English-Language Learners In Their Own Words

What’s the Right Mindset for Teaching English Learners? A Teacher Explains

By Ileana Najarro — January 30, 2023 4 min read
Marlena Young-Jones, an ESL teacher at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., works with students on Dec. 9, 2022. The Russellville City School District has worked to meet the needs of an influx of Hispanic students over the last few years through a number of methods, including hiring nearly a dozen new bilingual aides.
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Marlena Young-Jones has taught in Russellville City Schools for almost 11 years. Most of that time was spent as a 2nd grade general elementary teacher. In her last 2nd grade class at West Elementary, all 19 of her students were English learners. After that experience, she wanted to work more closely with these students as an English-as-a-second-language interventionist.

Young-Jones shares why she loves helping English learners grow linguistically and academically, how the right mindset is needed to best support all students, and how the district, from which she graduated in 2002, has come a long way in supporting these students and her work.

I remember [when I was a student] and EL students started moving in, it was different because there weren’t very many EL kids. I know some people were like, “What am I gonna do? I don’t know what to do with this student. How do I teach them?”

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Second grade students in Dalia Gerardo's class at West Elementary, in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022.
Dalia Gerardo's 2nd grade classroom at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., is pictured here in December 2022. The classroom features both English and Spanish labels and wall decorations.
Tamika Moore for Education Week

I do know some Spanish. But I’m not fluent by any means. And these kids, these kids are kids. They still learn. Just because a child comes from another country, or because they came from a home that does not speak English, or maybe English is not the first language that they speak at home, does not mean that that child cannot learn. It does not mean that that child does not have background knowledge. Kids still play with toys, they still have books, some still go to church or go to the store, they just have a different word for that in their head. I show a picture and they’ll tell me what that is in their language. And then I tell them what that is in English. And they’re like, oh, okay.

You have to kind of take a step back and think, what if my family moved somewhere? What if I came to a new place? How would I want to be treated? You just have to get your mind on that. And tap into any resources that you have. If you need something, let somebody know what you need.

Over time, our English-learner numbers have increased and I feel like we have more support. When I first came [back to teach], nobody knew what to do. We did have ESL teachers [but] there were only two and I don’t know if they were both full time or not. We did not have bilingual aides. Now we have our three EL teachers, we have a ton of bilingual aides, we have a liaison between us and our parents [through one of the aides]. I mean, all of the support that we have made a world of difference.

When the opportunity came for me to be an English-learner teacher, an interventionist, I let my principal know that that was something that I was interested in.

I love being with my kids. I love teaching them. I love just building relationships with those kids, and watching them grow as students, watching them be successful and knowing that I played a part. I love teaching writing. When they came to me, the beginning of the year, they might have written something called a sentence. But it really wasn’t a sentence to write in paragraphs. They’ve built that writing stamina, which means that they are coming up with complete thoughts. They’re speaking to me in complete sentences in English. They’re able to use a graphic organizer or they’re able to talk to a partner and bounce ideas off of them, and get that on a piece of paper and write and build in that language.

I think that it’s important that there is professional development, and that EL support is prioritized. I think it comes from top down. Once your top person, your superintendent, your board of education, once they see that’s important, that spills over to the rest of the district. I really think that helps with the mindset of all the teachers, all of the interventionists, the instructional coaches, whoever is involved in the learning of those kids, that top person shows they care, that it’s important. And I think that that’s what’s happening in our school district.

I hope that we continue to have funding to have our aides. I hope that we can continue to have the professional development that we do, because I really feel like it makes a huge difference for our kids.

My mom actually taught in the school system for almost 30 years, she taught 3rd grade. But she passed away a couple years ago, and my sister and I present a [$500 cash] scholarship [each year, for anything related to school] in honor of my mom. I mean, 70, 80 percent, maybe of the recipients are EL students. Either they are still in the EL program, or maybe they used to be in the EL program. And it’s amazing to see that.

The person that got our scholarship this past year, she was part of the EL program and to know that that child maybe started out not speaking any English or limited English and now they are to the point that they’re graduating, they have acquired the language, they have received the support to be successful, and now they want to further their education. And they got that here. They got that at Russellville City Schools.

Dive Into the Project

PART 1 | A Burgeoning Success Story: In one small Alabama city, prioritizing English learners is the new normal. Learn how the district's efforts have paid off.


PART 2 | Gains Under Threat: With funding unstable and major challenges facing secondary students, Russellville’s English learner journey remains tenuous.


Why Support for English Learners Matters: A bilingual aide now provides the support she didn't get as a former English learner. Read her story.


In a Teacher's Own Words: Teachers need the right mindset to help English learners—but district leaders set the stage.


The Growth of English Learners, in Charts: Explore the data on the growth of Hispanic students and English learners nationwide over time.


Witnessing Change in a 'Little Town for Latinos': Born in Russellville, Ala., to immigrant parents from El Salvador, an English learner reflects on his journey in this video.

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