Since the pandemic overturned public schools just over four years ago, researchers at The Century Foundation (TCF) have spent significant energy on studying—and mitigating—its impacts on historically marginalized children. TCF efforts have been particularly focused on English learners (ELs). When schools closed, TCF launched the English Learners Forum, where educators and advocates could share questions, resources, and ideas for meeting ELs’ needs during the pandemic. Over the past four years, TCF has drawn upon the experience of forum members to publish a series of surveys, pieces, and reports. Now, during National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy month, we are launching a series of articles about these learners and the teachers who serve them.

At the end of 2023, to get a clearer picture of how EL-serving educators are faring in the current educational landscape, TCF researchers conducted eight focus groups with nearly eighty teachers and school personnel all over the country, with a range of experience levels. For example, some teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, while others were in their twenty-fifth or thirtieth year. There were teachers who worked with small groups of ELs as well as teachers who served all the ELs in their schools or were responsible for all the ELs in their districts. Groups included teachers from California, Washington, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. (among others). TCF researchers spent an hour with each focus group to learn more about their current teaching situations, how reading instruction has changed over their tenure, and their own career goals and aspirations.

In the coming months, TCF will release a series of thematic analyses of the findings from these educator focus groups. The analyses will explore a range of topics, including the unique wisdom of long-serving veteran teachers, focus group participants’ views on the mental health of their students and themselves, teachers’ perspectives on technology in education, and recent changes in literacy practices. The hope is, through sharing the findings from the English Learners Forum focus groups, TCF will spark a conversation between educators and policymakers, leading to an enhanced understanding of how to support teachers in their efforts to serve the EL population.

A Sneak Peak at the Findings

The teachers sampled were universally committed to, and energetic about, their work with EL students, but they also expressed frustration with some school and district policies. In general, they wanted more flexibility to use their skills and meet students where they were to help them succeed. For example, many teachers referenced a box that appeared in their textbooks, “For Your English learners,” which provided very little information for them to use to work with their students—yet, districts did not want them to stray from this small set of instructions.

The complaints shared in the focus groups were not a casual venting of their problems—many educators shared that they participate actively in efforts to change the conditions of their work and the learning opportunities for their students. Another teacher from Salem, Massachusetts—a former English learner herself—said, “This work is also about advocacy and disrupting the status quo.”

In the coming months, TCF researchers will share what they heard from these educators. What were the main takeaways? How can people use this data to advocate both for EL teachers and their students?

The stakes of learning from these teachers and better supporting ELs are high—and not just because of the damage wrought by pandemic-disrupted years. A veteran teacher in Northern California said,

I’ve taught ELs my entire career…30 years now in Title I schools…I really shifted to the language and the developing language because language is everything. You advocate with language, you speak out with language, you have a voice in your community with language. So it really is the key to living a fulfilling life. It’s the difference between a life spent in captivity and a life of freedom. Yes, I teach language, but it is so much more than that. I see it as a pathway for my students and their families to transform their communities.

Through TCF’s focus groups, teachers tell how and why they empower their learners—not only for academic gains, but to develop them as individuals and members of their communities, and the world beyond. TCF’s work in the months ahead will demonstrate the commitment of these teachers and their asset-focused mindsets, dedicated to improving the educational outcomes for their students.