Have I ever gone through the steps that led to my teaching ELL?
Back in August 2016, the day before school started, my principal walked into my classroom, which he rarely does, and I said, fearfully, “you’re not taking my pre-calc class, are you?” because I rarely get to teach precalc and principals only walk into your room when they’re asking for something you won’t like, and the only thing I wouldn’t like was losing my precalc class. The other upper math teachers complain, which isn’t fair, because the state tests show my kids do as well as theirs on average (their top kids do reeeeeeally well, but the rest of the kids do horribly, while my top kids do well, but everyone else does respectably.)
But no, he wasn’t taking my precalc class, he was taking my prep period. The non-tenured mostly ELL teacher who was on track to for termination in the upcoming year had taken a new job with less notice than is legally allowed. It’s not well known, but teachers aren’t allowed to quit without some degree of notice, usually between 30 and 60 days, unless the district gives permission. Otherwise, they won’t be able to teach anywhere else in the state. My principal and the English department felt the rejected teacher should be allowed to take a new job under the circumstances. English teachers hate taking extra preps, but they scrounged up two volunteers and suddenly, someone remembered I have an English credential.
So with no notice, I started ELL instruction. I had four classes planned for the following semester. But despite an ongoing hiring campaign, no one would accept the job. With a whole bunch of juggling, Bart was handed one of my trig classes and I taught ELL the entire year. That was year one. Articles: The Things I Teach, Not Really Teaching English,ELL isn’t Language Instruction
I expected it to be an anomaly. I loved the kids, and my first, large, ELL class remains my favorite both for the students and the experience. I’m currently teaching Marshall and Kit (from the Things I Teach), both of them juniors, doing well. Juan, Anj, and Tran are all academic rock stars, with several AP classes (including English) to their credit. But the political and instructional aspects of ELL bothered me tremendously, and I was happy to be out of it.
Then almost exactly a year ago right now, an AVP walked into my classroom just a week before the first term ended, just as I had convinced myself I was actually going to get the pay cut of a normal prep period, to ask me if I’d help them out by teaching the ELL Connections class. She didn’t say why. In fact, I’d asked the principal a month earlier to confirm that there’d be no additional class coming my way, and he assured me there were no plans to use me. Which, well, wasn’t true. He couldn’t mention that he was in the process of firing the primary ELL teacher, the 20 year expert, which he achieved in three months from start to finish, including investigation. They collapsed two of her courses into one, and gave me the other.
The second year (2017-2018) wasn’t particularly enjoyable. The kids had hated the fired teacher, and had enjoyed three months of substitutes and movies. None of them had any particular interest in learning English. I had two Chinese boys who wouldn’t (and won’t) stay off their phones, one Afghani girl who liked (and likes) to cause trouble, a German girl who was seriously pissed off at her dad for bringing her to America (I hear she’s forgiven him), a Mexican boy from my previous year who went from being the weakest student to the second strongest simply because all the others moved on, a Salvadoran girl who was friendly and helpful and hardworking unless she wasn’t, and three Guatemalans who chattered constantly in Spanish, generally refusing to even try to speak English.
Simply getting them to enjoy being a class, to tolerate each other, took a long time, although I’m pleased to say that the Disney/dead animals day was the turnaround I took it for. But as far as actual progress in learning English went, there was none. In fact, I didn’t spend much time teaching them English at all, not directly. I taught content in other areas and got them thinking and talking, which trust me was more than enough of an accomplishment. But even if I’d wanted to teach actual English, I had no curriculum. No books. All the stuff from last year disappeared from my old room (I was using the previous teacher’s room, until the kids asked if we could just stay in mine).
One significant improvement over the year before, though, was Miko.
Miko was a science teacher with an English credential. But he loathes the new state science curriculum. So he volunteered to be the permanent replacement that I’d been temporarily, and now he’s an English teacher with a science credential. He likes running things, he likes after-school activities, teaching drama, cheerleading, stuff like that. You might have noticed that between the two of us, we could open a school. He could be in charge, even.
So after the 20 year expert got fired, Miko was put in charge, and made changes that I’d advised the year before. He reduced the infuriating “three English classes” requirement, arguing as I had (but more successfully) that just two classes would give students needed time to build credits towards graduation. He was considerably more aggressive about moving students up into second year, ending the absurd practice of forcing highly educated students who read English at a 9th grade to learn “cup”, “stand”, “pencil”, and “sit”. And, as a guy who likes to be in charge, he took a very hands-on approach to the kids’ status, so I had someone to talk to about behavior problems and frustrations.
I apparently impressed him, too, because he asked me to teach two courses of ELL in the next year (2018-19). How to put this politely? I demurred, saying that I’d be happy to help out if another teacher quits (hahahaha! What are the odds?), but that math was my bag, thanks.
I didn’t see much need for me. The other, brand new, ELL teacher was let go. The ELL specialist (non-teacher) was leaving and we’d hired a new one. The principal decided to use experienced English teachers, non-ELL, to take over the classes rather than try to hire new teachers again. So Miko would teach first year and Connections, Karinna, who taught AP English, would pick up second year, and Joanne, also an honors teacher, would take third year. A full-fledged ELD department would be created, with Miko and the newly hired ELL specialist, and Karinna and Joanne in both.
So I left for summer thinking I’d be teaching two precalc classes, or even three, which I’d strongly requested, maybe a trig or algebra 2. Four blocks again, definitely–the 33% premium now for nine semesters running!–and no ELL. Alas, no history either. We’ve been hiring up in that area, so I won’t be teaching US History possibly ever again. Sad.
While I wasn’t crazy about the kids, I still felt the year finished productively, given where I started. At the time, I felt it was a good way to leave the topic.
We teachers were notified of our schedule for the year by email, from yet another AVP, the week before school started. My note said:
- ELL 1
- Algebra 2
- Algebra 2
WHAT THE HELL! I sent off a cranky–too cranky–note to that AVP and hurt her feelings, which wasn’t my intent and I apologized later, saying I wasn’t blaming her. I was just pissed off, having been reassured that my agitation for more pre-calc had been heard. Why no pre-calc? Well, because one of the pre-calc classes was second block, and they needed me to teach ELL. OK, we’ll get back to that. Why no pre-calc? Well, because Chuck had though the fourth block class was mostly juniors and seniors and better suited to me than Wing, who got the pre-calc class. I gave her a look, and she thought it a good idea to give that pre-calc class to me.
Now, why was I teaching ELL again?
Well, the newly hired specialist had quit. Not quit, but gone…oh, I don’t know, fishing. I don’t remember the details. Off to another school somewhere. But we needed a specialist. So Miko stepped up. Told you, he likes to run things. He is still teaching the Connections class, and his drama class, but being specialist takes time, so he gets a block off. And so, here I am. Out of the tree, but still in the car.
I told Miko I wanted curriculum and a reasonably homogeneous class. I eventually got curriculum. I’ll discuss the class another day. But for all the frustrations, this year has been much more enjoyable. Miko is in charge, and moves over-qualified students out of my first year class at a gratifying pace. I have a curriculum with textbooks and workbooks, as well as an online program. We have an over-arching framework that allows us to focus in on kids who need a particular skill. For example, second and third year students who needed grammar focus get additional time in small group instruction, while others got practice time listening to long, involved stories and answering questions about it, just like they would in “real school”.
We’ve had several days of professional development which has been reasonably useful. And having a small department that allows us all to discuss the craziness that is ELL policy has been most cheering. I’m part of a group, one that considers me valuable as opposed to a dangerous renegade, which is a pleasant change.
Note well that the school hired two ELL teachers and fired both of them, then fired its 20 year expert, then hired and lost a specialist–all in less than two years.
I say again–hiring, not firing, is the pain point.
Here’s irony: As a math teacher, I am longest-standing ELL teacher at my school. I speak no languages other than English, yet I am the designated entry class for students who speak no English at all.
Apparently, I’m pretty good at it.