In early April, I received the all- too-familiar email letting me know that two more students had enrolled at our quiet little elementary school—one from South Korea, the other from China. As the lead English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, the screening, placement, and assessment of these new students would fall to me. These students were the last of ten new enrollees since January who qualified for ESOL services. They were the eighth and ninth “just-one-year” students to enroll this academic year. These students are the children of highly regarded visiting professors here for just one year, usually coming along more for the language and life-experience than the academic offerings. Typically, these students have basic English vocabulary, some rote phrases/sentences, and listening comprehension ranging from single word recognition to basic interpersonal communication. On rare occasion, the student arrives with intermediate to advanced level language proficiency. The newest arrivals were typical, entering with relatively low English language proficiency, having just completed academic years in their respective countries, and here for the experience. I teach in a well-regarded, academically competitive, and ethnically diverse public school, with a relatively small but growing English Language Learner (ELL) population, in which the niche “just-one-year” subgroup is increasing most quickly.
With just under seven weeks of school remaining, and only two weeks before the annual, standardized state assessment, the panic set in quickly. Upon reading the email, I’m reticent to admit that I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and worry. It was so late in the year, we’d be out of school very soon, and the bulk of instructional time had passed. Still, here they were, ready and with any luck, eager to learn. The comments, questions, and concerns about these students were familiar and came quickly, “They speak very little English and are here for just one year. Just do what you can. Stick them somewhere in your schedule. It’s the end of the year, no worries! When will you take them?? How long can you keep them?? Please, give us something to do with them! What could we possibly do with them? They don’t understand anything, how are we supposed to teach them anything?” that’s what they said and, frankly, I get it…this would be just-one-more-thing on an already full plate. What would we do with these students?
Regardless, when the comments, questions, and concerns came pouring in for my just-one-year students, this is what I heard, “Start over--again. Work miracles or do nothing—no worries, it doesn’t really matter. Please, take them and teach them, it doesn’t matter when or how…but keep them for as long as possible. Also, if you can, send them back with seatwork, partner work, websites, flash cards, workbooks, anything…just help us keep them busy. Tell us what to do…please, help! Thank you for taking them out of our rooms, for keeping them busy.” Again, I was filled with concern. What would we do with these new students? What do we do with all of the just-one-year students? They come for so little time and need of so much of ours; the irony is lost on nobody.
Sometimes, I think that I barely know what to do with these students…and I am the expert in the building. Knowing that, it is understandable that the classroom teachers feel as they do about the addition of these students to their already-too-full rosters. Teaching is difficult work, homeroom classes are too big (30+ in the upper grades) and the demands and expectations placed on teachers are arguably the highest they have ever been. Adding ELLs who are beginners AND here for just-one-year introduces an entirely new dynamic that challenges teachers and presents ethical and instructional dilemmas. Where does a teacher whose time and resources are stretched-too-thin put his/her efforts? Is it ethically and instructionally sound to devote one’s scant resources to students who a teacher knows is going to leave in one year to return to his/her respective country? Is it ethically and instructionally sound to even consider this fact when teaching and planning? This is the conundrum that fills my mind when I think of my just-one-year students. What do we do? More simply, where is the balance in giving these students the time, attention, and respect that they deserve, while being careful to not give them so much that we are neglecting the students (ESOL and non-ESOL) who need support too and will remain in the school system for their entire academic careers? This is where the dilemma lies.
To be clear, I am not saying that I (or any teacher, for that matter) dislike these students and don’t want them in our classrooms. Honestly, I love working with beginners, which includes this subgroup. I love to see their growth, the pride on their faces when they realize that they just said something for the first time, the light bulb moment when they understand a new concept that seemed out of reach. My favorite thing is seeing their personalities emerge and expand, for better or worse, in a trajectory parallel to their language growth. I love these kids and so do their classroom teachers. It is, as one of my colleagues always says, an honor and a privilege to teach them--but it is not perfect and it certainly is not simple. The just-one-year students are often incredibly smart, teach us new and interesting things about their cultures, are sweet and appreciative of our efforts, and bring richness to our school that wouldn’t exist without them. Rather, I am saying that there are considerable challenges in educating these students in a meaningful way; a challenge that, at times, leaves me (and, I suspect, others) feeling conflicted.
The just-one-year students come into our classrooms and we teach them, we help them, we differentiate for them, we love them, but the question remains, what do we do with these students when it’s just for one year? When it’s so much of our time, but so little time overall? When they grow linguistically, academically, and socially, but leave us too soon? When their knowledge is tested and measured long before their language level allows them to comprehend what is being asked? When our performance as educators is tied to and assessed by their achievement on these tests? What do we do? How do we teach a child with meaning, passion, and sincerity when it is for just-one-year?