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ESOL School Leadership Challenges

Challenges to Successful Leadership 

This update focuses on the leadership of ESOL within a school. I have based much of my thinking in this article on, McGee, A., Haworth, P. and MacIntyre, L. (2014), Leadership Practices to Support Teaching and Learning for English Language Learners. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.162

Alyson identified four leadership practices and two challenges facing successful leadership of ESOL in New Zealand school settings, where English language learners are in a minority.

Challenges to successful leadership

A business-as-usual approach

The first challenge is a business as usual approach tends to require English language learners to fit into existing school systems, assessments, and pedagogical approaches designed for native English speakers. This approach seems to be built on an assumption that English language learners’ needs are the same as those of native English speakers, so there is often a lack of understanding and identification of the linguistic and cultural challenges facing these learners. There is no differentiation for English language learners.

So what does this look like in a school? Often the senior leadership team will say that they feel the existing school systems are appropriate for all students, including English language learners. They give little thought to the needs of these students and the progress that they are making as a sub-group.

Here are some examples:

  • An absence of ESOL goals and policies in the school or if they do exist they are regularly ignored, infrequently reviewed and are not widely known about. 
  • When reporting to parents, the same school report form will be used for all students, with no additional information on the student’s current stage of English language development and their progress in learning English.
  • In reporting to the Ministry on National Standards, and to the BOT, the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) are not used in additional to National Standards to report ELLs' progress and achievement in learning English as an additional language.  ELLs are not differentiated and there is no written explanation supporting the results.  
  • Assessment is not differentiated for ELLs, everyone uses the same tests at all times. Little or no thought is given to how appropriate the test is for ELLs or interpretation of the results with this in mind.
  • The communication needs of diverse parents, families and communities are often overlooked.
  • A standard enrolment procedure is used for all students with no additional questions asked or further translated material to parents of students who speak another language.  
  • There is no adaptation of teaching and learning to fit the needs of these diverse learners, even though numbers of English language learners are growing. There might be a lack of clear language learning objectives in teacher planning. There might also be little evidence of scaffolding of language and differentiation in mainstream classrooms.
  • There is a lack of access to suitable resources for English language learners. This results in teachers working individually and making individual decisions about where to get ESOL support or resources in the school.  
  • The MOE developed ESOL Resources are not commonly used in mainstream classrooms and often remain on shelves in resource rooms largely untouched and unknown.  

The marginalisation of ESOL

Another challenge facing successful leadership of ESOL is the marginalisation of ESOL and of those working in this field. This is often because both teachers and leadership believe that ESOL knowledge and pedagogy is the responsibility of just a few members of staff in the school. The marginalisation of ESOL seems to occur when teachers, those in leadership, and other educators do not see the ESOL area as their responsibility and subsequently ESOL becomes marginalised to a small team or to individuals. Additionally, those who are given responsibility for ESOL may not be trained teachers, so despite the wealth of experience and knowledge held by these staff, ESOL often has a low status in the school. ESOL requires a whole school focus with everyone taking responsibility.

The reasons for marginalisation can be varied:

  • ESOL educators can be marginalised and have a low status in the school even when they are fully trained teachers and hold additional qualifications. This may be because they work in isolation and are deemed to be of less importance than a regular classroom teacher. Or it may be because ESOL teachers are sometimes employed on a part-time basis on a series of 1-year employment contracts rather than as a permanent part-time staff member.
  • When schools receive some ESOL funding from the Ministry of Education, many schools employ Teacher Aides (TA), rather than teachers, to focus on English language learners and to teach them.  Often ESOL TAs are not involved in professional development and they are not viewed as being appropriate to assist in leading ESOL professional learning in their school, despite their experience and knowledge, leading to marginalisation of the TA and of ESOL.
  • A lack of senior leader team leadership, advocating for ESOL and a whole school approach.

Questions to ponder

  1. Whose responsibility is ESOL in your school? How will you create a whole school team approach?
  2. Does your school have an ESOL policy and goals that are well articulated and understood and reviewed regularly?
  3. Does your school have a “one size fits all approach’? Is there any area that has been ignored, overlooked or needs reviewing?
  4. Is there visible differentiation and scaffolding for English language learners in everyday classroom practice?
  5. Are the needs of ELLS regularly considered in all aspects of governance and management of the school and in the day-to-day running of the school?
  6. Is there a focus on ESOL professional learning for everyone in the school to ensure all educators have the resources to meet ELL’s needs? (Principal, teachers and teacher aides and other support staff)
  7. What will you add to your practices this year? What will you not do next year?