High School English Language Learner (ELL) Teachers: Departments, Roles, and Agency
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The work of English language learner (ELL) teachers is a central component of the education ELL students receive. Because of systemic barriers to equitable education, ELL students at the high school level have not historically met achievement benchmarks at the same rate as their non-ELL peers, as indicated by lower rates of graduation, post-secondary matriculation, and achievement in content area assessments (August, Shanahan & Escamilla, 2009; Callahan, Wilkinson & Muller, 2014). As federal, state, and district policy makers respond to these challenges, the need to better understand the work of ELL teachers—on the ground—only increases with the implications of policy reforms for ELL instruction. Because ELL teachers are often organized into departments at the high school level, there is a greater need to understand how the context of ELL departments shapes the work ELL teachers do, along with the influence of their own agency. Simultaneously, the complexity of ELL teachers’ work calls for on-going professional learning, creating a need to examine not only how departments shape the work these teachers do, but also what opportunities they have for continued growth through professional development. Finally, there is need to know more about the interactions between ELL teachers and school administrators who often make decisions about school-based policies that have important implications for ELL teachers’ work. While there is a body of literature that examines the work of high school teachers and high school department structure (e.g., Little & McLaughlin, 1993; Siskin & Little, 1995), there is little research that specifically addresses high school ELL departments and teachers. Additionally, there is literature about ELL teachers’ instruction and pedagogical practices (e.g.,Valdés, 2004; Walqui, 2006), but less so related to the roles, collaboration, professional learning, and agency of these teachers at the high school level. To address these gaps, the following research questions guide this study: 1. How are ELL departments structured in two comprehensive high schools within the same district? What are the roles of ELL department heads, and what are their experiences of agency? 2. How do high school ELL teachers in two schools participate in professional learning communities (PLCs)? What topics are taken up in these meetings, and what are the possibilities and limitations of ELL teacher learning in PLCs? 3. How do school leaders support high school ELL departments and teachers, especially as related to the integration of ELL departments into the school building and the learning outcomes of ELL students? This investigation, comprised of three separate articles, uses a multi-faceted framework that draws from literature on high school teachers’ work and department organization, teacher agency, and sociocultural approaches to language instruction. The purpose of this research is to better understand the organization of ELL departments, the work and agency of high school ELL teachers, the professional learning and collaboration of ELL teachers, and the contexts and actors (such as school leaders) that shape their work. Methodologically, this qualitative study draws from interview data with ELL teachers, district personnel, and school administrators as well as observational data from classrooms and staff meetings. Findings indicate that the organization of ELL departments shapes the roles and responsibilities of ELL teachers, which has implications for the classes and services offered to ELL students. The agency of ELL teachers also shapes their work, and offers both opportunities and constraints for their practice. Related to ELL teachers’ participation in PLCs, findings demonstrate that the foci of the PLC in each building varied widely from a focus on administrative tasks to a focus on instructional tasks, with overlap in the area of student learning, and that teacher expertise was important for teacher learning in these meetings. Finally, this study found that school administrators play a vital part in supporting the work of ELL teachers and departments, especially related to the integration of the ELL department within the school building, and educational opportunities for ELL students. The findings of these articles hold promise for improving structure, organization, and support of ELL programs, departments, and teachers at the high school level. The articles that comprise this dissertation provide an analysis of the roles, experiences, and situated participation of high school ELL teachers in order to better understand their work as part of a growing field of research on educational opportunities and access for ELL students in the United States.
- Education - Seattle