Civic Servants: ESOL Teacher

Introducing the Job

First, a note on terminology. Three terms are often used in connection with this job: English as a Second Language (ESL), English Language Learners (ELL) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). ESL, while still the most frequently used term, has recently shown signs of fading. ELL, often used for ESL learners in the general classroom, has also been used as an alternative to ESL. ESOL is gaining acceptance as a more inclusive term altogether. To minimize confusion, we use ESOL.

About five million (ten percent of) public school students need language assistance programs to attain English proficiency, with the lowest grades having the highest needs. The ratio of ESOL students varies significantly by state, with California, Nevada and Texas the highest (all over 15 percent). West Virginia, at less than one percent, has the lowest ratio. The leading home language for ESOL students is Spanish (over 75 percent).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about two percent of all teachers are defined as primarily ESOL teachers, that is, their main teaching assignment is ESOL. Over 82 percent of ESOL teachers have a major, minor or certification in ESOL. With NCES estimates that 25 percent of all public school students will be ESOL students by 2025, the need for more ESOL teachers will become even more acute.

One Public Servant’s Story

A modest ranch in a modest neighborhood located just beyond the central city’s borders. The house has a small front yard with a sparse lawn, a few shrubs and a tree. Its back yard is fenced in with a few sundry plants, a ramshackle shed and a small chicken coop.

Inside, there are three children, the oldest, a son aged 10—Mateo—and twin girls aged 7. Their father lives with them, but their mother vanished some time ago. Their father is a farm worker who moved to the US from Mexico eleven years ago, but has yet to obtain his papers. Together, they have occupied this house for nearly five years. For the twins, it is the only home they have ever known.

The father checks his watch. They are behind schedule (again). He shouts for the children to get moving. They scramble to the kitchen table for breakfast. The father and twins share a breakfast tortilla. Mateo devours a bowl of his favorite cereal.

“I have to get to work and you have to get to school,” admonishes the father. “You need to start getting up earlier.”

The father almost always spoke English around them. At first, it was a nuisance, so much harder than speaking Spanish in the house. Sometimes, their father would speak to one of them in Spanish, when he wanted to express something personal, but never as a group (unless he lost his temper). His English was far less proficient than his Spanish, but he wanted his children to become Americans. In his mind, that meant learning English.

The children made quick work of their breakfasts. They collected their personal items for school, a smart phone and video game for Mateo, colored pencils and hair clips for the twins. They shoved their homework and lunches into their backpacks.

Just then, they heard a loud knock on the front door. They looked at their father who went to the door. They heard their father greeting someone on the front step.

They then heard a flat voice from outside addressing their father, “Are you Santiago Perez?”

Their father responded in halting English, “Yes, I am.”

“Please step outside, sir.”

“Why?” asked their father, keeping the screen door closed.

“Please step outside, now,” the man on the step repeated, his voice rising in anger.

“I have to get my children off to school,” said the father.

“If you don’t step outside immediately, your children will have bigger issues than getting to school.”

The father hesitated and then stepped slowly outside. His children rushed to the front door. They saw three black and white vehicles parked on the street and five or six men in the front yard. All of the men were wearing black vests with white block lettering Police and ICE over their T-shirts. They wore khaki pants. Some wore baseball hats. All had pistols in holsters.

The father stepped onto the front walk, paused and looked at his children over his shoulder. He somberly told his children to go to school. Too terrified to move, they remained huddled together, staring at their father. His face had an expression that they had never seen before.

“Put your hands above your head and step toward us,” commanded the lead officer.

Their father obliged, walking slowly towards the lead officer.

“Get on your knees!” ordered the lead officer.

Again, their father did as he was told.

One officer approached their father and quickly put cuffs around his wrists. Two officers then helped him rise and escorted him to one of the vehicles. Their father looked back at the children just before he disappeared into the van. The twins began to cry as the officers returned to their vehicles and left without a word.

The oldest wondered what to do. He noticed some of their neighbors standing outside their homes looking their way. He tried to console his sobbing sisters, “Don’t worry. It’s probably just a misunderstanding. Papi will be home tonight.”

Then, he took charge, “Papi told us to go to school. Let’s go.” He held the front door open for his sisters and they descended the front steps. They walked together to the bus stop.

Upon arriving at school, the three children went to their respective classes. But, at 10 am, they saw each other at their ESOL class. They sat together among about 20 other students, mostly Mexican, but also Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and Vietnamese. They told their classmates what had happened to their father. They waited quietly for their ESOL teacher, Ms. Evans.

Sarah Evans is an elementary school ESOL teacher. Once a general classroom teacher, she had obtained her ESOL teaching certification and made the shift over five years ago, not long after moving to North Carolina from California. She had enjoyed being an elementary school teacher, but, while ESOL instruction shared some of the same drawbacks as general classroom teaching—like EOGs—it afforded her a better opportunity to help students over time.

She was pleasantly surprised by the school district’s commitment to immigrant students. Despite its location in an area that favors nativist politicians, it does a lot for immigrant children. It honors different cultures, including many long overlooked. It offers traditional dress days. It makes home visits to help get immigrant parents involved with school activities. It works closely with the county to focus social services on helping immigrant children. It tries to make them feel at home as they acclimate to a new country and culture.

She loves the way that the ESOL program allows her to get to know families. Unlike a general classroom teacher, she gets to work with her students well beyond the academic year end. If she has multiple students from one family, her involvement with that family can last years. She makes family visits. She develops strategies for overcoming the barriers to parental involvement, such as tough work schedules, limited internet availability and poor English skills. She shares the immense pride these families take in their children’s academic achievements.

Most of all, Sarah loves her students. A wide variety of ages and backgrounds, all struggling with their grasp of English, assigned to her after failing the district’s placement test. Four days every week, the assigned students attend a 40-minute ESOL class, often breaking into small groups listening, speaking, reading and writing. They stay with her until they acquire the requisite English skills. Her total docket averages about 100 kids, 70 of which she sees daily in small classes of 15 to 20 students per class.

Most of her students speak Spanish. Most are from Mexico, but some are from other parts of Latin America. Some from other parts of the world entirely. Russians. Vietnamese. Somalians. Different cultural backgrounds. Different family situations. Different personalities and capabilities. Many struggle to maintain their grades and confidence.

Sarah tries to give her kids what a great teacher—her third-grade teacher—once gave her. An insatiable curiosity about the world. The humility and confidence to challenge herself. A thirst for reading and learning. Ultimately, her third-grade teacher helped her discover her own passion for teaching. Sarah thought about their last conversation when her former teacher retired. Over the years, her conversations with her third-grade teacher helped her understand how to motivate her own students and become a better teacher herself.

ESOL has given Sarah the freedom to teach. To try and adapt different methods, such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which uses real-world problem-solving to encourage students to fluently communicate and Total Physical Response (TPR) which uses physical movement to convey language (e.g., an exaggerated frown to teach the word sadness.)

She has learned to recognize the sequential stages of learning English as a second language. First, silent absorption of the new language. Next, the early verbal response to the new language followed by emerging speech and comprehension. Finally, intermediate and advanced fluency. This understanding has helped Sarah avoid taking student resistance personally. It has helped her learn that English acquisition, like nature, must take its course with every student.

Through experimentation, Sarah has learned and even devised effective ESOL teaching techniques. Videos, charades, labels and word walls. Relatable visuals and realia (e.g., twigs for a tree lesson). Technology. The Can-Do Chart. A daily journal. She is continually learning new ways to help her students acquire English. And she has learned more about her own abilities, not just as a teacher, but as a singer, actress and performance artist.

Most of all, Sarah has learned how to connect with students on a personal level. To get to know them and their families. To learn about their cultural backgrounds and use cultural hooks (e.g., videos, art, maps, flags, recipes or music). To correct mistakes with patience and compassion. To reward practice and good work. To speak slowly, enunciate clearly and avoid phrases like “do you understand?” To encourage them to take chances and overcome setbacks.

Mateo and the other children watched as Sarah Evans, their ESOL teacher, entered the classroom room and laid some materials on her desk for today’s lesson. She then stepped in front of her desk, looked over the room, smiled and cheerfully exclaimed, “Good Morning!”

There was an awkward pause and then a muted chorus of high-pitched voices, “Good morning, Mrs. Evans.”

Sarah could not help but notice the subdued response. She looked at the children again, this time more closely. She saw Mateo and his sisters sitting together with long faces. The other children in her class looked no happier. Something had happened.

She asked, “Is everything alright?”


She asked again, “Is everything okay?”


Something was indeed wrong. This time she looked right at the three siblings. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Some stirring in seats. A few shared glances. Slowly, one of the other students raised her hand.

“Yes, Sofia. What is it?”

Sofia, a small eleven-year old girl, hesitated, began slowly and paused. Then, with more confidence, she uttered, “Mateo’s papi was picked up by ICE this morning.”

Mateo’s sisters started to weep again. “Why did they take Papi?” cried one, “He’s not a criminal.”

Now, all three children were crying. Mateo tried to comfort his siblings, but his stoicism surrendered to his emotions. Other children burst into tears. The rest looked down at the floor, quietly, not knowing what to do or say.

Sarah knew that today would not be a routine classroom day. Her students were no longer just students. They were children who were scared and needed help.

Sarah used her cellphone to call the principal. “We have an ICE situation. My kids need help.”

Within moments, the principal appeared at the door of her classroom. Sarah stepped outside to bring her principal up to speed.

The principal quickly laid out a plan. “I’ll call administration for help. In the meantime, I’ll send a counselor to sit with the kids and answer their questions. Once administration sends more counselors, we can break up the class into smaller groups. They’ve been traumatized. We can’t answer all of their questions, but we need to give them hope.”

Over the next several days, the children waited for news of their parents.  It turned out that Mateo’s father was one of several men arrested by ICE.

Would Mateo’s father be deported? Would other parents be arrested or deported? Would they be released pending a hearing? If so, when would the hearing take place? Could they afford a lawyer to represent themselves?

Sarah and the school wrestled with the questions surrounding the children. What would happen to them if the parents were deported? Where would they live? Where would they go to school? How would they survive?

Within a week, the district discovered a relative of Mateo’s—an aunt (his father’s sister) living in Virginia. District officials arranged to have Mateo and his sisters moved there to live with their aunt. Mateo’s aunt enrolled Mateo and his sisters in a public school near her home. Mateo’s father was indeed deported and uprooted from their lives, perhaps forever, but his children had a home in America.

From time to time, Sarah remembered. She had had so many students over the years that it had become increasingly difficult to remember their faces, let alone their names. Still, she treasured her many years as an ESOL teacher. The memories of her former students comforted her.

Her thoughts drifted to Mateo. When he was younger, long before the ICE raid, he was so immature and unsteady. Always trying on new personalities—class clown, would be jock, book worm, even leader—like a change of clothes. Never seeming to settle on one for very long.

The ICE raid had been so traumatic for Mateo and his sisters. The chilling experience of watching their father arrested. Then forced to move to another state. Learning later of their father’s deportation. Their journey could hardly have been more perilous.

Sarah remembered that, a few years later, she had received a call from Mateo. He was in high school in Virginia and had just been accepted into a prestigious theater program. He told Sarah about his dreams of becoming a stage performer, stand-up comic or Broadway actor. He said his sisters were doing well in middle school and that his father would soon become a citizen.

Several years had passed since that call. Sarah wondered about Mateo. She hoped that he had realized his dreams. She hoped that Mateo’s father had been able to see what Mateo had become.

Recapping the Organization

There are about 15,000 school systems in America, of which nearly 90 percent are school districts. In some states, school districts receive some degree of oversight from cities or counties. In most states, school districts are independent governmental entities. In nearly all states, school districts are governed by state laws and regulations and receive most of their funding from state and local sources.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are over 130,900 K-12 schools in the US of which about 87,500 are elementary schools and 26,700 are secondary schools (the rest are combined or other models). There are about 98,500 public schools, including 21,400 high schools, 15,900 junior high or middle schools and 53,900 elementary schools (the rest are combined or other models).