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What’s Working in EL Education from Nebraska’s 2022 Teacher of the Year

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As student populations grow increasingly diverse, many educators are working with multilingual learners or refugee students for the first time in their careers. We can turn to ESL teachers with a careers worth of experience and successful, proven instructional strategies as an invaluable resource.

Lee Perez is one of those teachers, and he is using his platform as Teacher of the Year to help his colleagues ensure that all English learners can reach their highest aspirations. In addition to being the first ESL teacher to win Teacher of the Year award in Nebraska, he is also the recipient of the 2021 Award for Teaching Excellence through the Nebraska State Education Association, Cox Communications Education Hero for the Omaha area, and a 2023 Horseman Awards for Teaching Excellence finalist. He is a fifth through eighth-grade English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska.

Perez has traveled around the state speaking to current and aspiring educators to share best practices in EL education and advocate for better teacher preparation to serve ESL students. We sat down with him to hear some of the most important messages he wants educators to know about working with this student population and to share what strategies and approaches he has found success with in his ESL education career.

What are some common misconceptions about EL/SLIFE students and ESL instruction?

One of the biggest misconceptions Perez has observed in his community is the difference between an immigrant and a migrant versus a refugee.  Immigrants and migrants largely choose to come to a country. Refugees are forced out of their home countries, due to traumatic experiences, specifically political destabilization and terrorism and threats of violence. 

“That's the one big thing I want people to understand with our Afghan population is their choices were to stay and die or flee to another country where they had a plethora of opportunities where their families could be safe and their education could thrive in a flourishing environment,” Perez explains.

Perez has also had the opportunity to to lead many workshops and presentations for educators who do not currently have an ESL endorsement. He finds that at almost every speaking opportunity, teachers are surprised to learn that you don’t need to speak the language of your ELs in order to be an ESL teacher.

“People will come up to me and say, well, how do you communicate with these students…Do you speak 40 languages? No, I don't, you don't have to be bilingual or multilingual to be an ESL teacher. It helps, but you don't have to be.”

The other most common misconception that Perez has experienced in the field is around language and instruction. 

“Teachers ask, ‘how did these kids do their work? Do you let them speak their native language in there or is it English only?’ So sometimes you'll have this bias of if you're teaching them English, they probably shouldn't be speaking their native language. And I say, well actually that's false. Language research shows that language one supports learning language two.”

How can professional development or ESL endorsement programs be leveraged to help educators support multilingual learners?

In Nebraska, many schools are mirroring Omaha Public Schools in working with a local university to get teachers ESL certifications. Perez has observed an increased interest in ESL endorsements as the population of multilingual learners in the state continues to grow. In fact, when he speaks to audiences of student teachers are colleges and universities, 99% of the room has already had an English language learner in their classroom. So Perez believes that every single educator would benefit from adding an ESL endorsement to their curriculum.

“Even initial education majors in teacher prep programs, I'll say it's 15 hours, it's five classes, you can add it to your license. I always tell student teachers and education majors, regardless of what your curricular area is, you're going to have ELLs in your classroom. Math, science, social studies, PE - you name it, there will be ELLs there. So you might as well add that supplemental endorsement to give you the strategies to work with them.”

As for this specific EL/ESL instruction, Perez emphasizes that ELL strategies are good for all students - including SPED and High Ability Learners (HAL). This can be helpful to increase buy-in and reinforce the benefits of bringing scaffolding skills learned in PD into the mainstream classroom and making them a consistent part of daily instruction.

“Every student can benefit from data informed instruction. Every student can benefit from graphic organizers, Venn diagrams, pictures, kinesthetic learning. All students can benefit from sentence frames and sentence stems. All students can benefit from honing skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening, which are the four domains of language acquisition. It's just with ELLs, sometimes you have to linguistically scaffold them to make them more equitable for our language learners.”

How has Perez been able to significantly increase exited students from ESL programs?

The primary approach Perez encourages is teaching students accountability through data. Students, not the teachers, are the ones taking the language tests (ELPA21, WIDA, etc.), so we can teach them how to use this data in order to set their own learning goals. Perez begins by explaining the different scores to his students (0-5), shows what their current score is and helps them set a goal for what they want to score next time. He also encourages student-led conferences, so that the MLLs can explain their data to their parents and bring their families into the process.

When students graduate or exit ESL, it is important to celebrate their success and treat it as the milestone that it is. Helping students understand their data and their goals will give the test meaning and increase their investment in the process - which can have amazing results.

“The first year I got here, I was able to exit 42% of my students. So over half my class. It was a 31% increase from the teacher that I took over for. But the reason why it was so high is because I taught them accountability through data. We set goals, we talked about the data, we talked about the goals, and I just made it relevant to their lives. I just said, this is how reading can be useful if you want to be a doctor, which some of my kids do. This is how writing can be applicable if you want to be a small business owner, which is something that is applicable to do. I teach them how these skills can transcend their education outside of ESL.”

Find the full episode transcript here.

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