nemser & D. L. Schussler (Eds.), Teaching as a moral practice: Defining, developing, and assessing professional dispositions in teacher education, 73-93. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Murrell Jr., P. C., Diez, M. E., Feiman-Nemser, S., & Schussler, D. L. (Eds.). (2010). Teaching as a moral practice: Defining, developing, and assessing professional dispositions in teacher education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Zittlow, M. (2012). Ranks of English learners swelling in Minnesota schools. Minnesota Public Radio News, Retrieved from http://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/12/13/teaching-minnesota-elloverview
Miranda Schornack is a doctoral student in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For three years she instructed the English as a Second Language (ESL) methods course for content area pre-service teachers. She has also supervised teacher candidates in clinical placements and coordinated and facilitated professional development for clinical supervisors. Currently, she is involved in the research and development of a dispositions coaching system for educators. Prior to her work as a doctoral student, Miranda taught ESL for seven years in Minnesota public schools where she developed a passion for engaging mainstream teachers in professional development around working with English learners (ELs). She also has experience teaching adult ELs at St. Cloud State University and at the Wall Street Institute in Concepción, Chile.
MN§122A.18, Subd. 4(b)
(b) Relicensure applicants who have been employed as a teacher during the renewal period of their expiring license, as a condition of relicensure, must present to their local continuing education and relicensure committee or other local relicensure committee evidence of work that demonstrates professional reflection and growth in best teaching practices, including among other things, practices in meeting the varied needs of English learners, from young children to adults under section 124D.59, subdivisions 2 and 2a. The applicant must include a reflective statement of professional accomplishment and the applicant’s own assessment of professional growth showing evidence of:
(1) support for student learning;
(2) use of best practices techniques and their applications to student learning;
(3) collaborative work with colleagues that includes examples of collegiality such as attested-to committee work, collaborative staff development programs, and professional learning community work; or
(4) continual professional development that may include (i) job-embedded or other ongoing formal professional learning or (ii) for teachers employed for only part of the renewal period of their expiring license, other similar professional development efforts made during the relicensure period.