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Developing PD to better prepare teachers to support English learners

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As teachers, we want to be sure that we are addressing the unique needs of all learners in our class, but often may find it overwhelming to support English learners without the proper support. There are a number of steps every district can take to empower all teachers to be teachers of language, and build a more cohesive, collaborative approach to professional learning.

We spoke with Dr. Sarah Schmidt de Carranza, an educator in Saint Paul Public Schools since 2003 and the Executive Director of the Office of Multilingual Learning since 2021. She shares a number of challenges she observed across her district with educators and supporting their English learners (ELs) and the unique approach they took to professional development to see improvements. Listen to the full conversation here, and find takeaways from the conversation below.

Challenges educators face with EL education

“The particularly challenging issue is that all teachers are teachers who work with multilingual learners. It's highly unusual, especially in a large urban district that there will be a teacher who doesn't have any multilingual learners in any of their classes. They may not have the newest newcomer, but there will be someone, at least one in their class who's an English learner,” shares Schmidt de Carranza. While this may not have been the situation when all current educators initially went to school to get their teaching credential, it is certainly the reality of the current educational landscape.

While essentially every teaching will be a teaching of ELs at some point in their career, there is a history of separation between language instruction and core instruction to unlearn “Traditionally, multilingual learning instruction has operated in a silo as its own discrete content area. And what research has borne out is that really EL is meant to be a service to help students navigate the language demands of core content Tier 1 instruction. So doing multilingual learning as something different than the core doesn't prepare students to navigate the core. That’s where we need to start - how do we help all educators see that they are educators of multilinguals, whether their license says that or not,” says Schmidt de Carranza.

School leadership often lacking EL experience

An important step to shifting educator mindsets and ensuring that all teachers feel confident in supporting their ELs comes from school leadership and administrators. Unfortunately, there is no systemic way to ensure that folks who enter into a leadership role have experience working with English learners or have training in what scaling support for ELs looks like on a school- or district-wide level. 

Similarly, many content teachers may have had limited, if any, formal training on meeting the unique needs of ELs. When there are competing priorities for PD and school leaders lack direct EL experience, this topic can get lost in the mix: “There's only so many things that we can prioritize or so many things that we can put first. And when everything is new and everything is overwhelming, it can be very difficult for our teaching staff to navigate, ‘Where do I put these priorities? How do I make these determinations?’” says Schmidt de Carranza.

Adopting the mindset that “All teachers are teachers of language”

Without the right training and systems in place, content teachers may feel incapable of supporting the ELs in their classrooms, and can fall into the misconception that the responsibility of teaching language learners lies only with language teachers. Schmidt de Carranza believes that in order to shift that mindset, there are three separate pieces to address: “It comes from knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Knowledge is do I know what the kids need? Skill is do I know how to give them what they need? And dispositions is I believe that it's my job to do that well.

When designing professional development for teachers to support ELs, it’s important to approach it in a way where we are not only training them in the knowledge they need, but supporting them in implementing the skill in the classroom. A good model is, similarly to how we teach our students, using the “I do, We do, You do” structure for gradual release. Often, trainings can rush from modeling a skill (I do) right into expecting teachers to implement it (you do), but the crucial piece is the supported practice of using the new skill (we do). Without this, we can run into issues with sustainability as teachers may not know how to proceed if they get stuck or overwhelmed.

“It’s really about framing it as: working with ELs isn't additional to your work; working with ELs is the work because ELs are general ed students first. And I'm here to help you do that so you feel safe, like your own adult SEL is protected, and that you feel that you have someone that you can come to when you need support,” explains Schmidt de Carranza.

Building your team

Schmidt de Carranza’s first step for developing this type of supportive professional learning for EL instruction in her district was building out a team. The educators that she assembles go out to schools and support with the PD, prioritizing building positive relationships with their colleagues and the teachers they are working with. She emphasizes that their role is to be the safe space to go to for support with the skills they are learning.

“My team is on call for professional development. We have principals that we go out and they arrange for us to do PD at a staff meeting, kind of co-teaching 101. We've got some extension activities. We also say, ‘Okay, now that you've finished the level setting one-on-one, sign up for some time for one of us to come out and work with you so that we can help facilitate some of this common planning as you're navigating a new co-teaching relationship.’ Whether you're new to co-teaching, or maybe you're a brand new teacher and you're navigating all of these things through newness, we want to support you."

Using cohorts to increase impact

They’re also piloting a new approach to professional development for EL teachers, providing designated time to focus on specific areas of growth based on their EL data. She divided all of the elementary schools into four cohorts of their EL teachers. Once a month, each cohort meets with her team and they have a full day of professional learning. They’re really focusing our EL supports in the writing domain, because when you learn or acquire another language, the productive domains of speaking and writing come later than the receptive domains of reading and listening, and they determined that writing was the biggest challenge across the board. 

“Our WIDA data shows consistently that writing is the area where students will be discrepant from their other three domains. So I said, ‘Well, if we're seeing here that this is the area where students are needing the most support, then let's support them there.’”

Their district, amongst other curricular updates, is soft launching a new writing curriculum. She focused on training their EL teachers on a variety of the literacy resources that came with the program during their PD blocks for several months before the general education teachers began their training. The goal was for EL teachers to feel prioritized and like they were a key player in the writing rollout.

“I think oftentimes they feel that they get access to things as an afterthought or, ‘Oh, good heavens, we forgot to give the EL teachers…’. And I said, ‘When was the last time this happened where you got it ahead of your colleagues? It's unusual, right?’”

In addition, they offered supported practice for the EL teams using the resources to collaborate with their colleagues. They had opportunities to work with their school-based teams to practice lesson planning based on the lessons in the book, creating supplementary language development to accompany the lessons during the co-teaching setting.

“One of my main missions this year and my vision as a leader of a large district multilingual learning program is we need to make sure that everybody is working together from the outset. It is so much easier to operate when that was just how it was always supposed to be, rather than to try to enter it as an afterthought when people already have their curriculum guides, their scope and sequence, how things are supposed to go. And then the EL teacher feels like they have to justify or argue why they should be able to service their students when that's really a civil right.”

Building diverse teacher pipeline

Finally, their district has found an innovative approach to addressing the issue of the teacher shortage, particularly with bilingual educators. In her position, she has worked hard to build out their staff of about 90 bilingual educational assistants in their system that speak or represent the languages of their students. Many are first generation immigrants themselves, and a lot of them have educational experiences in their countries. But once they came to the US, they found the procedure to get a teaching license to be confusing to navigate.

Her approach to combat this: “We have a bilingual educational assistant professional development once a quarter, and at the end of every session I have a local university come in and give a presentation about what programs for education careers they have and how to apply. I'm going to have someone from our licensing board come in later this year and meet with people who were credentialed teachers in their home countries to see what transfers and what coursework or other work may they still need to do to have that license become active in our state. Because I think there's a lot of people who are natural born educators right now, that they're not active. They're not as operationalized as they could be because of not having a clear understanding of an opaque bureaucracy.”

Dr. Schmidt de Carranza has taken a number of unique approaches to combating barriers and increasing access to high quality education for ELs in her district. To learn more about the work she does, you can reach out via email at or visit Saint Paul Public Schools website. Download the full episode transcript here.

Dr. Sarah Schmidt de Carranza has been an educator in Saint Paul Public Schools since 2003. She has served as an EL and Latino Consent Decree  teacher at several schools in her time in Saint Paul Public Schools. She achieved National Board Certification in Teaching English as a New Language in 2009, and successfully recertified in 2019. She joined the Saint Paul Public Schools Office of Multilingual Learning as a supervising administrator in 2019, and has served as the Executive Director of the Office of Multilingual Learning since 2021.  She has presented at several local and national conferences, and will be presenting at the NABE conference in Spring 2024 regarding the collaborative work happening in St. Paul Public Schools in the development and implementation of Karen Heritage and Global language courses.