When Natalie Griffin was elevated in 2017 to oversee a Texas school district’s bilingual program, she inherited decades-long problems in hiring certified teachers. The state put extra pressure on the Mineral Wells school district to improve, in order to comply with Texas’ bilingual education law.
Since then, Griffin has grown the district’s number of bilingual teachers by about two each year, from five to 12, even as other districts have struggled to recruit and retain bilingual teachers.
Texas, unlike many other states, has never banned using bilingual education models to teach English learners. In fact, the state in 1973 passed a law mandating bilingual education in districts that have a critical mass of students from the same language background. The law says explicitly that educating students in their native languages is an important part of their learning.
For Mineral Wells, part of the solution to the lack of bilingual staff was hiding in plain sight. Several people already on staff leading general education classes were bilingual. Griffin recruited them to the program. She convinced the district to reimburse them for courses required for bilingual certification and to support flexible schedules so they could take courses and exams without using vacation days.
She persuaded Mineral Wells natives to come back (or stay) and work for their hometown district. She’s also recruited some candidates from Mexico.
Griffin spoke to Education Week about her approach to recruiting and retaining bilingual teachers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you look for in staff to decide if they’d be a good candidate to switch from general education to the bilingual program?
Aside from having the language skills or certification, I want someone who believes in these students. We’re not going to force you to become a bilingual teacher, even if you have the right certification. If that’s not your dream, we’re not going to push it. I want somebody that wants to be a part of my team and has that passion.
There are some staff who are interested but hesitant, and I just tell them if they want to try it for a year and end up not liking it, I’ll let them leave. They aren’t stuck.
Once you hire bilingual teachers, how do you keep them?
You have to give them the support, especially for those new teachers, so we provide them with a mentor teacher. And then [we] have classroom leaders who are instructional coaches for everyone, not just newbies.
Beyond that, I trust them to know what they need in the classroom and when they ask for it, I give it to them, whether that be some iPads or a specific program. And in professional development, I know a lot of it has been geared toward your regular classroom teacher, not to the bilingual program. So I’ve made sure that they’ve had professional development that pertains to their program, and I’ve allowed them to attend conferences and interact with their peers outside of our district.
Any tips for districts that might not have a lot of homegrown bilingual candidates?
We have a high Hispanic population, where other districts might not, so I think they’d have to look outside of their state and commit to job fair hunting, along with incentives.
One thing I’ve attempted that hasn’t panned out for us but could for others is reaching out to the colleges and creating partnerships for students studying relevant fields.
Why is investing in bilingual programs important for districts as they’re balancing so many other competing demands?
I think we obviously have an obligation to serve all students and the benefits for these students are huge. But if you have educated students who are giving back to their community and then potentially feel valued and cared for and choose to stay here, that benefits everyone. I just can’t imagine not investing in them.
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