Teaching English language learner (ELL) students is not for the faint of heart. In my teaching career, I have always had ELL students trickled throughout my classes. This year is the first year that I have had a biology class made up of entirely all ELL students. They vary in their English speaking abilities; some can speak it decently well and others moved here from Mexico only a few months ago. My main focus had to shift from being a biology teacher to being an English teacher and sprinkle in some fun science content. It has been really fun to work with them, giggle with them as they use English phrases incorrectly, and hear them giggle at me as I try and speak Spanish.
I had a humbling experience today in class that reminded me of a previous experience that happened a few years ago. This year since I have all my ELL students together, I’ve often used google translate to translate some of the vocabulary so they can read the definitions in both English and Spanish. I usually try and ask the Spanish teacher next door to proofread the Spanish and make sure it’s grammatically correct. This can be tricky in science, especially when words like “organic” mean very different things if you are in chemistry class opposed to biology class. Today I didn’t have time to get my notes proofread so I just crossed my fingers and went with it. As we were taking notes, I asked one of my students if the Spanish translation made sense. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Does that translation made sense? Is it correct?”
Student: “I don’t know, I don’t read Spanish very good.”
Me: “You can speak it but not read it? Didn’t you learn to read Spanish when you were little?”
Me: “When your parents started teaching you to read, didn’t you use books that were in Spanish?”
Student: “I didn’t learn to read until I was in kindergarten.”
Me: “Ok, well don’t you have Spanish books around the house that you’ve read as you’ve gotten older?”
Student: “The only book in the house is the bible.”
It made me sad to think these students didn’t read at home with their parents growing up. I remember looking forward to bedtime so I could read Junie B. Jones with my Mom. Books were all over the house, something I took for granted. Let me be clear- I’m not in any way suggesting these parents failed their child in some way by not reading with them. Many parents are just doing the best they can to get food on the table. Today’s experience reminded me of something that happened in my first few years of teaching middle school. We were finishing up our body systems unit and I was going to do a frog dissection with my 6th graders. I had permission slips sent home in both English and Spanish, since some parents opt out of having their child dissect for personal or religious reasons. Picture a very tired and cranky teacher at the end of the week, trying to collect 150 permission slips. I was calling on students that still hadn’t returned their forms and got to one particular student… let’s call him Jason.
Me: “Jason, do you have your permission slip?”
Me: (getting frustrated) “You’ve had a week! I really need it returned.”
Jason: “My Mom can’t read it.”
Me: (starting to raise my voice) “I sent it home in both English AND Spanish!”
Jason: (practically yelling) “MY MOM CAN’T READ!”
Now picture that tired and cranky teacher looking like she got slapped in the face. I wanted to sit down at my desk, cover my face and cry. I felt like the most insensitive teacher in the world. My heart broke for this kid. I didn’t just feel bad because I had lost patience, but because at such a young age he would have the responsibility for helping his parents read and fill out important paperwork. His 7 years of education was probably more than his parents had completed. It made me look at my job in a whole new light. It also made me so grateful for the education I was given. I’m so glad I remembered that experience today.
So to all you ELL teachers out there, remember- YOU MATTER! When you are having days where you feel like your students aren’t learning English as fast as they should, remember that they might not have had the same opportunities you had. They are doing the best they can. You have a hard but rewarding job and are making a huge difference in their life. 10 years from now those students might not remember that one awesome lab you did, but they will remember the kind teacher who for an entire year helped them learn English.