Larry Donathan has been an ESL teacher in DC Public Schools for nearly two decades, most of that time as an itinerant teacher. Since Larry works at many different schools, he now sends out an introductory letter to colleagues and parents introducing himself at the beginning of each school year. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, he explains why he started this practice and what kind of information he shares in the letters. He also shares examples of his letters and talks about his role as an ESL coach.
Learn more about Larry's work as an itinerant teacher in this article he wrote for Colorín Colorado, "A Smile and a Rolling Suitcase."
Updates from Larry
We recently reached out to Larry to find out how things are going during this challenging school year. He says that this year he is still working as an itinerant teacher but not coaching. His schedule looks a little different. He writes,
Instead of each of us having 3-4 schools and servicing students in K-5, we now have 7-9 schools which is possible because we're not traveling. Each of us is assigned a grade band. I am only doing K-1, another teacher on my team doing 2-3, and the other teacher on the team doing 4-5. So there are 3 of us at each of the schools we serve. In some ways, it is actually a little easier because we're only planning for 2 grade levels!
It's all pull-out so I have my own Microsoft Teams sessions with my students. But I do check-in with the gen ed teachers in case there are any issues and they are really good about reaching out to let me know if the EL is struggling with something in particular or to ask for strategies.
Q&A with Larry
Tell us about the letters you write at the beginning of the year.
I began doing a letter to the general education teachers and parents at least ten years ago. Many teachers do not know what an "itinerant teacher" is and because the schools we serve as itinerant ESL teachers have such a small English language learner population (1-10 students), they also do not know where to begin with an ELL, especially if the student is a newcomer.
I also wanted a way to reach out to parents and introduce myself since I can't be at Back-to-School night at every school I service. I wanted a way to connect with parents and let them know who this person is who is coming on various days & times and pulling their child out of his/her classroom!
What information do you include?
In the teacher letter, I introduce myself and provide a basic explanation about itinerant ESL services, i.e., that I will come at specific days & times and that I try to work around special subjects. I also make clear that I come with my own lesson plans. Some teachers don't realize that, in our program, we provide our own content-based ESL instruction and that I have a program coordinator who observes me during the year for an evaluation. I also attach instructions for the Language Line, which provides interpretation services and is extremely helpful when communicating with parents.
In the parent letter, I introduce myself and explain what I do and why I am pulling their child out of their classroom on certain days & times. Most importantly, I extend an invitation for the parents to come to observe our work together. I think this is the most important part of the letter. Since I rarely get a chance to meet parents face-to-face, I believe this makes parents feel comfortable about me pulling out their child if they know they can come and observe at any time. I do encourage them to arrange a day & time beforehand since I work in multiple schools, but they are welcome to get my schedule from the main office and drop in. I also include my work email address so they have a direct link to me instead of communicating through the classroom teacher.
How did you get started doing this?
I began doing the teacher letter because I heard the question "Now what is it that you do exactly?" so many times. In addition, teachers would ask me to call the parents of ELLs; attaching the instructions for the Language Line has allowed them to engage directly with the parents. Some teachers also want to send work with the ELL student when I pick them up and the letter provides some clarity around why that isn't possible. In the end, I think the letter is a way of providing clarity and some mutual expectations. I also hope it's the beginning of establishing a professional relationship & open communication with teachers and parents which can only benefit the students we serve.
What changes have you made to the letters over the years?
I haven't made too many major changes to the letters. What has been most helpful is that one of my itinerant colleagues, Juana Leiva-Ruiz, graciously translated the parent letter into Spanish several years ago. I shared the English version with her when I created it and she said she would translate it into Spanish for us and it's been very helpful. I would like to get it translated into the other languages and will work on that!
Any lessons learned?
Yes! I used to include my personal cell number on the letters. I no longer do that, especially on the parent letters. I've had students find the letter along with my number. While nothing happened, I think it's good to keep healthy boundaries! I provide parents with my personal cell if they ask for it or I feel there's a need for them to have it.
How have these letters helped you to do your job more effectively?
The letter to teachers gives them an introduction to who I am and what I do. This simple act of reaching out lets the teacher know that not only am I open to collaborating with them but also expect it. The more the classroom teacher and I are in communication about the needs of the ESL student, the more it helps the student be successful in the classroom and get the supports s/he needs.
I think the parent letter is helpful because it opens the door to communication with the parents and begins to forge a relationship between the ESL teacher and the parents.
What impact do you think the letters have had over the long term?
I think the letters have had some impact in building our schools' capacity to serve ELLs by helping to increase collaboration (which is already a challenge since I move around to so many buildings), but another important factor is that our program coordinator tends to assign us to the same schools from year to year. That isn't always possible because our numbers fluctuate every year. But teachers in most of my schools are used to seeing me in the building on a regular basis so most know who I am and what I do. I also have been able to encourage principals to place ELLs with those classroom teachers who are particularly effective with ELLs. It is challenging building relationships with everyone in the building since I am only there a short time but I try engage with just more than the classroom teacher. The letters are a starting point but I still have to make an effort to advocate for both myself and my ELLs since I work with many different colleagues.
For example, we are the ESL Point of Contact (POC) for each of our schools, which means that we also keep the schools we service in compliance with local and federal laws. We also engage with the secretary, registrar and principal. In terms of testing, we engage with the tech coordinator at the school when administering the ACCESS for ELLs in the spring and we work with the school's testing coordinator to ensure our ELLs get the accommodations they are entitled to when participating in other standardized testing.
So the letter is helpful but you also have to be someone able to work with many different personalities and advocate for yourself and your students.
What interested you about ESL coaching?
I enjoy helping and supporting both students and adults. I have seen new ESL teachers over the years struggle as they begin servicing students. It's challenging for any new teacher but especially so for new ESL teachers who receive newcomers who speak no English! Working with teachers, supporting them, and providing instructional strategies will benefit both the teacher and the ESL students.
What are you looking forward to this year?
This year, as with any year, I look forward to reconnecting with my students from last year! That is one nice thing about being an itinerant ESL teacher. Since I'm the only teacher in the buildings I service, I provide services to the same students from year-to-year. I am mostly looking forward to supporting and coaching other ESL teachers so that our students can benefit from the best possible instruction. I am looking forward to learning from them as well as sharing best practices I have learned over the years.
Susan Lafond: Tips for Collaboration on Behalf of ELLs
ELL expert Susan Lafond shares some of her strategies for reaching out to colleagues, including sharing a letter about students and writing a short newsletter.