"To Be Equal, You Need to Give Them More"

Cristina Alfaro and Natalie Kuhlman tell the story of Xochil, a middle school ESL teacher, who struggles to educate the administration about the needs of English learners with varying degrees of education in their home language. See Jenelle Reeves' Out of the Box article, "Starting Conversations with Content Area Peers," Essential Teacher, March 2006, pp. 24-26.

Xochil, who has just a few years of teaching experience, teaches English to newcomers in a middle school in California, in the United States.

I have newcomers who come with a very high level of Spanish and other students who come with no schooling because of their reality. The "no education" has been very difficult.

Are Teachers Prepared for the Reality of the Classroom?

My credential program did a great job in preparing me to work with this group of students in the sense that we had lots of culture classes. We also studied the laws and propositions that impact these students. But in a way my teacher education program did not prepare me for the actual reality of the classroom because we did not focus on or discuss students who are recent immigrants with no previous schooling.

Early in her career, Xochil found herself teaching students who were primarily recent immigrants but who had varying degrees of proficiency and education in their home language, predominantly Spanish. She frequently had to teach very basic educational skills, which she found challenging because the prepackaged curriculum did not address this aspect of education.

Literally these students did not know how to count. I had to work with counting by putting pencils in front of them and having my students count them. I had to use strategies as basic as this.

Administrative Roadblocks

Enrollment was an even bigger challenge.

We started off the year with good-size classes, twenty to twenty-five in separate grades and for each content area …. because of numbers, we had to combine the seventh and eighth graders …. I feel [the administration is] setting them up for failure because they will not be exposed to all their grade-level standards to be able to achieve well on the tests.

Because the number of English language learners was small, Xochil was told, it was easier to combine classes. But she didn’t think this was fair: the English language learners needed more support and smaller classes since they were expected to perform as well as their English-speaking peers.

If my students need more, you need to give them more for it to be equal.

Xochil’s frustration has grown as she watches the administration make decisions that do not address the needs of the English language learners. She strongly believes administrators should create classes based on research and not on numbers; to do so, they must understand the varied levels and needs of these learners.

Another way in which Xochil feels English learners don't have equal status is in their teachers' schedules. While all the other departments (e.g., math, science, English) have the same preparation periods so they can plan together. "We don’t even get a common prep period where we could even discuss the issues," Xochil points out.

A Path for Change, Little by Little

How does Xochil deal with these problems? A professor's comment has pointed out a possible path for change.

My professor ... said that it’s simply a question of posing questions to the administration. It’s not really telling them what to do. I have tried to pose more questions to get the principal and staff to think critically. I’ve been doing this little by little just to see how they react to me when I pose the difficult questions.

She asked questions when the administration requested that she raise the test scores of the English language learners. She no longer stays quiet because, in order to be ethically true to her students, she feels that she must speak out.

I told them, "You want curriculum for everybody at their level and you want their needs to be met. Is this what we are doing for English language learners?" The answer to that was just a smirk and "Well, we have to deal with what we have." My students are considered low status, and I alone can’t change this thinking, but I can continue to pose questions and develop curriculum appropriate for my students.

The implication is that the administration sees English language learners as having deficits.

Xochil discusses these issues with colleagues who are also concerned about best practices for students who don’t fit the norm. What keeps her going are the rewards, for example, when she hears students begin to take risks in English.

There are days where I am so angry at school, and there are other days where things go well, when there’s a kid who just said three words in English ... that would make my week or even the month.

The students are learning. And she and the other teacher who is working with these students are doing everything they can to be better prepared, including taking workshops at the County Office of Education. One of their goals this year is to educate the parents about the [English language development, or ELD] program.

The school has a bad reputation with parents, and some have switched to a different middle school. So one of our school goals is to make our school better ... so this won’t happen next year. We are working with the county [education department] and the programs.

The issue of school support in the school for English learners will also be addressed this year through posing questions.

Our school is in its third year of trying to close the achievement gap [for English language learners]. We’ve been audited, and one of the main concerns there was that [the auditors] did not see any support for English language learners except in our classroom.

An Ethical Commitment

Xochil, her colleague, and teachers like them will make school a better place for English learners. But it is a constant fight. Other teachers in middle schools aren’t sufficiently trained to work with English language learners, nor do they necessarily want to be; they just want to teach math or science. But teaching isn’t just about content; it is about the students in the classrooms and making the world a better place for them. Kudos to teachers like Xochil who are trying to make it happen.

Cristina Alfaro (calfaro@mail.sdsu.edu) is a biliteracy professor at San Diego State University, in the United States. Natalie A. Kuhlman (nkuhlman@mail.sdsu.edu), past president of California TESOL and past board member of TESOL, is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University.