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Why it’s hard to be a teacher of English language learners — by an ELL teacher

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Linda Chantal Sullivan is a high school teacher of English language learners (ELL) who works near Seattle, Washington. When she read a piece by educator Nancy E. Bailey on what makes school so hard for students, parents and teachers today (see the post below this one), she was inspired to write an accompanying post with her own list of what makes the lives of ELL teachers difficult.

Bailey was inspired to write by comments Bill Gates made last month about how trying to reform public schools is the hardest philanthropic work he has ever undertaken. Bailey’s original piece appeared on her education website, as did Sullivan’s.

Sullivan writes that her students “are immigrants whose English skills range from nonexistent to advanced, but still not advanced enough to be considered English proficient.” They are all Limited English Proficient, or LEP.  In her post, which you can read in full here, she challenges Bill and Melinda Gates to spend a week with her in her classroom. And she makes her own list of why it is so hard being an ELL teacher, based on her 15 years of experience.

Here’s part of Sullivan’s list of what is hard about being an ELL teacher (and you can see the whole list here):

  • Kids who move here and speak little to no English but are required to enter mainstream classes immediately because we have no newcomer program for them. Yet teachers are required by federal law to make their curriculum accessible to ELLs. How do you do that with Common Core?
  • Refugee kids who have had little or no education and don’t know basic beginning math, yet are placed in Algebra.
  • Teaching Common Core to students instead of what they really need: numbers, the calendar, verbs, American culture, keyboarding skills. We have one keyboarding class per year in a school with 1,500 students. Last year, we were forced to use the third-grade Common Core notebook. Our beginners didn’t understand a word of the stories; it was a complete disaster.
  • Watching kids cry when told how many tests they need to pass in order to graduate. Seeing that look of despair on their faces because they know they can’t pass them. They’ve already tried, and are taking makeup tests in addition to another try at them in the spring.
  • Hearing kids’ stories of hardship and not bursting into tears in front of them. Harrowing stories of dangerous voyages to avoid being killed, of leaving mothers, fathers and other family members, friends, and all personal belongings behind. Of feeling so scared and lonely.
  • Being forgotten. ELLs are the invisible ones. I recently found out that all other students received a PSAT preparation guide weeks before the all-school testing day. I accidentally stumbled upon one in a Language Arts teacher’s room, so I asked for them and had just two days to show it to my students, instead of two weeks. Every time we have any event that requires a visit to all Language Arts classrooms, ELLs are forgotten.
  • Watching kids lose that spark of enthusiasm when the elective they really wanted to take is taken away from them so they can be put in another LAP [Learning Assistance Program] or Title 1 remedial math or English class. So then they have four math and English classes, plus science and social studies year after year.
  • Not being our own department. Our district will not grant us department status because we have only one ELL teacher in each school. Never mind that we need more teachers, that our classes are too big to give kids the attention they need, that we are overwhelmed by state and federally mandated paperwork not imposed on mainstream classes. Special Education is a separate department. They have class size limits. They have extra time or stipends for their paperwork, but not ELL, even though we make up a greater proportion of the student body.
  • Being totally stressed out at the beginning of the year while working to properly place newcomers, investigate ELL status for incoming students from our state, give placement tests for those out of state/ country. Notifying parents of ELL status in multiple languages.
  • Having to address disciplinary difficulties with students who have no experience in an American classroom and don’t know the behavior expectations. Dealing with students who are disrespectful because women have no status where they come from. Trying to show them that I care even though I’m giving another detention.

And Sullivan writes:

So come visit me, Bill and Melinda Gates. We live in the same region near Seattle. Come hang out with us and tell me how you would reform ELL.