Hiring Your School’s First ELL Teacher: 10 Tips for School Leaders

Teacher talking with colleagues

If your school is getting ready to hire its first ELL educator, take a look at these tips from administrators who have experience working with ELLs!

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

If you are getting ready to hire your school’s first English language learner (ELL) teacher, congratulations! You have the opportunity to bring a knowledgeable and resourceful new member to your team, whose expertise will be particularly valuable if your population of ELLs has been growing and you haven’t yet had a full-time staff member on board to help you navigate the change.

In order to make a great choice in choosing a new ELL teacher and increase your ELL teacher’s chances for success, here are some tips to guide you along the way (keeping in mind that the actual nuts and bolts of the hiring process will vary from district to district). This article also includes tips for building a strong partnership with your new ELL teacher after hiring.

Building Your Background Knowledge

Even though you are no doubt eager to get your ELL job position posted and start meeting candidates, some preparation beforehand can go a long way, especially if this is your first time hiring an ELL teacher. This preparation will allow you to make the most of your interview conversations and improve your ability to evaluate which candidates are the best fit for your school.

Keep in mind that in schools where ELLs are thriving, it is usually quite apparent that the school’s leaders are actively engaged with their ELL students, families, and staff members. This is true even for leaders who may not have had much experience working in schools that served ELLs prior in the career. Preparing for your candidate interviews will be a great way to start building that strong foundation. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

1. Get to know what ELL teachers do.

ELL educators bring a wealth of different kinds of expertise to their schools, and the more savvy that administrators are about how to make the most of that expertise, the more effective the ELL educators can be. Start by reading our article on what ELL educators do and watching the following video.

Video: Dr. Karen Woodson on what principals need to know about what ELL teachers do

ELL educators possess a versatile range of talents; as a profession, they are deeply committed to the students and families they serve, and they are often among the staff members with whom ELLs and their families interact most and have the most trust.

When administrators can see how ELL teachers’ talents are contributing to the entire school community, everyone benefits. When administrators don’t have that big picture view, however, ELL teachers can feel isolated and frustrated, which is another reason that understanding their expertise is so crucial to creating a positive, sustainable situation for your new teacher.

2. Observe some ELL teachers in action.

One way to learn more about what ELL teachers do is to visit a school with a larger and more established ELL program. Ask for recommendations from your district ELL team on successful programs within your district — ideally one where administrators are visibly engaged in supporting ELL success and understand the importance of language growth and its impact on school improvement efforts. Spend some time observing ELL teachers in action, including some co-teaching teams, and talking with other school leaders. This kind of observation can show you what is possible, which will be a valuable perspective as you embark on your search for a candidate.

In addition, you can watch our interviews with school leaders about ELLs and review our ELL classroom video library.

Video: ELLs Belong to All of Us: The Role of ELL Specialists in Collaboration

3. Consider shadowing some ELLs in your school.

Shadowing a student can give you an up-close view of what a student’s daily experience looks like, especially if that student is being pulled for different interventions on a regular basis. For many ELLs, their days are chopped into blocks with multiple interruptions during which they lose core instruction time. Shadowing a student or even asking staff to present students’ daily schedules can help you understand how the day really works from a student’s point of view and also get you thinking about how your new ELL teacher’s schedule will work. See more ideas on using collaborative teams in The PRESS-In Model: Turning All Students into Readers.

Video: What an award-winning principal learned from shadowing a student

4. Ask your district’s ELL department to explain how ELL programs and assessments work in the district.

Even if you are just starting with the hiring of a single ELL educator, it is helpful to have a little bit of background on how different kinds of ELL programs work before interviewing candidates. ELL programming may vary from school to school in your district, so it’s important to get an idea of what is involved in different examples and what might make most sense for your school community. In addition, it’s important to consider what your ELL teacher’s responsibilities related to ELL identification, accountability and assessment will look like, in part because this can be time-consuming for the teacher both in terms of paperwork and in administering the assessments. You can start by reading the Dear Colleague letter regarding ELLs from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice and also learning more about the ELL resources and policies in your state.

Developing a basic understanding of ELL programming models is essential before you start interviewing candidates because:

  • you will better understand your candidates’ prior experience.
  • your candidates are likely to have questions about these topics, and even if you can’t answer them all, you will be better prepared for those conversations if you do some preparation before the interviews.
  • your new teacher will be laying groundwork that will be especially important if your school’s ELL population continues increasing and you need to hire more ESL teachers in the future.

You will both be working together to build that foundation and your preparation will position you to partner more successfully as a team. For a general overview, see the following:

5. Learn more about how collaboration and professional learning communities can support ELL success.

Becoming familiar with what collaboration looks like in the ELL context is another important step before embarking on the hiring process so that you can be thinking about it as you are interviewing your candidates. Collaboration on behalf of ELLs can yield powerful outcomes, but it will be most effective when supported by administrators. Here are some different forms that collaboration can take:

  • Co-planning: Co-planning usually involves the ELL teacher working with individual teachers, content-area teams or grade-level teams to plan lessons together. The ELL teacher may offer ideas on how to target key concepts, background knowledge, and vocabulary for particular lessons, or provide some strategies that support students’ academic language development or peer learning.
  • Co-teaching: Co-teaching usually involves a classroom teacher and an ELL educator teaching as a team in the same classroom. There are many ways to do this, such as teachers dividing students into groups, the ELL teacher teaching a focused mini lesson to the whole class, or the ELL teacher leading a small group lesson.
  • Professional learning communities (PLCs): Schools that support PLCs around ELL instruction are exciting places to visit. The staff members share a vision for what ELL success looks like; the administrators are making strategic decisions on how to support that success; and the students are having a great experience because the staff have put so much thought into their schedules, instruction, and engagement.

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when looking at collaboration around ELLs:

  • Collaboration will be most effective when it has the buy-in and support of administrators, both in terms of planning time and staff schedules and resource support.
  • Co-planning is especially crucial to understand because a single ELL teacher won't have the capacity to co-teach in every classroom where ELLs are present. However, emphasizing the co-planning piece is key to creating conditions for language learning to occur when the ELL teacher isn't present because ELLs need to learn English in all subjects.
  • Any form of collaboration can start small. For example, your new ELL teacher could start co-teaching with a single teacher during their first year and form a small PLC to share their experiences with other teachers. It doesn’t have to happen on a big scale to be meaningful, and starting small is better than nothing!

In order to think about what all of this means for your new teacher, take a look at the following resources:

Dr. Karen Woodson: How (and why) to support collaboration and PLCs for ELL educators

Diane Kerr and Brian Butler: Supporting ELLs Through Collaboration

Preparing for the Interviews

Once you have expanded your understanding of the ELL teacher’s role, you are ready to work on the position description and prepare for the interviews. Here’s what to do next!

6. If your district has an ELL department, collaborate with them on writing new job position description.

Your district may have a fairly standard template for what is involved in writing new ELL teacher positions; however, you may wish to tailor a few things based on your situation. Review the position description very carefully, asking for clarification on any responsibilities or items you don’t understand — after all, you, or someone on your leadership team, will be supervising this new staff member! Take a look at other districts' ELL job descriptions to get an idea of what’s out there.

7. Prepare for the interview.

As you prepare to interview candidates, read through our advice for teachers in How to Prepare for an ESL Job Interview to get an idea of what teachers might be expecting and questions you might want to ask.

You may also wish to consider asking questions such as the following, or adding your own:

  • Have you ever worked in a newly developed ELL program or been the first ELL teacher at a school before?
  • If so, what did you learn from that experience?
  • What kinds of co-teaching experience do you have?
  • What are some ways you have supported social-emotional learning for ELLs?
  • What is an accomplishment from your previous position that you are proud of?
  • What is a way that an administrator has supported you in your work with ELLs?
  • What is a situation in which you wish you had more administrator support?
  • What’s a way that you have successfully engaged with or welcomed diverse families?
  • What are some strengths you have seen in your ELLs and ELL families that weren’t as obvious to the broader school community?
  • What is an accomplishment from your ELL work during the COVID-19 pandemic that you are proud of?

These questions not only will tell you a lot about the candidates you are interviewing but they will also continue building your own knowledge base about best practices and what is possible.

8. If you have trouble finding the right candidate, consider credentialing another staff member.

Sometimes, the right candidate can be hard to find, or candidates in general can be hard to find if your area is impacted by teacher shortages. Another option is to work with a current teacher in the school who is interested in working more with ELLs to get an ESL credential or endorsement and then help them transition into that position. It can be a steep learning curve, but the teacher's familiarity with the school culture and population will be an asset. If you go this route, be sure to connect the teacher with strong mentors, support, and training opportunities, especially since ELL educators can often feel isolated in their building and there is a lot to learn!

Partnering with Your New ELL teacher

After you have hired your new teacher, you can start to develop a partnership together. Here are some ways you can get it started.

9. Think about ways to make the new ELL teacher feel welcome.

Think about ways that you can make your new ELL teacher feel welcome within the school community, both as they get to know families and get to know the rest of the staff. Include them in events and meetings, and ask them to introduce themselves whenever they are in a new setting. (This is particularly important if they are new to your district or region, or have come from another state or country.)

Ask them to share success stories from previous experiences and what they are looking forward to in this new position. Not only will this make the new teacher feel welcome, it will help establish respect for the teacher and what they have to offer.

Meeting regularly

In addition, meeting regularly with your new teacher provides an opportunity for regular check-ins and a chance to discuss new ideas and address challenges that arise. For example, principal Dr. Karen Woodson had a weekly meeting with her ELL team, which helped her stay informed about what was happening around ELL instruction across the school. You may also wish to include co-teaching partners in those meetings every so often so you can learn more about how that is working as well.

How school leaders can collaborate successfully with ELL teachers

10. Brainstorm ways to build the entire staff’s capacity to work with ELLs.

One way to start developing a shared culture of responsibility for ELLs is to increase everyone’s capacity to work effectively with ELLs. You can do this by ensuring that the ELL teacher is included in discussions with administrators, other teachers, and teacher leaders on the design of the school’s professional development plan. Dr. Karen Woodson notes, “Creating professional development project teams where the ELL teacher and other grade level teachers and specialists collaborate to design essential PD for ELLs is powerful and creates shared ownership.”

You can also keep collaboration front and center by:

  • asking staff members to share questions or success stories around ELL collaboration on a regular basis
  • offering some ongoing training or professional development
  • trying different collaboration strategies
  • meeting regularly with grade-level and department teams
  • asking your new ELL teacher for their ideas, especially if they have prior experience.

This culture can take time to establish and there may even be some resistance; many classroom teachers won’t have had experience co-teaching or collaborating with ELL teachers and sometimes they don’t see ELLs as “their students.” When they hear and see what is possible by working together, however, collaboration can increase organically over time.

Elizabeth Varela: Whose Student Is She?


Closing Thoughts

As noted in the introduction, schools in which ELLs succeed are most likely led by leaders who are well-informed and invested in their success and the success of all of the staff members serving this diverse and dynamic population. Keep this reminder in front of you as your north star, because it will help orient you as you navigate the hiring process. We wish you well as you build your team and support your students’ success!


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