A Smile and a Rolling Suitcase: Notes from an Itinerant ESL Teacher

Larry Donathan has been an ESL teacher in DC Public Schools for more than twelve years, most of that time as an itinerant teacher. Larry is also an ordained Episcopal priest and spent the nine years prior to teaching serving parishes in Alabama, suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and suburban Washington, DC.  In this Q&A with Colorín Colorado, Larry describes his job, shares tips for collaboration, and offers advice for new itinerant teachers, as well as those considering an itinerant position.

Tell us about your job as an itinerant teacher in Washington, DC.

I am an itinerant ELL instructor in Washington, DC Public Schools. I am responsible for providing direct English language instruction to ELLs and serve eleven schools. There are currently eight itinerant ELL teachers in DCPS, and as an itinerant, I do not work for a principal but fall directly under the Language Acquisition Division in DC Public Schools. This is my 13th year teaching and my 12th year as an itinerant.

In addition to providing instruction, I am the person at each of my schools who takes care of all paperwork regarding ELLs in order to keep the school in compliance with local and federal laws; I am the ACCESS for ELLs test chair and coordinate the ACCESS for ELLs testing; and I also provide the school test chair with accommodations reports for ELLs with regard to other testing in which ELLs are required to participate.

How many ELLs do you serve in how many schools?

This year, I service forty students in eleven schools ranging from Pre-K to 6th grade. Six of those students are in Pre-K. I provide indirect services to those students, i.e., support for the Pre-K teacher, materials and strategies s/he can use with the ELLs. I check on the progress of those ELLs usually once a week. Pre-K is all about language development, so the reality is that I wouldn't do anything different than a Pre-K teacher is already doing in the classroom. If there is some difficulty, I will pull the ELL out of the classroom to provide additional individual instruction.

I also have 19 students who have tested out of ELL services but receive "monitoring services" for 2 years following. I check in with those students and their general education teachers once during each advisory period to make sure they are keeping up in their general education classroom.

What population of students are you currently serving?

​In recent years, the majority of my students have spoken Spanish, and this year all of my students are Spanish speakers. I think this is the first time that has happened! Most of them are from El Salvador as the DC Metro area has a large Salvadoran immigrant population. Some have recently arrived, and this year, I have 6 students who are newcomers. Over the years, I have had students who speak German, Chinese, Tagalog (Philippines), Amharic (Ethiopia), French, Portuguese and a variety of East & West African dialects.

Do you think your students feel welcome in their schools?

I do think they feel welcome in the school. Of course, newly arrived ELLs always experience a bit of culture shock and go through that "silent period" where they don't speak and don't engage but rather take in all that is around them, watching and learning. In itinerant schools, since ELLs are in such the minority, I think native born students find them somewhat fascinating. I find that they usually take the ELLs under their wings and help them navigate through the daily routines at school.​

One of the big differences in serving itinerant schools is that students do not have other students with whom they can engage using their native language. They are also living in a neighborhood where there are few other speakers of their first language if any, so they are living and learning in an environment where they are totally immersed in English.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Generally I service anywhere from two to four schools each day. My schedule is usually different each day of the week but repeats itself each week so that I'm not making up a new schedule each week.

What are the differences among the schools you serve?

All but three of my schools are in wards 7 & 8 in Washington, DC. Those are the two poorest wards in the city. This, of course, presents its own set of unique challenges when dealing with a disenfranchised and socio-economically disadvantaged population. Even though the other schools are located in the more socio-economically advantaged ward 6, the population is basically the same, especially the ELLs. So my students are all from low-income households where very little English is spoken in the home.

What is your relationship like with the building principals?

Even though the ELLs are low in number at my schools, the principals and administration are very supportive of me and my students. Some of my schools have only one ELL in the whole school and all of them have usually less than ten. Once you get above ten ELLs the school is usually required to hire a half-time ELL teacher. Most of them take a special interest in making sure the students and their families feel welcome and have a safe place where learning and language acquisition can take place.

How do you collaborate with colleagues when your time and resources are limited?

This is one of the challenges of my job. I have a limited amount of time at each school and with each student. Also, my time at the school is usually not the same time the classroom teacher has her planning period, so actual sit-down planning and collaboration time is nearly impossible. I "check in" with the teacher when I pick up my student to see if there's anything specific he might be having trouble with. Also, I communicate by email if I notice something that the student is having particular difficulty with that the classroom teacher may need to address.

One thing I do that is helpful is that I give a letter to each of the classroom teachers of my ELLs in the beginning of the year. That letter outlines who I am and what it is that I do. It includes my email address and mobile phone number so that the classroom teacher can easily communicate with me if there are any issues or problems. I have found over the years that this is very helpful. It doesn't take the place of face-to-face collaboration and planning but you have to make do with what you have when you are an itinerant teacher. It's the nature of the job.

What steps have you taken that allow you be effective managing this position?

One of the steps I have taken to be effective is in the way I plan. I function a bit like a special education teacher in that I make my own version of an IEP for each student every year. I am responsible for teaching English to ELLs in the four domains of listening, speaking, reading and writing. At the beginning of the year, I look at their scores from their English language proficiency test and identify the domain or domains in which they are deficient. I then devise a plan of lessons and strategies I will use throughout the year that will help them reach proficiency in those domains.

One of the nice things is that since I generally service the same schools each year, I know my students from year to year and know exactly what it is they need for the year when the year begins.

What are the challenges you face?

The greatest challenge is planning. To put it bluntly, it's a nightmare and exhausting and that is the most frequent comment I hear from my itinerant colleagues. I service students from Pre-K to grade 6. So I am having to plan for different grade levels. In addition, my ELLs are at different proficiency levels — anywhere from "entering" to almost proficient. I have to take that into account. I may have two 4th graders at the same school but one may be a level 1 who speaks no English and one may be a level 4 which is almost English proficient. They can't be pulled together so I'm creating two different lessons. This is the hardest part of the job and takes the most time.

If you could give some advice to new itinerant teachers, what would it be?

Buy a rolling suitcase! I service students from Pre-K to 6th grade and at all different proficiency levels. So I have to carry a variety of materials to meet the needs of each student. It's impossible to carry them all in a back pack. I learned early on that a rolling suitcase works best. Some of my colleagues have a bag for each school they service.

Also, I provide each of my students with a large ziplock bag at the beginning of the year. In that bag I put their materials based on their grade level: bilingual dictionary, spelling dictionary, folder, composition book, crayons. This way, when I pick them up all they have to do is grab their bag and walk out of the classroom rather than searching for their ELL materials.

What other recommendations do you have for planning lessons as an itinerant teacher?

Here are some other recommendations for the classroom:

  • It is helpful if a new itinerant teacher plans lessons that can be done in an hour or less. I've found project-based learning and lessons which may take 3 or more sessions to complete to be difficult for students. Some students I may only see once a week for an hour. Trying to continue a lesson a week later is nearly impossible, and it's hard to pick up where I left off without spending a good chunk of time reviewing. Because time is so short with students, I don't have much time to go back and review.
  • Tapping into prior knowledge is key but a thorough review before each lesson is impossible because of time constraints.
  • Thematic units are fine but each lesson in the unit should be a "stand alone" lesson with a clear beginning and end for that particular instructional time with the student.
  • I also do a thorough review with my students before each unit test. I think it's only fair since they don't see me very often and the information they have learned has been over such a long period of time--usually several weeks.

If you could tell your colleagues and administrators something they could do to make your job easier, what would it be?

Provide a physical space for the ELL teacher that is conducive to learning! Space is a premium in schools these days. It has gotten better over the years but I have taught in a supply closet, in a hallway and in a stairwell. Most of my schools are very good about providing a physical space for me…some even with a working computer! I like to use technology when I can so a working computer is important and if there's one in the space I'm using, then I don't have to carry a laptop around — which is one less item in my rolling bag!

What parts of your job do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy traveling to different schools throughout the day and getting some fresh air in between schools! I also enjoy the freedom I have in this position. I work for a phenomenal boss who trusts me to do my job and that affords me a lot of freedom. Most of all, I enjoy the one-on-one time with my students. At some schools, I'm only working with one student and at others only 2, 3 or 4 students at a time. It allows me to build relationships with them that I wouldn't be able to do if I were doing push-in in a classroom of 30 students. That one-on-one time is especially important and beneficial to newcomers. It allows them a time and space to feel free to practice English with someone who is helping them and takes away their fear of speaking English.

In addition, because I am not based at one school all day, I don't have to do duty or bulletin boards or decorate a classroom or serve on committees. I also don't get caught up in the politics at the school. Those are some nice perks!

What advice would you give to ESL teachers considering working in itinerant positions?

It is definitely NOT for everyone. Planning across multiple grade levels and multiple proficiency levels is a lot of work. You do not have your own classroom. If you are a teacher who likes your own space and likes to come back in August and decorate your classroom and have all your supplies and materials at your fingertips, it's not for you. I've had many classroom teachers over the years say, "I'd love to have your job." But when I explain it to them they usually then say, "Never mind." I've also had a number of teachers say, "I could never do your job. I couldn't travel around all day long." But if you like some freedom and independence and you don't want to do duty or bulletin boards and you want an even deeper relationship with your students, it's a perfect job!

Also, I've never worked in a rural district but I would imagine distance between schools would be a challenge. All of my schools are in a few mile radius of each other so it never takes me more than 5-15 minutes to get from one school to another.

Do you have a success story or special student story you'd like to share?

​Many of my students face seemingly insurmountable challenges. I've had students whose fathers were either in jail or have been murdered; students who have been physically and sexually abused; students involved in gangs; students who have been stabbed; students who had physical or developmental challenges in addition to language; students who were basically raising themselves and their siblings because their parents or parent were working 2 or 3 jobs. After teaching 13 years, I'm now seeing students I taught in first grade graduating and going off to college. That makes what I do, in spite of the challenges, worthwhile.​



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