About Claire McMahon

"Knowledge indeed is a desirable, a lovely possession." Thomas Jefferson

Every year when I get my test data and begin to form groups and create a schedule, I come across at least one classroom teacher that has an issue with me. I feel that the issues come up because of ignorance. Ignorance of what an ESL teacher does all day, why we help more than just the children that don’t speak English, and why we’re not picking up kids from the first day. I feel that I need to clear some things up.

1.  No, I don’t speak Spanish fluently. Or Chinese, or Urdu, or Bengali, or Korean…

I am not an English teacher so I do not teach Spanish, Chinese or Korean etc. I am certified to teach English to speakers of other languages. I am not a certified translator. Nor is that in the job description. Is it a plus? Absolutely. But, I am not an English teacher to Spanish speakers, or any other language specifically. As English teachers, we take classes in linguistics and language acquisition. We do not have to have mastery in another language. This is because we are not teaching another language. We are teaching English. We need to prove mastery in English and English grammar.

 

2. I’m not picking up kids the first week because I have paperwork.

This is my least favorite part of my job and one that most graduate classes don’t mention. ESL, ESOL, or TESOL, is a federally mandated program that is federally funded. Along with these mandates comes paperwork and reports that a general education teacher can only imagine. The type of reports may vary by state, but being a mandated program it will always be there. Without submitting the paperwork on time, the school can be deemed out of compliance and then the principal has an issue on his or her hands. For better or worse, the paperwork needs to be done before students can be seen.

 

3. No, I don’t have a schedule right away. I’m testing.

Students just don’t appear in ESL. It used to be that you would be sent to ESL if your last name was different. Needless to say, that became a problem and now there is a test. In New York, the parents fill out a survey indicating the language spoken at home. From there the students are deemed eligible to be tested or not. There are cut scores on the test and from there, the ESL roster is formed. Keep in mind this is the abbreviated version of events. The ESL teacher gets a list of names to test and has a ten-day window to complete and submit the state language battery. This means more time away from instruction. It also stops the ESL teacher from creating a schedule for at least ten days, or at least a schedule set in stone.

4. I teach ELA.

Believe it or not, ESL teachers are not playing games with the students. We are teaching them how to read, write, speak and listen. We are teaching them strategies to be more successful in the general education ELA classroom. We are teaching them academic and content vocabulary. We are teaching them to listen for nuances in language that they would not hear without direct instruction. We are teaching them grammar, and how English grammar may be different from grammar in their first language. We are teaching them how to use idiomatic phrases and how they can make their writing more interesting. We are teaching them how to cope with these new and rigorous common core standards that involve more language and writing than ever before. What we are not doing is coloring, playing games or wasting your students time. Please keep that in mind next time you want to keep your child from going to ESL class.

 

5. I provide a safe haven for disenfranchised students.

My students are the least desirable according to these new teacher evaluations. They could drag the scores. And a lot of teachers only see them as a hindrance to their achievement as a teacher. This is sad, but this is the reality of a society that looks too hard data as the only way to prove the success. As an ESL teacher, I try my best to lower that affective filter. The effective filter is something that is mentioned when learning about ESL pedagogy. It means that ESL class is meant to be a safe space that allows all students to learn. In order to acquire and learn a new language, one needs to make mistakes. It’s necessary. If a student is on edge in class they will not take risks and make mistakes with their language. If that’s the case, how can they learn? ESL class is meant to be the one space where everyone is on an equal playing field and can make mistakes and be safe. They are wanted in that space.

 

6. Yes, she speaks English. Yes, she’s still ESL.

Just because Jane speaks English, does not mean she has the skills to participate fully in a general education class. ESL is not just a speaking class. We practice a lot of skills and strategies in class. Skills and strategies that will be helpful in the general education classroom. Always remember, don’t judge a book by its cover.

 

I hope this clears up any misconceptions there may be about ESL teachers and classes. And perhaps give some people a better understanding of ESL in the new school year. We could all use a fresh start sometimes.

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