Instructional Coaching for English Language Educators

Ayanna Cooper reflects on the use of data to help drive instruction, which in turn can assist in professional development. See Linda New Levine's Communities of Practice column, "Teachers as Learning Partners," Essential Teacher, December 2008.

Working with mainstream and ESL teachers can be quite interesting. Assisting teachers with lesson plans, scheduling, and understanding new student assessments, while encouraging them to continue developing professionally, comes with the territory in my work as an instructional coach for educators of English language learners (ELLs). But sometimes you get a chance to experience the unexpected . . . like coaching a principal!

Last spring, while preparing to wrap up the school year, I had a meeting with a principal to discuss the ESL program at his school. I had met with him previously but not with the dual goal of both reflection and projection for the upcoming school year. The most enlightening part of the springtime meeting was watching him make decisions and ask questions that reflected his understanding of ELLs and their specific learning needs. I observed and listened like I had many times as a teacher, but this time my student was an administrator.

"What types of resources will help develop the students' vocabulary?" he asked me. "How can I support my teachers to develop their math teaching strategies? I have a new teacher coming aboard with a background in reading, and I have some ideas of how to best utilize her."

It fascinated me to see how this administrator was making decisions, encountering obstacles, and rethinking previous plans. The ability to self-correct and collaborate at the same time was something I had not witnessed from an administrator's perspective. Even more important were the tools I brought with me to aid in that process: the data from ACCESS (the annual English language proficiency assessment given in Georgia, in the United States), which I had disaggregated by proficiency and grade level. I would never classify myself as someone who loves math; I struggle with statistics, but I have found my niche in interpreting data. Data does not have to be considered another four-letter word. In fact, I have begun to understand and appreciate the buzz phrase data-driven instruction, but from an English language educator’s perspective. 

As the principal and I discussed his school's ELLs by focusing on their scores from the ACCESS test, trends emerged from the data that spoke volumes. We were able to see that, compared to the other grade levels, the incoming first-grade students were predominately functioning on the entering level of language proficiency. We knew that this ultimately required specific attention to first-grade teachers and their students. It also confirmed for us the importance and critical need for support at the kindergarten level, where a majority of the ELLs are exposed to English for the first time despite being born in the United States.

At the same time we began to discuss the models of instruction and the constraints that sometimes come along with them. Was a pullout and more intensive model better for those students? Was an inclusive and coteaching model best? What electronic resources did the school have, and to what extent were they being used? We hashed out ideas and sample schedules with the goal of assuring that the students would be given the best possible chance at acquiring English language proficiency and content area knowledge.

As a coach I continued to remind myself that my role was to make suggestions and recommendations while allowing the principal to make the decisions. Although I was not the decision maker, I felt like the ultimate teacher because teachers equip their students with problem-solving strategies. The learning occurs at the application stage, when students know which strategy to use to solve problems and make decisions. I was witnessing instructional decisions being considered with the intention of directly supporting ELLs.

At the conclusion of the meeting, we reiterated the importance of teachers (and principals) understanding not only data but also how it can directly impact instruction if used correctly. As I walked out of the building, I felt like I had made a difference that afternoon. The instructional leader truly understood the importance of communication and of incorporating various forms of data. Now he would transfer that knowledge to his teachers.

In Similar English Learner Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?, Williams et al. (2007) confirm the importance of using data to impact instruction:

In higher-performing schools, teachers and principals reported consistently that principals personally and directly used a variety of student assessment data to work with teachers to improve instruction and individual student achievement. . . . In effect, it appears that EL [English language] students benefit when school staffs focus their instructional practice, frequently measure their progress with EL students in multiple ways, and hold themselves accountable for that progress. (p. 12)

A final implication from Williams et al. (2007) is the importance of preparation and professional development for English language teachers. These teachers wanted more professional development in the areas of English language arts, math, and specific English language development strategies. I believe this to be true in Georgia as well. Although teachers are afforded opportunities for professional development, what we don't know is the extent to which these opportunities are specific to English language teaching. Which organizations can provide this professional development? One such organization in my area is Georgia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (GATESOL), which hosts an annual conference for English language and mainstream teachers and is part of the regional affiliate Southeast TESOL, which also hosts an annual conference.

The school district I work for understands these issues and continues to offer support to teachers and administrators of ELLs. Some of my responsibilities as an instructional coach include providing professional development, data analysis, proper student identification, and appropriate accommodation implementation. With the effort to impact instruction, teacher support and administrative support must be provided simultaneously to have the greatest impact on student achievement. As the population of ELLs continues to increase throughout the United States, I hope conversations like this continue to happen between instructional support specialists, administrators, teachers, and parents. It is essential that we work together to support students, especially ELLs, in their future educational development.

Reference

Williams, T., Perry, M., Oregon, I., Brazil, N., Hakuta, K., Haertel, E., et al. (2007). Similar English learner students, different results: Why do some schools do better? Mountain View,CA: EdSource.

Ayanna Cooper (rarb4@msn.com) is an ELL instructional coach for the Premier Dekalb County (Georgia) Schools, in the United States.