Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)
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Advocating for the Needs of your EAL Students
February 5, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan
As an EAL teacher, one of my main emotions was frustration (or maybe that’s just me as a person!). I spent a lot of time thinking about the injustices of recently arrived students; being plonked into a classroom, with a time frame on their heads (often short if they are older), and the rigidity of the Australian education system looming down on them. On top of these thoughts sat frustrations with colleagues, school leadership and the department for their lack of understanding or wilful dismissal of the needs of these students. For the icing on the cake, I found myself debunking myths among friends, family and community members that clouded their acceptance and compassion for the students that I taught and their communities.
When you think about all of the ways in which you advocate for EAL and for your students, it is huge! But beware! It can become exhausting and overwhelming, and can lead to bitterness, cynicism and compulsive complaining syndrome (it did for me anyway!).
In this blog, I would like to highlight the layers of advocation that you may be doing for your students, and to shout out to all of the amazing teachers who do this work day in and day out.
- Defending your subject
- Advocating for your students in the mainstream (colleagues & leadership).
- Pleading with the Department of Education
- Educating the wider community
1. Defending your subject
Depending on your school setting, you may find yourself justifying the very existence of EAL or reminding other school staff that you and your department exist, just like every other teacher and department at the school. In some school settings, EAL can feel like a forgotten subject, which can make you feel like you are an inferior educator. This can be even more difficult if you are the sole EAL teacher at the school, or if you work part time or across campuses. In addition, there can be a perception that EAL teaching is easier than mainstream teaching as our class sizes can be smaller, and sometimes we can get the “obedient, eager to learn and please” kids. Overall, I can name numerous experiences of isolation, dismissal or simply being left out of important meetings that concerned my students.
You may have also found yourself needing to justify the credibility of your subject to the students themselves. In many school settings, EAL classes can make students feel like the ‘dumb’ kids or the ‘not normal’ kids as they have to go to a separate class to the rest of their peers. Some students can be in denial about their learning level (for various reasons) and can’t understand why they would be in your class, or not undertaking a higher qualification e.g. year 12 exam certificates or higher level TAFE certificates. So here I was paid to teach a subject that I knew the students needed, but I was having to sell it to everyone around me! Needless to say, this was tiring.
2. Advocating for your students in the mainstream
I found this the trickiest line to walk. On one hand, I acknowledged and witnessed the incredible, crushing demands placed on mainstream teachers and leadership. However, on the other hand, I had a job which entailed working with other staff to help them understand my EAL students’ learning levels and needs. It can be so difficult to find the time and the right words to do this. And if you want to catch someone in leadership to discuss an EAL related matter, they have all of a sudden disappeared out of thin air! Just joking, but you know what I mean!
Time is so precious in a school and teachers often have so much on their plates that the weekly meetings that you do have with other school staff (if you have the privilege of getting these) are hardly enough to address your issues or enact actual change. I remember frequently offering to work with teachers to co-plan or assist, and this was often turned down, because they either didn’t have the capacity, didn’t think that I could help or were concerned that there would be judgement.
3. Pleading with the Department of Education
This leads me to layer number 3 – pleading with the Department, and it sounds a little something like this… “Oh please department of education, would you acknowledge the crushing workloads you have stowed upon teachers in Australia? Please, please, please could you free us all up a little so that we can do our jobs properly. And while you are at it, could we have smaller class sizes pretty please!” Imagine that for EAL teachers! What a dream! Other teachers may not actually avoid us like the plague!
The Department also has this problematic habit of lumping the EAL kids in with the disabled kids when writing curriculum and suggesting modifications. If you have just completed a face palm, I am right there with you. If there is steam coming out of your ears and you are starting to feel hot, this is a classic symptom of what I like to call “Departmentitis.”
But in all honesty, I do recall when the Department of Education in Victoria hosted consultation sessions on the new Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and so many teachers requested EAL modification and assessment requirements to be written into the curriculum. The Department panel member responded that they would be taking into consideration students with additional needs and slipped in the word ‘disabilities’ alongside EAL. Another face palm!
4. Educating the wider community
EAL teachers may also find themselves fighting against incorrect or misleading media interpretations of our students and their communities. This might come up in conversations with relatives or friends, or in other recreational spaces. And knowing what you know about your students and how they came to be here, you feel compelled to set the record straight. I have had many a conversation with those in my personal life describing the differences between asylum seeker, refugee and migrant, explaining Islamic rituals and defending the rights of all people to be in the country. Now this is not to say that there aren’t incredibly supportive Australians out there. But while this might be true, there are still mistruths spread willy nilly about our cohort, which impacts how the Australian community responds to them. So, in your “down time” you might find yourself explaining, re-explaining and defending the rights of the students that you work with, yet again.
If you have just read all of this, and you feel triggered or overwhelmed, please breathe. This blog may have stirred up some memories, some rage or a feeling of hopelessness. On the other hand, you may be thinking, this lady is crazy! I have had supportive colleagues and schools throughout. Either way, I think that it is important to remember that while you might not change your colleagues’ actions, your school’s position or the Department of Education’s ignorance overnight, or even over ten years, you can control the work that you do in your classrooms every day and that is enormous for our students. In that hour or two that you are with them, you are creating a feeling of safety, inclusion, success and of being understood that is never to be underestimated.
Best of luck for the year ahead teachers, and here’s to not too many battles in the ring!
*Please note: I was a teacher and what I write about in this post comes only from my observations and my experiences working with low literacy, refugee background students, which I communicate broadly here.
2 thoughts on “Advocating for the Needs of your EAL Students”
Thanks so much, Lauren for your wonderful insights and putting the daily struggles EAL/D teachers have into perspective. I am a new EAL/D teacher this term in a primary school (Kinder, Yrs 1&2) and struggling a bit with explaining to teachers that I am an English language teacher first and foremost and not learning support. Learning support feel they can ask me to teach their program and bring new with no experienced EAL/D teacher at the school, I agreed to do MiniLit with Year 1 EAL/D students. I feel my time could be better spent with these same students in withdrawal with my own language program. Sometimes literacy is a fine line but my students are not learning support students. Do you have any advice? Can you recommend good resources for these year groups. I an using the TALL listening and speaking program with my new Kinders but feel Year 1 requires more in class support and reading and writing support in withdrawal. Year 2 I am still figuring out but teachers have pinpointed a couple if students who require 1:1 withdrawal, ine for speaking (drawing out her English language and building on what she knows) and the other requires writing support. Any ideas I would be very grateful for. Kind regards, Jill
Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad you found the blog useful. It sounds like a challenging situation you have at your school. I used to find it especially frustrating when teachers would perceive EAL as learning support. As someone who has taught in both roles, they are extremely different! I would love to be able to help, but unfortunately, I have never taught EAL students in that age group. I wonder if the EAL/D Teacher’s Network -TESOL on Facebook might be able to help. They usually have EAL teachers from both primary and secondary sectors who are happy to give advice. My other go to to get an idea of activities and assessments for different levels and age groups is TEAL – https://teal.global2.vic.edu.au/ This is a Victorian website, so I am not sure which state you are teaching in, but this still usually gives some good ideas. I hope that is helpful and I am sorry that I can’t be of more assistance. I wish you the best of luck and sincerely thank you for reaching out.