I can remember the many emotions I felt when I became a newcomer ESL teacher. Excited because I was going to have different languages and countries represented in my classroom. Thrilled because I was going to truly have an ESL teaching experience – which in San Antonio is hard to find. Amazed because friendships were going to blossom, even those once separated by continents. Lastly, I was eager because I was going to be the first ever teacher for several of my 3rd and 4th grade students. With all these emotions, I really hadn’t thought about how I was going to teach my students; I was focused only on who I would be teaching. After the initial “honeymoon phase” of getting to know each other and building a classroom community, I was faced with my biggest educational challenge: Along with the linguistic and cultural diversity within my classroom, there were vast and varied educational needs. This sent me into a learning curve tailspin. What does instruction look like for 3rd and 4th grade refugee students with an interrupted (or no prior) education?
Knowing my Content and How to Teach it
I was confident in my understanding of second language development thanks to my prior teaching experiences and my education. I am very passionate about second language acquisition and love teaching second language learners. However, all of this did not prepare me for teaching in an elementary self-contained setting while being responsible for teaching English through content instruction. My responsibilities included developing my English Learners’ (ELs) understanding of grade-level math concepts while simultaneously teaching students to speak using rehearsed English responses during structured conversations. With my students’ varied educational experiences, they needed to focus on learning the number system in English and early math skills before they could learn about adding fractions. Some students had never interacted with books – especially texts that were written in a different directionality. With all my new responsibilities and my new learning curve, I knew I had to figure out what instruction was going to look like inside of my classroom.
Community, Commitment, and Student Learning
As a child in school, I never asked questions when I needed help. However, through my teaching experience I’ve learned that educators must actively seek out knowledge to improve their instruction. What has been especially helpful to me is building a Professional Learning Network (PLN) to encourage my professional growth. Luckily, this can take on many forms: it can be through meeting in person, webinars, blogs, social media, etc. Within the community I formed, I was able to collaborate with my reading and math specialists to build upon the content knowledge I needed to inform my teaching practice. From there, I developed unit plans to demonstrate how content skills scaffolded from grade levels, because teaching only grade-level content wasn’t appropriate for my students. I connected with other educators in the digital world through Twitter to share and learn best practices for my ELs. I reflected on my students’ learning and what I would do differently when lessons didn’t go as planned. I was committed to improving my instructional practices because I knew my students were capable of reaching the goals we created.
Student learning was my top priority over reaching a set proficiency level because I wanted my students to see their personal growth throughout the school year. Students felt empowered when they were able to see their progression from learning how to add single digit numbers to three digit regrouping. Classmates cheered when a peer spoke in English during class discussion or when they found the correct answer together in their collaborative learning groups during Kahoot! Students were astonished when they compared their beginning of the year writing to their written work at the end of the school year. The learning partnership that I fostered with my students not only led to their successes, but to my own professional growth as well.
A Pearl of Wisdom
Through sharing my story, I hope to shed light on the power of creating a community in order to reaffirm your commitment to teaching and student learning. Teacher, just like students, face challenges in our day-to-day work but we can focus and be thoughtful about how we respond. Through my interactions with colleagues, students, parents and my own family, I have the pearl of wisdom to always be encouraged when you feel discouraged. Be encouraged by the teaching profession’s shared commitment to student success and the knowledge we are all in this together.