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Eliminating The “Invisible Tax” on Multilingual Educators in K–12 Education

by Sarah Said |

My career in the field of teaching English as a second language (ESL) and bilingual education has been a very rewarding one.  But for those who know me well, I have ping-ponged between different roles, mostly due to the fact that I have struggled with extreme burnout. Let’s be real: There are many “asks” of multilingual educators in today’s world — from translation to support with discipline of bilingual students to mundane requests for language resource teachers to sub for general education teachers — on top of the instruction, teaching, coaching, and assessment we need to do daily. Our hands are full, and yet we struggle with saying “no.”

Teachers Are Leaving

Most likely, you didn’t just wake up one day and say “I am going to become an educator of multilingual learners.” We do this work for many reasons. We have a love of language and a passion to support students while increasing their language proficiency. Our experiences create a sense of empathy that we have toward our students, which makes our need to bridge the equity gap real.

With all of this in mind, why are teachers then abandoning this work? In a 2023 article published in Education Week, Ileana Najarro reports that between 2018 and 2020, the number of ESL-certified teachers in the United States decreased by 10.4%. This, despite multilingual learners of English being one of the fastest growing populations of students in the country. Districts across the country offer incentives for English language teachers, and states make easier pathways for bilingual teachers to obtain teaching credentials, and still positions aren’t being filled. Retention rates for all teachers are at an all-time low, which is making it harder for districts to retain a bilingual teacher over all. But, what makes work so challenging in the world of English language education, and for multilingual educators in this sphere, specifically?

What Is the Invisible Tax?

The “invisible tax” that multilingual educators face makes it much harder to retain them. An invisible tax is when institutions give employees more unpaid tasks because of their identity. One reason for this is that many multilingual educators come from the same cultural and linguistic backgrounds as their students, which leads schools to unconsciously give them more labor than their peers. These tasks can include:

    • Translation of school documents and parent phone calls
    • More appearances at after-hours school events for translation assistance
    • Having to adapt English curricula to meet bilingual needs because the school did not purchase a bilingual curriculum
    • Looking for resources in students’ home language because the school did not purchase them
    • Translating assessments
    • Mentoring students of the same background
    • Supporting discipline for students of the same background
    • Creating materials and leading professional development on diversity, equity, inclusion, or specific cultural topics
    • Taking on more English language pull-out or push in groups
    • Taking on more coteaching supports because “they speak the language”

Additionally, English language service providers in general are often asked to do tasks that their general education peers are not asked to do, such as extra duties — drop-off duties, lunch, recess, dismissal, substitute teaching, extra assessments, and office work.

Yes, it is easy for someone to just say “no” to extra work. But, educators have big hearts and care about their school communities. They also don’t want to appear noncompliant — so they quietly experience burnout, then quit.

(For more on the invisible tax, see another blog I wrote on how it affects all educators.)

What Changes Can Schools Make?

There are many changes that schools and districts can make to ensure that their multilingual educators (as well as their monolingual English language educators) can have more balance:

    • Ensure teachers have linguistically appropriate materials and curricula.
    • Pay teachers for extra “asks” related to translation, mentorship, and discipline.
    • Pay teachers for translation and family engagement needs.
    • Never assume that a teacher is willing to give professional development on certain topics based on their identity.
    • Value teacher expertise in instructional methods beyond their identity.
    • Ask all specialists to support additional school-wide functional duties, not just your multilingual staff — all services are important.

The invisible tax often stems from implicit biases and institutional racism. Reflecting on ourselves allows us to understand how we can make better choices for the educators in our schools. We can eliminate this tax by working together.


About the author

Sarah Said

Sarah Said is an educator who has served in various roles: teacher, assistant principal, dean, curriculum coordinator, and multilingual coordinator. Sarah is an advocate for the students she serves and is a strong voice in education. She is currently an ELL English teacher at Dream Academy High School in SD U-46 Elgin. She has been published in various publications, such as Learning for Justice, EdWeek Teacher, The Teaching Channel, and Edutopia.

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