I recently worked with a team of teachers on a committee to interview candidates for an open position working with English language learners. We all gathered around a large conference table. Before us, we had matching manila folders: each held an identical stack of résumés, letters of recommendation, and sheets of paper for note taking. We worked through a long list of qualified candidates, asking them the same 10 questions.
All the questions we had prepared were aimed at determining each candidate’s level of knowledge, skill, and understanding about teaching English language learners. Of the 10 questions, though, one quickly became my favorite. It gave me far more information than any of the others. The question was simple: “What does it mean to you to advocate for your ELL students?”
Some candidates answered breezily: Oh, I make sure they have everything they need each day. I check their backpacks and planners, and I make sure they feel comfortable at school. I stay closely connected with their parents, and make sure the teachers understand how to help the student.
But the question about advocacy was really multilayered, and the strongest candidates understood that. The best answers got to the true heart of teaching and began with an explanation of why advocating for English language learners is so important. In those cases, the candidate related to the experience of the child. They truly understood what it feels like to be in an environment where everything is foreign. Where nothing makes sense. Conversations. Rituals. Books. Expectations. Even the posters on the classroom walls have no meaning when the words are a jumble of indiscernible letters. For English language learners, there is a lonely despair that comes from not understanding anything that is happening in a classroom of English speakers.
After explaining why it is important for a teacher to advocate for ELL students, strong candidates went on to talk about how they advocate. Their answers included typical ideas—visuals, providing appropriate texts, role playing, celebrating various cultures. Again, though, the best answers went much deeper and included specific examples that included the child’s family. They referenced getting to know the parents and developing an understanding of what is happening at home: What language is being spoken at home? Is there a community of support from people who speak the same language? Is there someone who can translate if needed? What about the child’s parents or caregivers—do they have foundational skills in English?
Our favorite candidates also discussed how they advocate for English language learners in the school environment. They talked about educating general education teachers about the experience of the ELLs, watching out for common mistakes and offering support when needed. They discussed direct education of other students as well—working with English-speaking peers to help them understand the experience of an ELL student and integrating them together when doing small-group or student-led work. And they made it clear they were committed to providing social experiences whenever possible.
In the end, we were able to narrow our pool of candidates easily based on how teachers answered that single question about advocacy: the successful candidates understood both why and how to advocate for ELL students.