Teacher Preparation

Influx of New Students Can Outpace Teacher Preparation

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 10, 2005 8 min read
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Trina M. Johnson, who has lived her whole life in this one-stoplight town surrounded by watermelon and cotton fields, turned to a university more than 100 miles north of here when she wanted to get certified to teach English as a second language.

Jesse De Leon, who settled in this part of rural Missouri a decade ago, enrolled in the same university—Southeast Missouri State, or SEMO, in Cape Girardeau—when he decided to upgrade his job as a school paraprofessional to become a certified ESL teacher.

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Chart: Missouri

But, even as this region in the American heartland sees an unrelenting influx of students from outside the United States, mostly from Mexico, Ms. Johnson and Mr. De Leon are exceptions: By and large, teachers in the southeastern corner of Missouri known as the Bootheel have been slow to seek out added training to work with the newcomers.

Adelaide H. Parsons, a linguistics professor and the director of SEMO’s graduate program for teachers of English to speakers of other languages, a specialty known as TESOL, is puzzled why more teachers from the Bootheel aren’t seeking the training. Currently, just four teachers in that part of the state are in the SEMO program.

Thanks to state and federal grants, the SEMO classes are free. What’s more, SEMO takes the courses to where teachers live, through traveling instructors, interactive television, and the Internet.

“Why is it so difficult to sell people on training?” Ms. Parsons said.

It’s a question that other university and state education experts on English-language learners throughout the region are also asking. They’re struggling with how to motivate longtime teachers to be trained in new methods of helping such students, and how to make that training affordable and accessible, particularly in rural areas.

Changing Times

The Spanish-language Mass at St. Cecilia Roman Catholic church in nearby Kennett reflects the region’s changing demographics.

The Mass draws more than 200 people of Mexican descent on Sundays in the winter, the slow period for farm work. By contrast, only about 70 people, mostly older, non-Hispanic whites attend the English-language Mass, according to the priest who leads both services.

Those changes are evident as well in the schools.

Trina Johnson, a teacher at Senath Elementary School in Missouri watches as students Roberto Chamberlain and David Pina work on an English assignment.

Twenty-two percent of the 790 students in the local Senath-Hornersville school district are Latino, up from 10 percent just five years ago. Increasingly, Mexican men who once came here for seasonal jobs in cotton gins and on fruit and vegetable farms are bringing their families and staying.

Although some districts in the Bootheel have dozens of English-language learners and others have only a few, training in teaching students with limited English skills is becoming more critical.

Ms. Johnson and Mr. De Leon, who were among the first educators from the Bootheel to seek such training at SEMO, now run the ESL program that helps some of Senath-Hornersville’s 93 students who aren’t fluent in English.

More teachers from here and elsewhere might seek training, though, if there were more incentives or pressure to do so.

In Kansas, for instance, school districts receive extra money for English-language learners only if they are assigned to a teacher who has an ESL endorsement. That stipulation has caused some Kansas districts to try to persuade all of their regular classroom teachers to get ESL endorsements.

Missouri takes a different approach. The state doesn’t give extra state money to districts for English-language learners. Yet Missouri requires that a district hire—or have plans to train or hire—a teacher certified in ESL if the district has enrolled at least 20 English-language learners.

‘The Least Important’

For years, the Senath-Hornersville district has met that mandate by having one ESL teacher—even as the number of English-language learners climbed. Yancy Poorman, the district’s superintendent, added Mr. De Leon’s post at Hornersville Middle School last year, bringing the number of teachers in the district trained in ESL to two.

Mr. Poorman said he did so because the district needed to raise standardized-test scores among English-language learners in language arts to meet state accountability requirements.

But Mr. Poorman questions the relevance of the Southeast Missouri State University training for an ESL endorsement, especially for mainstream teachers. He said the courses are about “how to deal with Hispanic students, coming from an English-speaking instructor from an English-speaking university to an English-speaking teacher.”

He added: “Where did you bring in the Hispanic student? Isn’t that whom we are trying to benefit?”

He’d rather see SEMO instructors visit Senath-Hornersville schools a couple of days each month and work alongside teachers in their classrooms.

Several regular classroom teachers at Hornersville Middle School said recently that they don’t see the need to get ESL training.

“We have enough to do,” added Janna Hendley, a reading teacher.

Only students with the lowest levels of English ability are assigned to Ms. Johnson and Mr. De Leon, and the high school doesn’t have an ESL teacher. Less than half of the district’s 93 students who tested as having limited English proficiency at the beginning of the school year are getting regular help from the ESL teachers.

The district can’t afford to hire another ESL teacher, said Mr. Poorman. Besides, the Latinos at the high school level tend to do OK with English, he said.

But Ms. Johnson said that 17 students at the high school tested as having limited proficiency in English at the start of the school year and aren’t receiving help in ESL.

Despite such deficiencies, the Senath-Hornersville district is ahead of many other school districts in the Bootheel in addressing the needs of English-language learners, according to Maria Ana San Miguel, an instructional specialist for southeastern Missouri. She works with Migrant Education and English Language Learning, a statewide organization based in Jefferson City, the state capital. The group was created about a year ago with federal money to help schools serve students who are migrants or have limited skills in English.

It hasn’t been easy to get districts to change, she admits.

“When you offer them training and they are bombarded with all other kinds of training that they think may be more important—such as communications arts or math training [to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act]—they think this is the least important,” she said of ESL classes.

Classroom Aid

Mr. De Leon, a Mexican-American born and raised in Oregon who is fluent in English and Spanish, runs an ESL pullout program at Hornersville Middle School. His students spend one or two periods of their day in his ESL trailer, typically sitting at his desk and working on assignments for their other classes under his watchful eye.

Most of those assignments during a recent class were fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Mr. De Leon translated instructions or showed students which section of their textbooks they needed to reread to be able to answer questions.

He says the courses he took from SEMO helped him become more strategic.

On a recent spring day, students at Hornersville (Mo.) Middle School change classes.

He’s become more attuned, for example, to reading levels. He’s learned to focus on subjects that give ESL students the most trouble, such as science and history, because they use a lot of special vocabulary. He’s taught students to draft outlines to help them write a book report or an essay.

Felipe, a 15-year-old who came to the United States from Mexico less than two years ago, used that tool to write an essay about what frightens him. He listed snakes, bats, and ghosts as things that scare him, but got stuck on how to elaborate.

“Do I have to write out sentences?” he asked.

“No, but write as many words as you can to make it easier when you write it out,” said Mr. De Leon.

Felipe said he’s afraid of snake poison.

“What else?” coaxed Mr. De Leon. “If there was a snake here, why would you be afraid of it?”

“Because it would bite me,” mumbled Felipe.

“You’re afraid it’s going to bite you, right?” the teacher said. “Just say it, and that’s the way you’re going to write it.”

Long-Distance Learning

Mr. De Leon began his ESL endorsement courses through long-distance learning, but didn’t like the approach because it was hard to feel part of the classes. He quit his job in the school district to attend Southeast Missouri State full time at its main campus in Cape Girardeau. He found a temporary home in Cape Girardeau and visited his wife back in the Bootheel when he could.

Ms. Johnson, on the other hand, relied only on long-distance learning, and is now finishing a master’s degree in TESOL from the university. Her motivation for taking the courses was to land an ESL job in the school district—and she does enjoy her job, she said. She serves 16 ESL students daily in small reading groups that mix those students with native speakers of English.

Of the 106 teachers across Missouri now working toward ESL endorsements through SEMO, four are from the Bootheel.

On a recent Tuesday evening, those four teachers attended an ESL methods class by watching an interactive television broadcast in a classroom in Malden, a town about 80 miles south of Cape Girardeau. The technical quality of the broadcast that evening was poor—a succession of still images that changed every few seconds. The audio was fine for most of the session.

The teachers from the Bootheel were most animated when they talked among themselves about the “natural approach” to teaching language. They shared examples of English-language learners at their schools who went through a “silent period” before attempting to speak English.

One of the teachers started an ESL program at her 560–student school district—Holcomb—last school year and is already working with 50 second-language learners.

Kay Gordon and Teresa Johnson, two teachers from the 1,000-student Twin Rivers district in Broseley, Mo., are getting their ESL endorsements because they expect more Hispanic students. “It’s good for the economy—people moving in,” said Ms. Gordon, a reading teacher who now has an English-language learner in her class, the only one enrolled in her district.

The Twin Rivers superintendent supports SEMO’s training and is aware that immigrants could provide a solution to the district’s declining school enrollment, said Ms. Johnson. “If 100 ESL kids moved into the district, he’d be tap dancing,” she said.

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