We Must Define Ourselves

Poem by Ruslana Westerlund

Originally posted around 2008… I definitely remember it was a Saturday, but I forgot the year….

you can't scare meToday, I was inspired. I was inspired by the dedicated ESL Teachers who chose to spend their Saturday together with other ESL teachers. ESL Teachers are a very closely-knit group of advocates who work tirelessly to support English Learners. They are often misunderstood, or, even worse, inappropriately defined. I was inspired by what Cynthia Lundgren said at the end of her presentation. She said, “We must define ourselves, and if we don’t, others will define us.” Out of that line a poem was born. This poem reflects many of my experiences I’ve had an ESL teacher, and I hope it resonates with many of you.

I am defined as…
I am defined as another reading teacher who takes a group of kids and works on phonics, decoding, and blending!
I am defined as a homework helper who helps English learners finish an assignment that’s way over students’ head.
I am defined as a parent substitute who works on a science project and shops at Wallmart for poster board and markers.
I am defined as a teacher’s aid who works with all students who need help, not just English learners.
I am defined as that teacher down the hall who helps those Mexicans learn English.
I am defined as a social worker who gets coats, gloves, and snow pants for “those poor kids”.
I am defined as a family liaison who gets the parents to the conferences.
I am defined as a grammar teacher who works on English grammar and vocabulary.
Sometimes I am defined as a gatekeeper who doesn’t let English learners be labeled as “special ed” just because they struggle in academic English even though they are “fluent” English speakers.
Often I am defined as a polyglot who “must speak all of those languages to help the kids from 20 different countries.”
Others in my profession define me as an advocate, who amplifies the voices of those who don’t get heart even though they might be yelling at the top of their lungs: we matter!
Very rarely I am defined as a language teacher whose role is to accelerate the academic achievement by providing language support

Not just phonics support
Not just homework support
Not just science project support,
But a critical linguistic foundation that mediates and facilitates all learning for language learners!
So, if you define me with any of the above, here is a lesson for you:
We are highly skilled teachers who lay the very language foundation without which no other learning can take place
And if there is one lesson we, the ESL teacher must learn, it is this:

We must define ourselves, and if we don’t, others will define us.


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