Personal Statement of Beliefs on Being a Teacher of Emerging Bilinguals
by Leigh Ellen Ray (2022)

In American schools, emerging bilinguals often find themselves in classrooms as minorities who are misunderstood and treated differently, with teachers who have not studied best practices for teaching them, and in states whose policies are subtractive and deem English-only as the goal of ESL teaching instead of bilingualism. Here, learning is interrupted.

This can be combatted with a single truth: People learn only when they are in an environment that feels safe and welcoming, and that happens only when learners see and feel themselves represented authentically in their learning spaces.  This is often easy for students who are part of the dominant culture and racial majority. It is not so easy for everyone else. Therefore, a true teacher, who is one that believes learning is a human right, will create a practice that is conducive to learning no matter a student’s socioeconomic status, race, gender identity and intersectionality, cultural practices including religion and language, abilities and disabilities, clothing, habits, and looks.

That is to say that before anything else, teachers must create an equitable, socially just, and culturally responsive classroom. Then, all learners’ minds open. However, such classrooms don’t happen automatically. They happen when teachers meet these criteria: 1.) they believe in its importance; 2.) they name or call out racism; 3.) they acknowledge and work to undo implicit (unconscious) bias through regular reflection and purposeful research and reading; 4.) they are empathetic to all learners’ needs and situations; and 5.) they foster trusting relationships between themselves and their students and families. Only then is the groundwork laid for learning.

Once these problems of inequity and social injustice are remedied, then teachers can focus on implementing best practices for teaching language to emerging bilinguals. This begins with a licensed teacher who understands how learning happens and uses that knowledge to create appropriate lessons, but for teaching English learners, it also includes knowing and using the WIDA framework and the SIOP model, and applying TESOL’s 6 Principles of teaching English learners. That is just a start. Teachers also need to understand their students’ cultures and ways of knowing, because that impacts students’ learning. Further, teachers should understand deeper aspects of teaching emerging bilinguals such as comparing students’ home language orthographies to English orthography and understanding how sounds and pronunciations differ between languages by studying the International Phonetic Alphabet.

In addition to the requisites discussed above, teachers of emerging bilinguals should understand that culture affects student learning and therefore seek out and apply a variety of strategies that honor students who are learning English as a second language. For example, when teachers believe that language is an asset and are aware of the large body of research suggesting the positive benefits of supporting students’ use of their full repertoire of language resources while learning, then they encourage translanguaging in the classroom. Students’ languages are just a part of what teachers should support because funds of knowledge are created in families and communities. For that reason, teachers should participate in the community life of their students whenever possible. Some examples include attending events at churches, shopping at local ethnic markets, participating in cultural festivals, and volunteering at community organizations that support families.

In reverse, teachers can invite community and family members into the classroom to participate in the learning. Suggestions include having them read a book in their language; share artifacts, special holidays, hobbies, and skills from their culture; give a presentation on their career; or volunteer to help during genius hour, reading circles, math class, or science experiments. After all, the western view of science is different from many others’ views around the world. It is important for all students to be exposed to other ways of thinking and knowing.

Additionally, teachers should advocate within their schools for culturally sensitive and responsive teaching. This can be as simple as suggesting that the next family night supports speakers of other languages and families from nondominant cultures. Creating a school-wide culture that is visible to visitors and students is also important. This can be done by creating announcements on signage, bulletin boards, and newsletters in all languages represented by the school population. When teachers hang student work on the walls outside their classrooms, this is another opportunity to include diversity. For example, for older students, translations done by students in teams can be a part of all written work. For younger students, drawings with people are done using multicultural crayons or color pencils, which are part of every classroom’s toolkit. Finally, teachers should participate in professional learning communities within their school, where teachers collaborate and support each other in the creation and delivery of lessons that support all students.

Within the physical classroom, teachers are encouraged to create a welcoming space that clearly values and promotes students’ linguistic and cultural diversity. At the most basic level, this can be done with lighting, seating arrangements, bookshelves that hold a wide range of books and stories in more than one language that have protagonists representative of the classroom population, and posters that show successful or famous people across races and cultures. If holidays are to be recognized, and if they are to be the basis of classroom decorations and lessons, then holidays celebrated by all a teacher’s students are to be included. This prevents two things: 1.) superficial ethnic decorations, and 2.) overemphasis on the dominant culture’s holidays. For example, a teacher can include Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hannukah, and Ramadan. Teachers should also be sensitive about costumes, especially in the younger grades. Asking children to dress as “Indians” and do a “war cry” during the American Thanksgiving celebration is completely insensitive and stereotypical. Only including anything to do with the Mexican culture on the Day of the Dead is also an example of not respecting and fully integrating the culture of students from Mexico.

A welcoming and balanced physical classroom is paramount but so is the culture teachers create within them. How teachers interact with students makes or breaks a classroom community. TESOL’s 6 Principles are the foundation for this. One principle is to know your learners. This can be reflected to the whole class by taking the time to learn to pronounce all students’ names, learning about their countries of origin, and allowing time for sharing interests, plans, and goals. It also includes knowing your emerging bilinguals’ English language proficiency levels and scores, followed by continually assessing responsibly and providing usable feedback. Two more principles are 1.) to design high-quality, fair lessons that promote language learning and contain not just content objectives (i.e., state standards) but language objectives as well, and 2.) to be flexible while teaching the lesson—adapting lesson delivery as needed. Fair lessons incorporate two strategies: posting and discussing learning intentions and success criteria, and continual formative assessment, reflection, and adjustment to move students from surface learning to deep learning and transfer. Equally important is making all content relevant and meaningful to students to engage them and differentiating as needed to assure that all input is comprehensible to all students. To round it out, the SIOP model merges nicely with the 6 principles, and the WIDA framework makes sure that the four ways humans interact with language, namely listening, speaking, reading, and writing, are addressed in teaching.

Historically, teachers of emerging bilinguals used a smorgasbord of methods, often stemming from court rulings and federal policy that reflected attitudes and resulted in changes to the approaches used for teaching non-English speakers in public schools. This plethora of methods is still available to teachers and may cause confusion, but current research backs using the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework (established in 2003), TESOL’s 6 Principles for the Exemplary Teaching of English Learners (released in 2018), and the SIOP model (2013). Dedicated teachers seek out current research to support their learners, even when teaching in states that elect an English-only model. Culturally responsive teachers live up to their beliefs by integrating the suggestions in this essay.

It is the responsibility of all teachers to help their students learn, but it is also their responsibility to be advocates for their emerging bilinguals just about everywhere: classroom, teacher teams, staff meetings, professional learning communities, town or city, state, and even all the way up to federal policy. Difficult it isn’t. When an individual believes something and integrates it into his or her being, it becomes natural to respond appropriately, to name racism when its encountered, to find ways to bring families into the fold, to listen carefully to and to encourage the young people within his or her circle of influence, to make choices that align with those beliefs—right down to the books purchased for self or for the classroom, the professional memberships, and the influencers followed on social media.

I value bilingualism. My daughter speaks five languages. My son and his wife and children are bilinguals. I’m relearning French and learning Spanish for the first time. I am building up a culturally and linguistically diverse library. I have memberships with relevant professional organizations. I learn, learn, and learn some more because I believe that is how we improve ourselves. All of this is who I am, so it is also my identity as a teacher. My dream for the future is to find my place in the world of education so that I can be of the greatest service to the emerging bilingual population of our country. It could be a classroom. It could be a business. It could be in direct advocacy through my websites, podcasts, letters and phone calls to policymakers, presentations at education conferences, and service on committees and in organizations that align with my beliefs—or perhaps that could use a dose of my beliefs!

I would like to end by sharing a video that demonstrates how I am willing to go to the ends of the earth to learn about my students’ cultures and ways of knowing. I taught in Alaska for many years, and my emerging bilinguals typically spoke Yupik as a first language. I was given the opportunity to be a visiting teacher for two weeks in a Yupik-speaking village, Newtok, Alaska. This video is a happy clip from that winter visit. Another opportunity I had took me to a fish camp on the  Koyukuk River where I camped, learned, and fished alongside a small group of Athabascans for 10 days. I would, indeed, go anywhere if it meant I could become a more compassionate, just human being, and thus teacher.



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Influencers (Social Media)

  • Instagram: Follow the hashtag #culturallyresponsiveteaching, @myadventuresinesl,
  • Twitter: Follow the hashtag #EllChat_BkClub, #ELLChat, #ELTChat




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