I stood at the board, speechless.
“Yes! She taught me how to write all the curse words,” the student told me. “She” was Mrs. Hall, the most respected English teacher at the school where I used to teach, outside of Chattanooga. The student was a girl from China who was reminiscing about her best teachers before her graduation.
“Are you sure she taught you curse words, Mei?” I asked.
She walked to the board and wrote her name in beautiful cursive script.
As I smiled and explained the difference between curse words and cursive words, I also made sure she hadn’t told anyone else that Mrs. Hall taught her profanity. It was one of those moments working with English language learners that remind you just how interesting the work can be — and just how much about this work you weren’t taught in college.
Here are a few things I learned by listening to, observing, and working with my students.
1. Students may have huge gaps in learning. I am responsible for filling them.
I once taught two eighth grade boys who struggled with basic reading in their home language. They had not yet learned to speak English, making it difficult to learn much in any of their classes.
Thanks to an understanding principal, I was able to set aside one class period each day to work with them on sight words, vocabulary, and writing in English. By March, they were reading sentences they had written to the principal as she cheered for them. In schools with large class sizes, making time to work with these students on missing skills may be all but impossible. But we must make room for it when students’ success is at stake.
2. Friendship doesn’t require a common background.
When I taught first grade, a couple of boys ran over to the teacher bench. One was an English-speaking student from China. The other had just arrived from Mexico and learned to say hi. The student from China announced, “We’re best friends! I don’t know what he’s saying, but we’re best friends!” Then they ran off to the monkey bars. Similarly, a sixth grade girl from Russia who loved unicorns and a girl from Argentina who was obsessed with soccer became friends, helping each other with homework and laughing together in my class.
By focusing on what they have in common, I watch students from opposite sides of the world, with different religions, who can’t speak each other’s languages, often become close friends. This is an example to the rest of the school for both students and adults.
3. Slang is important.
Recently, one of my students bopped into class and greeted me with “Hey, bruh!” He immediately asked, “What does bruh mean?”
English learners hear other students using slang, and they want to use it, too. It helps them connect with their peers and feel they fit in. I’ve even had students come to me boldly proclaiming a profanity, then asking me the meaning of the word. In my class, those questions are OK. While I don’t usually have time to teach slang, I use those questions as teachable moments, pointing out new language they can use with friends.
4. Students want to tell teachers about their home country … unless they don’t.
When teaching about Venn diagrams, I used to ask students to compare their school in their home country to their school in the United States. After realizing some students didn’t attend school in their home country, I discontinued that topic. Engaging students about their home culture gives them a place where they can connect deeply, but sometimes they don’t want to talk about where they come from. It might hurt to think about people they lost, or bring up difficult — even traumatic — situations they don’t want to revisit.
Knowing how and when to express curiosity about a student’s home country can be tricky. In my experience, letting the student lead the conversation works out best. If they mention their home country, following up with a positive question is both polite and can be engaging. If they stop there, don’t push.
5. Being and becoming bilingual can be exhausting.
Early in my career, I worked in Albania teaching the children of foreign aid workers. It stretched my teaching skills and satisfied a desire for travel. While there, I worked with an amazing Albanian teacher who was fluent in English. Speaking it for eight hours a day, though, sometimes gave her headaches. It was a reminder that living in a second language can be tiring.
It taxes the brain, especially when you are just beginning to recognize the sounds and tones of a language. I try to remember that when I see a student struggling, especially at the end of the school day, it’s time to cut them some slack. Their brain is probably tired.
Noticing what students do and say in the classroom, and then reflecting on how you respond, are how you build a classroom for English learners that is centered around their needs. Every year, my students teach me new lessons.
Shelly McClanahan teaches middle school English as a Second Language near Nashville. She has been an ESL program coordinator in the U.S. and in international schools in Albania, South Korea, and England. She has a master’s in multilingual/multicultural education from George Mason University and an Ed.S from the University of Georgia.