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Shifting Classroom Expectations

How can ESOL teachers navigate the different expectations they encounter in various classrooms and contexts? Sarah Lipinoga offers some strategies for adjusting and adapting. See Heather Linville’s Portal article, "The Three-Ring Classroom," Essential Teacher, December 2006, pp. 46-49.

Twelve sixth-grade students are seated at their desks, frantically writing in their journals before the three minutes for their "stop and jot" is up. Their copies of Cisnero's (1989) House on Mango Street are wedged open to the next page in our read-aloud. The timer sounds, and Yanury's hand shoots up to share her personal connection to the vignette "My Name" with the rest of the class.

Diego, seated directly across from me in his office in Buenos Aires, is informing me that he has recently decided to increase his English classes instead of studying for an MBA. Before we begin our lesson on gerunds versus infinitives, he explains his belief that development of his English fluency will more adequately prepare him for future employment than a business degree will.

At first glance, these disparate scenarios appear to have limited intersection. Yanury is an eleven-year-old English language learner attending a public school in the United States after her recent immigration from the Dominican Republic. Diego is a thirty-five-year-old Argentine business accountant who studies English in his home country. However, as a teacher of ESOL students, I am a common thread in both scenarios. They provide insight into the diverse classroom expectations within ESOL teaching and strategies that may help teachers navigate these expectations.

From the Traditional Classroom to the Office

The physical learning environment is the most tangible difference that ESOL teachers face when shifting contexts. Yanury learns in a typical school building, filled with books, desks, chalkboards, and other children who, at least ideally, all come to this space with the expectation of learning. Diego, on the other hand, learns in his office, filled with files, phones, computers, and other workers who go there to conduct business and, ideally, make a profit.

These diverging environments shift classroom expectations on two levels, requiring creative teaching solutions. The first entails the physical resources available to teach, such as boards for visual aids. In spaces lacking these resources, prepared visuals or emphases on available technologies enhance teaching. The second level includes the ability to create an effective learning environment, particularly in an office where conducting business often takes precedence over learning. In these instances, I need to negotiate realistic expectations for the office learning environment and ensure both parties meet them.

English for Academic Achievement, English for Job Potential

Students in both scenarios are studying English to open access to future opportunities, yet the varying contexts and timelines affect classroom expectations. When I move from one ESOL context to another, an awareness of student motivation, a fundamental facet of classroom expectations, provides insight on the modifications I must make.

As for all students within U.S. public schools, learning English is vital for Yanury's academic achievement, success on high-stakes standardized tests, and daily communication with non-Spanish speakers. In these circumstances, I need to focus on teaching a variety of English that is most applicable to her immediate surroundings and that scaffolds her English learning goals.

Diego has already achieved the English level necessary for his current employment and is interested in improving his fluency as a way of advancing in the future Argentine and global job market. For students like Diego, my teaching needs to reflect global English varieties. I need to teach beyond one variety of English and include texts, grammatical constructions, and media from native and nonnative English speakers worldwide.

Constant Shift, Constant Reflection

It is our responsibility as ESOL teachers to navigate the varying classroom expectations and adjust teaching accordingly. No matter where and whom I have taught, reflecting on my personal teaching philosophy has helped me understand how I, as a teacher, can best intersect with the given learning environment and sources of student motivation.

From teaching English in a native-speaking context to a classroom full of Latino students to teaching a single businessman in a non-English-speaking country, my teaching has revolved around fostering connections to my students' prior knowledge, providing a real-world context to learning, and incorporating aspects of the theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner 1987) into each class. Regardless of context, each new set of classroom expectations requires a constant shift.


Cisneros, S. 1989. The house on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books.

Gardner, H. 1987. The theory of multiple intelligences. Annals of Dyslexia 37:19-35.

Sarah Lipinoga ( is a doctoral student in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.

More Resources:

  • President's Message: October/November 1998
  • President's Message: June/July 1999
  • President's Message: February/March 2000
  • President's Message: June/July/August 2002
  • President's Message: September/October/November 2002