You Are Already a Leader: Identifying Your Leadership Skills on Behalf of ELLs

Four adults talking in a library.

Educators who work with English language learners often have deep experience in advocating and collaborating on behalf of their students. This article highlights some diverse leadership experiences of ELL educators and shares ideas for identifying and honing your own leadership capacity.

At this point in the school year, it's a good time to hit the pause button and reflect upon how the academic year has been going. It's also a point at which you can decide which goals you can set for the remainder of your work in the classroom this year to support your ELLs.

In previous blog posts, I've examined how to serve as an advocate for ELLs and also how to effectively collaborate to benefit ELLs. Through some reflection of my own and some work with TESOL International Association that I'll describe in a bit, I've come to recognize and appreciate the role of another skill set even more than in the past: leadership. Teachers' leadership skills are crucial in effectively bringing about change, advocating, and collaborating on behalf of ELLs. Yet were you given any training or coursework on leadership skills when you were in your pre-service education program? Nope, neither was I! I've seen leadership work in subtle as well as more obvious ways when it comes to serving ELLs and realize that its importance is often overlooked.

In this blog post, I'll first focus on why leadership matters in supporting ELLs. We'll hear from Dr. Amy Hewett-Olatunde and Dr. Michelle Benegas, two educators from Minnesota who describe their own leadership experiences. I'll then share some ideas for opportunities for you to forge your own path toward identifying and honing your leadership skills and will give you a tool you can use to create an action plan to determine your next steps in leadership.  I'll then leave you with some resources on leadership for your continued reflection.

Why Does Leadership Matter?

Leadership is crucial in bringing about positive changes for ELLs and is one part of the equation that drives advocacy and collaboration. Recently I've been working with TESOL International Association and a group of national experts to revise the current TESOL P-12 Professional Teaching Standards, which are primarily used to guide pre-service ESOL teacher licensure programs. In the latest draft version of the revised standards, leadership is getting a well-deserved increase in focus. Take a look at this new standard, TESOL draft Standard 5:

"Candidates demonstrate dispositions of professionalism and leadership by collaborating with colleagues, advocating for ELs and their families, engaging in self-assessment and reflection, pursuing continuous professional development, and honing their teaching practice through supervised teaching."

In the "components" supporting that particular standard, some of the related actions described are:

  • demonstrating knowledge and initiative in planning instruction and assessment collaboratively
  • proactively serving as a resource for colleagues
  • in-depth knowledge of school, district, and governmental policies and legislation in order to advocate for ELLs
  • participation in supervised teaching to hone one's practice
  • the practice of self-assessment and reflection while making plans for continuous professional development.

The final component reads, "Candidates demonstrate dispositions of professionalism and leadership through respect, empathy, and flexibility with ELs, their families, and colleagues." Does this sound familiar? You are probably doing a lot of these things already! It takes multiple skills to be a leader who advocates for ELLs – skills which many educators of ELLs instinctually develop over time based on their roles, responsibilities, and evaluation of their students' needs.

I encourage you to start thinking of these skills not simply as "ELL skills" but "leadership skills." Demonstrating leadership skills can buoy your own practice with ELLs and your colleagues, and it can also open up options in other kinds of roles in your school or even district. In addition, looking at your responsibilities through the lens of leadership may provide an opportunity to help others better understand what you do – the many hats you wear – in a way that results in more support, collaboration, and/or inclusion as part of other leadership teams.

For example, I knew of many ESOL teachers who took on additional roles in Fairfax County Public Schools, VA such as curriculum writers and professional development providers at the district level. These teachers' leadership was first developed and noticed at the school level, and then leaders at the district level took note of how these teachers were serving an expanded role to support ELLs outside their classrooms. In the end, these teachers' opportunities to lead beyond their classrooms increased, and they had a larger impact on ELLs at the district level. Keep in mind that being a leader doesn't necessarily mean moving to an administrative role at the building or district level. There are also many ways you can build upon your already-present leadership skills at the school level.

Voices from the Field

To further explore what this looks like on the ground, I reached out to two outstanding ELL leaders I know in Minnesota, one at the classroom level and one at the university level.

Classroom perspective

Dr. Amy Hewett-Olatunde, ELL teacher and Adjunct Professor at Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas, writes:

Teacher preparation perspective

Dr. Michelle Benegas, Assistant Professor at Hamline University, describes her insights into leadership from a higher education perspective in order to serve ELLs:

You're Already a Leader

Much like Amy and Michelle describe, you are already a leader on behalf of ELLs in some ways even if you might not feel like one or aren't necessarily recognized as one (yet). While leadership is indeed more complex and my framework is still evolving, I find these four leadership actions have a direct correlation to supporting ELLs on an academic as well as socioemotional level. They draw from TESOL's new standard and are:

  1. Taking initiative to make changes and advocate
  2. Proactively serving as a resource
  3. Being an effective communicator
  4. Continuing your own professional development

These leadership actions definitely come into play when you might be the only ESOL teacher in a grade level, school, or multiple schools. You may also notice how one leadership skill that I describe below might also be present in another. For example, you'll need to be an effective communicator to proactively serve as a resource in support of ELLs and vice versa. As you read about these skills, consider how you may already possess these leadership skills and how they play out in your context.  

Examples of Situations in which ESOL Teachers Demonstrate Leadership

Leadership Actions

Example for Supporting ELLs

  1. Taking initiative to make changes and advocate for ELLs and yourself

A co-teaching team has different ideas on how to utilize the ESOL teacher's skills in the third grade team. The ESOL teacher senses something is not quite right and thinks about her approach to addressing the issue. At the beginning of the grade level planning meeting, the ESOL teacher helps establish norms, rules, and expectations for the meeting. When the conversation gets a bit heated, she refocuses the group on the tasks at hand (determining how to utilize the ESOL teacher's skills) while recognizing the team members' emotions. The group then successfully determines a path forward to support the grade's ELLs thanks to the ESOL teacher's leadership.

  1. Proactively serving as a resource

An ESOL teacher consults with her school's test coordinator early in the academic year to find out what supports are allowed on state content exams for ELLs to increase their accessibility for ELLs. The ESOL teacher ensures that he is included in assessment planning meetings in which state content tests are discussed. The ESOL teacher works with the guidance department to produce a list of the ESOL students, their English language proficiency levels, and the state assessments they'll be taking that year. The ESOL teacher collaborates with the students' content teachers to develop a plan for which students receive which supports on their assessments and in instruction throughout the year. The ESOL teacher follows up with school administrators to ensure ELL parents are informed of the supports in their home languages and, in some cases, with a phone call in their home languages.  

  1. Being an effective communicator

In an IEP meeting with teachers and parents of an ELL, the ESOL teacher asks the ELL parents to sit at the head of the table, signaling respect for them. She is cognizant of making eye contact with the ELL parents and makes sure she does not interrupt them when they speak. She arranges for an interpreter to be present at the meeting and spends time briefing the interpreter on what is going to take place during the meeting before the meeting begins. She is sure to recognize how the parents support their daughter's education and are involved in her schooling. In meeting with ELL parents, she makes them feel welcome, which develops their mutual trust.

  1. Continuing your own professional development

An ESOL teacher learns about a webinar on ELL research and strategies that's happening after the school day in two weeks. He asks his grade level colleagues and assistant principal if they would like to join him for the webinar. During the webinar, he takes notes and also asks his colleagues to share their take-aways and questions that remain. A few days after the webinar, the ESOL teacher shares his group's learning at a staff meeting. He then approaches his assistant principal to begin a book study to delve into the strategies further, inviting a larger group of colleagues and leading the book study sessions.

Four Steps to Develop Leadership Opportunities

So, now that you've explored the concept of leadership in service of ELLs a bit more, it's time to think of how you might position yourself as a leader within your context or environment. Some of what you're already doing may feel like more of a responsibility to serve your ELLs, but it's most likely actually leadership. These four steps can get you started.

Step 1: Using the table above, reflect upon the leadership actions in which you regularly take part.

It's a good idea to first increase your awareness of the leadership skills you already possess and then build upon those skills to make positive changes occur for ELLs. To brainstorm some ideas about all of the different responsibilities and skills you have, take a look at this blog post on writing your "elevator speech," as well as Susan Lafond's tips about preparing for an ESL job interview.  You may also find some helpful ideas in the NEA advocacy toolkit, All In! How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners. Consider which of the four leadership actions you take part in on a regular basis.

Advocating for English Learners

For in-depth discussion of advocacy on behalf of ELLs, see Diane's book on the subject, Advocating for English Learners.

Step 2: Answer these reflection questions.

1. What actions am I strongest in? Give an example.

2. What actions do I need to grow in? Give an example.

3. What implications are there for my leadership in advocating for and supporting ELLs?

4. What is my sphere of influence and how can I expand it?

Step 3: Solicit input from others.

After you've done some reflection independently, another step that might help you identify or more clearly define your leadership skills is a conversation with a colleague or other school or district leaders. Consider asking a trusted colleague who knows the roles you play in your position what kinds of leadership they see you demonstrate.

If you can find an ELL director or leader, that's another great resource since that person will have a clear understanding of your role and what you bring to the table and may even be able to point out some areas of leadership you are demonstrating that you hadn't considered. These conversations could happen as part of observation, coaching, or evaluation, or independently in a more informal setting.

You may then wish to continue the conversation with your building leaders in order to gain their insight or increase their awareness of your role.  Since administrators at the building level may not have as much experience recognizing and supporting leadership on behalf of ELLs, it may be up to you to point out ways in which you are serving as a leader that are having a positive impact on your building's ELLs – and in that case, the more preparation you do for that meeting, the better! 

Even if their ELL experience is limited, however, administrators may have some ideas to share about ways in which teachers are already leading that might be going unnoticed once they better understand what you do. As leadership is an area in which most teachers are typically not trained, administrators can support this process by drawing from their own leadership skills and helping to recognize these skills in their teachers. This is a great way to signal to administrators that you are taking your responsibilities seriously and are interested in playing a greater leadership role – as well as to make sure they understand what you do every day!

Step 4: Create an action Plan.

Choose one area of leadership to target for your next steps. Break it down into three objectives and brainstorm how to meet your objectives to develop that area of leadership in service of ELLs.

Leadership Area in Which I'll Focus: ________________________

Leadership Objective

Step to Achieve Objective

Success Criteria

Time Frame

Resources Needed

I will…





I will…





I will…





Opportunities to Hone Your Leadership Skills Even More

  • Start a committee to advocate on behalf of ELLs in your school

○ Start small: Join a committee that has already formed to share your expertise and bring in an ELL perspective

  • Suggest a new policy or practice to an empathetic administrator to increase equity for ELLs

○ Start small: Begin with an empathetic colleague and run the idea by him or her first, joining forces with that colleague to approach the administrator together.

  • Serve as an adjunct professor in a college or teach a PD course in your district

○ Start small: Find a class in a local college or in your district and offer to be a guest speaker on ELL education, strategies, or advocacy in one class.

○ Start small: Review the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' English as a New Language Standards and think about how you see your expertise and leadership skills reflected in the standards.

Reflection Questions

  1. How did Dr. Amy Hewlett-Olatunde's piece on leadership at the K-12 level resonate with you?
  2. What are your impressions of Dr. Michelle Benegas' thoughts on leadership and advocacy in teacher education programs?
  3. What is your take-away in terms of your own leadership after reading this blog post?


In my work with ELLs, I have witnessed many educators rise up as leaders who successfully advocate for ELLs, serve as an ally to ELLs and their families, and take a front seat in bringing about positive changes for ELLs. It's truly inspiring to witness teachers serve ELLs on multiple levels, expanding their sphere of influence to serve as change agents on behalf of their students.

Hopefully this blog post has given you some space to reflect on the many leadership skills you possess to support ELLs. ELLs' success depends not only on teachers using effective strategies but also the leadership skills they bring to support and extend their work with colleagues. In this era of challenging standards and increased expectations for ELLs, as well as increased pressures on school staff, your leadership will be crucial to bringing about much-needed changes for ELLs. I encourage you to let me know how your leadership continues to evolve!

Here are a few resources you may wish to consult to reflect upon your own leadership and how it affects the ELLs you work with.



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I teach college level early childhood/childhood students. The course is "Culturally and Linguistically Different Learners." We focus on US born citizens as well as ENL students as learners. I've been seeking readings on advocacy as part of the course goals. I found a lot that was helpful here.

Joy Mosher, Childhood/Early Childhood, SUNY Cortland.

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