Working the English Language Learners is much more than just teaching a language. The job by its very nature becomes a combination of social worker, employment counselor, cultural liaison, ambassador, nurse, chauffeur, and sometimes surrogate parent. (Not because the parents are abandoning their role, but often may not understand what is expected of parents in their new country.) One additional critical role that ESL/ESOL/ bilingual teachers play is that of the voice for the voiceless.
Because we know what services and programs will be beneficial for our students, we end up being the squeaky wheel asking for more grease! Our students and their parents are usually so grateful for what is given to them that they may not realize what more could be offered. They may not realize that a corner of the library or an itinerate tutor two days a week is not acceptable. They often don't understand the complicated process of selecting and applying for post-secondary options. Completing a FAFSA application is overwhelming; writing college essays difficult for native speakers. We need to be sensitive to the needs our students and their families and then find ways to speak for them to the powers that be.
I recently found a fantastic book about the need for advocacy for our students and specific suggestions for how to make this process more effective. The book, Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, is written by Diane Staehr Fenner, who coordinates the NCATE reviews for TESOL. Her book was extremely insightful and came at a perfect time.
A friend and fellow TESOLer in Ohio, Dr. Bev Good, and I have been working on various advocacy issues in Ohio. We worked together with other members of Ohio TESOL last year to speak up against the new third grade guarantee that had just been passed. We were able to get some powerful legislators to listen and they revised the law slightly to add one more year for our students before they were affected. It wasn't much, but it probably will save hundreds of students from being retained. It won't save all the students, but it did show that we had some clout at the state level. It also raised awareness for the situation of our students.
This year, Dr. Good and I made a connection with a lobbyist and lawyer who works at the state level on Latino issues. He has been a God-send! He knows the system and most of the players. He has been able to get us meetings with some powerful leaders in Columbus, and he knows which issues will require legislation (difficult to obtain) and which ones can be addressed through policy and procedures adjustments (much easier to do). We haven't seen any major changes yet, but at least we are getting in the door and people are listening.
Next month, an education summit is being held and six top leaders in the state are going to be on a panel. Each of the areas of concern to us will be used as a question to be put to these leaders. For example, we are frustrated that for the first time the state budget has provided each school district funds for educating ELLs (about $1,000 per student), but there was no verbage in the budget requiring it to be spent on ELLs! We have no requirements for how much time students should receive in language services, and only general guidelines for how those services should be provided. With only one person at the state Department of Education working on ELL issues, there is very little oversight. Many, if not most, school district have very few is any bilingual personnel to assist students and staff and keep parents informed of their children's education. Even if we don't see changes in the immediate future, we believe that our advocacy actions will eventually have an impact on the lives of our students and their families.