When we abruptly left our classrooms and offices in March 2020, it was hard to imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic would turn our lives and our work with English language learners (ELLs) upside down.
Like many of my colleagues, I was hopeful that "getting back to normal" was a milestone we might reach later in the spring...or in the summer...or perhaps the fall. Yet as the goalposts kept moving and we began the 2020-2021 school year, the true extent of our "new normal" finally began to sink in, especially as new challenges continued to emerge. Perhaps you, too, have felt like a first-year teacher again and again during this time as the situation in our schools and communities keeps changing and evolving.
Throughout this past year, I have been thinking a lot about how my colleagues and I can continue to manage the stress of this experience while also being effective advocates for our ELLs and their families. It often feels like more than we can handle. As an ELL coach in a mid-sized district, I have often worried about how we could reach and teach all of our ELLs and support our ELL teachers while juggling all of our responsibilities along the way.
What I have come to realize, however, is that some small steps (what Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove call "ridiculously small steps") might help us meet both goals at the same time. This is an important time to identify some of those steps, especially as many schools begin (or plan for) in-person learning for their ELLs.
Here are some ideas you may wish to try, along with insights from other educators. I have also included some reflections on self care and boundaries in the final strategy of the article. Keep an eye out for a single idea or two that makes sense for you, and remember that, over time, you will gain a clearer idea of where to target your energy and advocacy for your students — and yourself.
Special thanks to Kristina Robertson for her contributions to this article!
ELL Educators: Strengths and Challenges During COVID-19
Before we jump into these strategies, it's helpful to remember the many strengths ELL professionals bring to our work, as well as some of the challenges we are facing during the pandemic.
Strengths of ELL educators
Here are some strengths that have long been a hallmark of ELL educators — but especially since the pandemic began:
- ELL educators have deep expertise around teaching language and the numerous policies, assessments, and instructional models that they must navigate.
- They are creative, resourceful, and adaptable.
- They are used to making do with few resources.
- They are expert collaborators and communicators who work with many colleagues, including general education teachers, specialists, bilingual educators, special educators, interpreters, and family liaisons.
- They believe in their students and their students' potential for success.
- They establish critical partnerships with families and are often THE link between an ELL family and school.
- They are strong advocates for their students.
- They are experienced trainers, often called upon to provide professional development for colleagues.
- They are passionate about their profession and actively network to continue learning and develop their craft.
For additional discussion of ELL educators' strengths, skills, and leadership experience, see:
- You Are Already A Leader: Identifying Your Leadership Skills on Behalf of ELLs
- The Role of ESL Educators (Valentina Gonzalez)
During the pandemic, I have seen the ELL educators I work with (and many beyond my district as well) bring all of the above strengths and so much more to their work. They have gone above and beyond their responsibilities to do all they can to help partner with families and reach students.
As schools moved to virtual learning, ELL educators have continuously advocated for devices, translation, meals, scheduling changes, staffing, instructional time, and basic educational materials for their students and families. They have tried new kinds of strategies, instructional models, and communication platforms until they figure out what works best for their students, and their collective work during this time is a true testament to the profession.
Challenges for ELL educators
Not surprisingly, these efforts have also been overwhelming. It's important to acknowledge just how many different kinds of responsibilities, challenges, and stressors educators of ELLs have faced during the pandemic, on top of the challenges that many educators are facing more broadly.
Examples of challenges during COVID-19
This list isn't comprehensive, and you will no doubt have your own responsibilities and challenges to add. But sometimes it can help to start by acknowledging the issue and recognizing that there are a lot of us in the same boat.
Some key responsibilities and challenges ELL educators are currently facing include:
Schedules & assignments
- juggling hybrid, online, and/or in-person learning for ELLs simultaneously, sometimes across multiple schools
- new or changing assignments across content areas, grades, schools, or learning models (including non-ELL assignments)
Communicating with ELL families
- finding ways to maintain communication with ELL families
- translating for families (sometimes without formal training as interpreters)
- providing and advocating for information to families in their home language
- ensuring that families understand schedules and reopening plans
- finding resources for families that may be experiencing severe hardship and stress
- determining how to best support students through trauma, impacts of the pandemic, and bullying/harassment related to the pandemic
Instruction and collaboration
- increasing ELL access to technology, wi-fi, and tech training/support
- determining which instructional tools, strategies, and resources are most appropriate for ELLs at different proficiency languages and in different learning models
- looking for ways to teach different language skills and differentiate instruction in virtual or hybrid settings
- advocating for more differentiation and ELL support among colleagues and administrators
- figuring out what collaboration and co-teaching look across learning models
- figuring out what to prioritize once students are back to in-person learning
- figuring out how to improve student communication while wearing masks
Identification and assessment
- screening new students for ESL services (either remotely or in person)
- overseeing the logistics of ELP assessments
- determining course and even grade-level placement without recent (or with only partial) WIDA ACCESS/ELP scores
- understanding how district policies (such as those related to transportation and bussing) impact ELLs' access to learning
- advocating for opportunities to:
- participate in decision-making processes that impact ELLs, such as scheduling and decisions related to instruction
- update policies that may have not been created with ELLs and their families in mind
- share professional development with colleagues
Self care and healthy boundaries
- managing these responsibilities and our personal responsibilities, sometimes without adequate support
- trying to meet wide-ranging expectations about what it is possible during this time.
Research and reports on equity and ELLs during COVID-19
If you have experienced any or many of these challenges, you are not alone. They are indicators of the deep inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which have been documented in national resources such as these:
- Supporting English Learners in the COVID-19 Pandemic (Council of Great City Schools)
- COVID-19 Spotlights the Inequities Facing English Learner Students, as Nonprofit Organizations Seek to Mitigate Challenges (Migration Policy Institute)
- Centering English Learners in Schools’ Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Migration Policy Institute)
- Can you relate to any of the above stressors or challenges?
- What would you add to the list?
- Are your colleagues or administrators aware of any these challenges and how they impact students, families, and staff?
Strategies: Identifying Challenges and Solutions
Now that we've looked into the big picture (and taken a few deep breaths), let's dive into some strategies we can use to target our advocacy and improve our situations, even in small ways. Our ELL Advocacy Tool featured below may help guide you through some of the following strategies.
1. Identify one key challenge.
Advocates are problem solvers. They stay focused on solutions, even when things might seem overwhelming, and break problems down into small steps.
To get started:
- Make a list of some key challenges you are facing.
- Think about which challenges are most impacting your work with ELLs. Those may include some things on the list above or a totally different set of factors.
- Identify which things you can control.
It's important to think about which problems you can work on solving. There is a lot about this pandemic that is out of our control, so it's important to focus on what you can do. (Sound familiar?)
Once you have your list:
- Go back to your list of challenges.
- Look at the list to determine which of those things you can control. If you decide you can't control it, cross it out.
- Review what you are left with. Choose a single issue you'd like to focus on.
- Think about the small steps you can take to tackle the issue you chose above, either alone or with colleagues.
- Consider where you would like this small step to lead in the future.
- As you try your small steps, be sure to share insights and successes with your colleagues and administrators.
In thinking about the issue you chose above, consider the following questions:
- What are some solutions you'd like to work towards?
- How can those solutions make a positive difference for your students and for you or your team?
- What is a single step you can take to work towards a solution?
- What are some strengths and skills you bring to this challenge?
- Do you need ideas on how to solve this problem? If so, which colleagues, administrators, or professional network might help you brainstorm?
- What do you need to get started?
- When will you try this idea?
- What's the next step if the first one works?
- What will you do if the first step doesn't work?
If you want to take this process one step further, take a look at the reports mentioned above related to the inequities impacting ELL education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Look for some of the systemic issues that are impacting your students. Bring this bigger picture (and perhaps some research) back to your colleagues for further discussion, brainstorming, and planning.
Each step you take, even if doesn't work in the beginning, helps you become a stronger advocate for your ELLs and your team.
2. Use your past experiences to propel you forward.
Advocates are lifelong learners. They aren't passive when it comes to finding information. They are reflective and keep looking towards the future.
Another strategy that can help is to reflect on past experiences — whether from last week or last year — to continue to adapt to this new reality. When schools closed suddenly in the spring, teachers had little time to prepare. Even now, each day can feel so different from the last and, in some ways, this daily chaos also feels like it's part of the new normal.
This is a common feeling among the teachers I know. In the fall, veteran teacher Larry Ferlazzo posted on Twitter, "I had my first really good teaching day this year yesterday in full time virtual learning. Today, not so much. Sigh. But at least I caught a glimpse of what was possible. There's always tomorrow :)"
If you have not yet had a chance to do this for yourself or with colleagues, take some time to consider the following:
- What lessons have we learned so far during COVID-19 about teaching and supporting our ELLs?
- How are those lessons impacting what we are doing now?
- Can we use our in-person time more effectively by previewing material in person, teaching technology skills, modeling what a daily routine could look like, etc.?
- Are there any professional development opportunities that could benefit our team or our colleagues?
- Are there resources available that can support our efforts?
- What are some successes from virtual or hybrid learning we want to bring to in-person learning?
- What are our biggest concerns about the return to in-person learning for ELLs?
- Are we defaulting to "the way things always were done" when we plan for in-person learning?
If you are meeting regularly with colleagues, try setting aside some time for this kind of discussion. You might check in on "what's working" and "what's not working." Colleagues are likely to share some similar challenges or questions along the way, which might provide an opportunity for broader solutions and more efficient use of time during the meetings!
If you'd like to do this on your own, consider starting a reflection "journal," whether in an online document, on your phone, or in a notebook (or a shared document if your team wants to try this together). It doesn't need to be anything extravagant, just purposeful. Whether it's once a week or more, take a few minutes and write down what went well and what areas you still wish to improve in your teaching practice or classroom.
By taking the time to reflect, you will stay more focused. You will also start to see some patterns and all that you are doing well, even when it might feel like you aren't. It will help you identify specific areas for growth, especially if you start to write down similar challenges from day to day. By purposefully using your past experiences to move forward, you are becoming a stronger advocate and developing your own growth mindset.
Video: Using technology with newcomer ELLs during COVID-19
Patrick Synan is a high school ELL teacher for students with interrupted formal education. In this clip, he talks about the experience of teaching students how to use technology remotely and how far they have come since the beginning of the pandemic.
Strategies: Changing the Narrative Through Collaboration
3. Help others recognize ELLs' strengths and assets.
Advocates are agents of change and help open others' minds to new perspectives.
Even though we could each come up with a lengthy list of why remote or hybrid learning is challenging for ELLs, we have an opportunity to change that narrative.
What if, instead of operating with a deficit lens, we began to focus more on the strengths of ELLs and families during this time — and encouraged our colleagues to do the same? What if we could change the way we talk about our students?
recent article describing the challenges that their ELLs have faced in learning on school-issued iPads, they write, "During our online classes, we notice our students multitasking to survive this pandemic. We see them providing child care for younger siblings, and we hear them working jobs to help support their families. We admire our students who are able to join online classes while juggling their other responsibilities, and we ardently wish that their city-issued iPads did not pose yet another barrier to learning."teach high school English to new immigrants in the South Bronx. In a
It may take some effort and practice to reframe that conversation. However, our ELL Advocacy Tool includes a prompt for identifying the strengths that students and families bring to the table. You can also further explore this topic in these resources:
- Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress
- Asset-Based Language to Describe Students' Qualities
- A Strengths-Based Approach to Teaching ESL (Cult of Pedagogy)
You can also lift up the strengths students have exhibited during the pandemic, particularly in conversations with colleagues. They may not be aware of the realities students are facing during the pandemic, let alone thinking of students' experiences as an indicator of strengths.
Some of the strengths our students have shown include:
- Maintaining heavy responsibilities at home, such as working, caretaking, translating, and handling paperwork for the family
- The ability to navigate complex systems (within and beyond school) in multiple languages
- Mastering new technologies and learning systems
- Resilience, resourcefulness, and courage
- Dedication to studies in spite of challenges
By changing the narrative about ELLs, you may inspire others to do the same — and build empathy along the way.
Video: The gifts ELLs bring to school
Principal Nathaniel Provencio talks about some of the gifts that ELLs bring to schools, including multilingualism and emotional intelligence.
4. Collaborate to create ELL allies.
Advocates are collaborators — and collaboration has never been more critical than it is now.
It can be hard to find the time to work together or convince others that the time and effort is justified.
Yet by taking some early small steps, initial successes can be used to advocate for more collaborative opportunities that make everyone's job more manageable and efficient — and improve instruction for our students!
To jump start the process, consider the following strategy:
- Reach out to one colleague where a partnership might be valuable, sending an introductory message if you have not worked together before.
- Share some examples of how you support students and collaborate with other colleagues. (This can help your colleagues begin to better understand your role and expertise.)
- Ask your colleague to identify some key questions or concerns related to ELLs so you can better use your time together.
- When feasible, set up a virtual meeting to talk or even a phone call. Just as you value seeing students online, you need that time with colleagues, too. Email is efficient, but it doesn't foster personal connection.
- Identify a single step you can take together and see how it goes.
- Talk about what worked or didn't.
- Don't be afraid to try something different if it doesn't work the first time!
- Share successes with colleagues and administrators who can make time for collaboration a priority.
Video: ELLs Belong to All of Us: The Role of ESOL Specialists in Collaboration
This video showcases a 5th-grade team planning a science lesson about the difference between vascular and non-vascular plants. ESOL specialist Katy Padilla plays a key role in advocating for ELLs throughout the lesson planning process.
5. Engage administrators around ELL issues.
It's also critical to engage administrators around ELL issues, even when that process seems intimidating or challenging. One idea you may wish to try is to invite an administrator (such as a principal, assistant principal, or district-level leader) to a team discussion about a particular topic or concern. You may wish to consult with district-level ELL leaders first for their insights or recommendations. Consider setting up a follow-up meeting, particularly if any action items are discussed, to check on progress and expand the conversation to other leaders at the school or district.
If that approach does not seem feasible, talk with your district-level ELL leaders or colleagues in other settings about how their ideas for engaging their administrators. It can take time to jump start this kind of collaboration, but it is worth the effort to develop those strong alliances.
And if you are in a leadership position, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your ELL colleagues to set up some "listening sessions" so you can learn a little bit more about everything that the team is juggling. Taking this time is a crucial first step in identifying solutions that can support students and teachers, especially as we return to in-person learning — as long as these conversations are followed by actions that can make a difference!
Video: How school leaders can collaborate successfully with ELL teachers
Dr. Karen Woodson talks about the importance of communication and collaboration between school leaders and ELL educators in the building.
6. Build capacity for supporting ELLs.
Advocates empower others.
Sometimes being an ESL teacher can feel lonely or like you are carrying the weight all by yourself. ELLs are everyone's students — but not everyone sees it that way.
You might not have other ESL teachers in the school with you, so by helping your colleagues to better understand their students and how they can support them, you will expand the network of support your students have.
Talk with your team or administrator about scheduling some time that you can meet with other teachers in your schools that work with ELLs, maybe through a professional development session, professional learning community, or team meeting.
Some topics you might include are:
- What it feels like to be a language learner
- Sharing specific strategies to support language production with examples of how to use those strategies in virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction
- Answering your colleagues' questions about ELLs
Another thing you can do is help colleagues understand ELLs' language proficiency data. Once place to start is by explaining to colleagues how to interpret the data. Simply saying "that student has an overall score of …" or "they are a beginner" is a starting point, but doesn't really illustrate how teachers should support those specific students. That's why it is important to help others interpret the data.
You can also help your colleagues work more effectively by sharing a can do approach, which can be directly linked to WIDA's Can Do Philosophy. You may wish to discuss the WIDA Guiding Principles of Language Development to determine educator beliefs and leverage ELL assets. (This is a great resource even if you aren't in a WIDA state!) I like to be concrete and approach it instead by sharing first what the student can do right now and what we are working towards. If you present the information in a positive way and by highlighting strengths, others will be more likely to see it that way too and it will be easier to make inroads to collaboration and co-teaching.
Finally, you may also need to provide some additional information on how the pandemic is impacting students' language development — with a reminder about the benefits and opportunities of home language use and development for ELLs.
Video: What a student CAN do
Award-winning teacher Sean Pang, a former ELL, talks about the importance of identifying the things that students can do, no matter how basic, rather than focusing on the things they can't do — yet.
Strategies: Strengthening Your Own Network of Support
7. Expand your own network.
Advocates are networkers.
None of us can do this work alone. We need ideas, support, and encouragement from others. Connecting with other educators can provide us with valuable insights, whether in the ELL field or beyond.
If you are looking to connect with other ELL educators, you may find networks in your school or district or through regional or state networks/associations. These local connections are particularly valuable because educators may be serving the same immigrant communities or navigating similar policies.
There are also fabulous professional learning networks online where educators have been actively posting questions and resources since the beginning of the pandemic. These include:
- U.S. TESOL affiliates
- Twitter: #ELLChat
- WIDA Educator Exchange (Facebook Group)
- Advocating for ELLs (Facebook Group)
- Leading ELLs (Facebook Group)
- Colorin Colorado’s ELL Educator Group (Facebook Group)
And speaking of your network, keep in mind that educators in other fields may have ideas you can use or adapt. Your important connections with students, families, colleagues, and your personal support network are also things that get us through tough days. Keep those relationships strong where possible. They will sustain you!
Video: Kellie Jones, Bilingual Director (Brockton Public Schools)
Kellie Jones, Director of Bilingual Education in Brockton, MA, explains why her ELL/bilingual team considers itself to be penguins.
8. Look at self care and boundaries from an advocacy point of view.
During this pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion about self care and setting boundaries. However, it has been difficult for many educators, including ELL educators, to put those habits into practice with so many things on our plates...which only seem to be getting fuller as schools prepare to reopen.
This is an area in which leadership is crucial. If you see strong examples of a positive culture and support in this area, celebrate it, share it, and let the colleagues and leaders responsible know how appreciated this is. They may not realize what a big impact their actions and message have!
If this is not a strength or priority in your setting, you may get some helpful ideas for yourself from the following resources:
- EL Teacher Self Care: Setting Boundaries Between Work and Home
- English Learner Teachers and Setting Boundaries (Laura Gardner)
What's your ripple?
There may also be some small steps you can take that that can help change the culture and have a positive impact for you as well as for others. While it is not any individual teacher's job to take this on, making it a priority as a group might make a difference.
Consider starting some conversations about it with colleagues, keeping in mind that everyone's situation, stressors, and traumas during COVID-19 vary considerably. Perhaps you may wish to start with some one-on-one conversations with a trusted colleague with questions such as:
- What, if anything, have you been able to do for self care during the pandemic?
- Has it changed during the year?
- What are some boundaries you've set or would like to set?
If you are able to talk with other ELL colleagues, identify some areas in which the ELL staff are feeling particularly stressed, stretched, or burned out. You may even wish to use the ELL Advocacy Tool mentioned above to brainstorm ideas and ask the following:
- Are there any small adjustments to schedules, staffing, or collaboration that might help, especially as we return to school?
- How can we respond when plans are announced that seem unsustainable?
- Better yet, how can we ensure we are at the table earlier in the planning process to provide our input?
- Are there any expectations that could be communicated more clearly to colleagues, administrators, or families?
- Are there any supports or opportunities for wellness that leadership can provide or encourage?
It may seem like a Herculean task to change the culture in this realm, but this is one reason why engaging administrators early and often around ELL issues is so important. And remember: little pebbles can make big ripples!
Video: How administrators can support teacher wellness
Juliana Urtubey, a bilingual special education teacher and Nevada's 2021 Teacher of the Year, talks about the importance of administrator support around teacher wellness and self care.
Putting It Into Practice
I recently provided two professional learning sessions focusing on content and ideas from this very article, which brought home the power of taking small steps on behalf of ELLs.
Starting the conversation
The first, a 45-minute interactive session with administrators and teachers, focused on:
- what it means to advocate for ELLs
- how to identify potential advocates in individual school communities.
I was not sure how it would be received and I was anxious about what could be achieved in that short time.
However, a few hours later after my session, I was informed that it was well-received and I was asked to offer it again for a longer amount of time and for a broader audience — including more administrators.
This experience illustrates how powerful starting conversations around these topics actually is! Even when we think small steps won't make a difference, they might be exactly what you need to get started.
The power of modeling strategies
The second professional learning session was inspired by the WIDA Illustrated Guiding Principles of Language Development mentioned above. During the pandemic, I have been consistently providing short, virtual "pop-up" PD sessions for staff in my district. However, at this point in the year, teachers are even more fatigued and it does not seem like a good time to start sharing more new information. I thought that a more informal approach to the sessions moving forward might be more appropriate and I wanted to explore more discussion-based opportunities.
I used the WIDA Illustrated Guiding Principles to start discussion and modeled strategies like:
- wait time
- sentence starters
- visual cues
- levels of understanding using signals.
This was probably the best session I've had to date. Everyone was engaged and participating — and then asked to meet again for more! This reminded that these strategies increase engagement for ELLs as well, including in virtual classrooms.
Additionally, both of these examples illustrate the power of sharing ideas with others. When a group of people comes together from various backgrounds, roles, and experiences, progress can be made and allies can be created through collaboration.
Video: Using sentence frames with ELLs
ESL teacher Sheila Majdi explains what a sentence frame is and how she might use this strategy with ELLs.
This pandemic is pushing us harder than any experience as educators has before. By identifying your own challenges, changing the ELL narrative around you, and enlisting more allies, however, you can become a stronger ELL advocate while finding ways to get through this pandemic.
I wish you all the best for the upcoming months — and I look forward to hearing about your small victories when they happen!
About the Author
LeighAnn Matthews is a K-12 ESL instructional coach in New Jersey and former K-5 ESL teacher. In her coaching role, she coaches ESL teachers throughout the district and regularly provides workshops for content-area educators and specialists in her district. She also leads professional development focused on equity for ELLs. Recent presentations include hosting a "MyTESOL lounge live" on equity for ELLs during COVID-19, presenting at the New Jersey Department of Education Equity in Action "unconference," and presenting at the New Jersey Department of Education's Virtual Professional Learning Series. She is also part of the New Jersey Department of Education Professional Learning Network Advisory Council and serves as a @NJTESOL_NJBE liaison, presenting regularly at the annual NJTESOL/NJBE conference.
Connect with LeighAnn at @theESLlady.