Maria Feist is an ESL teacher in Pennsylvania's Downington Area School District. She started her teaching career in a mainstream classroom, but after working with her first English language learner, she slowly gravitated towards the ELL classroom. Maria recently completed her ESL certification, and in this essay for Colorín Colorado, she describes how her upbringing shaped her interest in other cultures, and how she made the move into the ELL classroom.
My Journey: Working with ELLs
I was born and raised in New York City by my mother, whose family had been Americans for several generations, and my Jamaican immigrant father. Although my father and his family spoke English, their culture was very different from my mother's Irish-English family. I believe my upbringing sparked an interest in cultures of the world at an early age in me.
In 1989 I began my teaching career in a 4th grade classroom in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburban area about 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. Chester County had just begun to see a change in demographics. I was always blessed to have diversity in my classroom and the opportunity to learn about various cultures from my students. However, in 2001, I had my first NES — Non English Speaking student. At the time I was teaching Kindergarten. After my initial panic as to how I was going to teach this student who did not speak any English, I realized I had 22 other teachers in the room with me: my students! I was amazed at how quickly my ELL student learned English and adjusted to the culture of the school.
After that experience, I was hooked. I loved teaching the ELL students and being what I call the "Good Will Ambassador," welcoming the families to the school and their new country, and locating resources for them, such as translators. In 2005, my Principal asked me to have the classroom where we would cluster the ELL students. I took all of the ESL workshops I could find. The ESL teacher that I worked with as a classroom teacher was an amazing resource for me. She encouraged me to get my ESL Certificate. After completing my certification program, an ESL position became available in my district. So here I am!
When I was taking my ESL certification classes, I had the opportunity to interview the father of one of my students. He had been an ESL student himself. He expressed to me that he wished that someone had given him a tape recorder and books on tape that he could have listened to at home. That became one of my goals for my students. I wanted to provide a "read aloud" experience for them. I asked for donations of tape recorders and books on tape within my district and received them. The students love taking the books home and listening to them on the tape recorder which gets returned at the end of the school year.
I now work in 2 elementary schools teaching ESL to Kindergarten through 5th grade students from 10 different countries. I am grateful for all of the years I had teaching K, 2, 3, and 4th grades, because that has given me a basis for what I can expect from my students developmentally as well as what the curriculum expectations are.
One of the greatest challenges I face in teaching ESL is not knowing the knowledge background of my students and where their gaps are. Before moving to an ESL classroom, I knew what students had been taught and could make some assumptions of what they knew. As a Kindergarten teacher, I could tell you at any given moment what letters, sounds, and sight words a student knew or did not know through assessments. However, I cannot assume that my students have knowledge of certain books, TV shows, foods, or even basic words. For example, I have a 3rd-grade student who can talk about robotics in science, but who did not know what "to share" meant. I am challenged each day to find and fill in the gaps with my students.
The most important piece of advice that I would offer to a classroom teacher working with ELLs is to develop a working relationship with your ESL Teacher — the collaboration will make both of your jobs easier!