In 2022, I taught a graduate class on dual-language immersion and English as a second language (ESL) for educators in a local school district. All of my students were in leadership positions at the school or at the district level. But when class started that fall, several of these students were abruptly sent back to classrooms to fill in teacher vacancies. By October, the district’s ESL coordinator told me they still had forty-two teacher vacancies—in addition to the thirteen that were being filled by ESL central office personnel.

It’s hard to open the paper these days without some reference to teacher shortages or teacher retention. In 2023, there were over 55,000 teacher vacancies across the United States—from kindergarten to through twelfth grade. But also, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the rate of teachers leaving at the end of the school year in 2022 was largely unchanged from that in 2012. And in the fall of 2022, analysis from Chad Aldeman found that, on a per-student basis, the United States had hit an all-time high of school staff hiring—largely due to the influx of federal aid dollars from the pandemic.

So what is happening? While the total number of K–12 teachers currently employed in U.S. schools is larger than ever, the country continues to face persistent shortages of teachers working in particular disciplines, such as those teaching English learners (ELs) in dual-language immersion (DLI), bilingual, and/or ESL.

As such, it is critical to learn more about the work experiences—positive and less positive—of veteran teachers of ELs. Given steady growth in the share of U.S. students who are classified as ELs, these teachers are more valuable than ever. Veteran teachers have both the long-term experience of serving ELs and the potential to engage and train new teachers. Many of them are members of the communities where they work and have an important perspective on engaging with their students and communities.

To that end, TCF connected with English Learner Forum members to conduct a series of focus groups. We started with forty veteran teachers—those who had at least ten years in the teaching profession, including some with nearly thirty years of classroom experience. Geographically, our sample included teachers in communities spanning the country, from Massachusetts to Texas, and from Georgia to California. Below are collected findings on what motivates veteran EL teachers to remain in their profession, and how practices in teaching ELs can be improved.

What makes veteran teachers committed to working with ELs?

Veteran teachers shared several reasons that deepen their commitment to serving ELs.

Veteran teachers see themselves in their students.

Many of our veteran teachers were ELs themselves and said they share lived experiences with their students. They joined the profession to do their part to improve the academic outcomes for students like themselves. A teacher in Salem, Massachusetts shared:

I am also an immigrant. I have a lot of common experiences with the families that I serve and the students that I serve. I am a parent myself of former ELL [English language learner] students. I feel like I am part of that community myself. I just enjoy it enormously. I agree with [name removed] how amazing it is to see the journey of these students coming from another country and being able to make transfers from their native languages into English, to translanguage, to make sense of a new world and a new culture and a new language. I think it’s really exciting to watch. They bring so much to the school community that it just is my passion.

Veteran teachers are more than teachers, they are change advocates.

A teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, shared that he had a complicated educational experience as a newcomer when he arrived in tenth grade in Buffalo, New York, from Vietnam. He expressed the importance of believing in students and their capabilities. During his first year at an urban high school, he learned about a math magnet school close by, but was discouraged from applying. He ended up leaving high school only to take the placement exam and get a spot at the math magnet school. He said,

It’s important for them [students] to have someone to be their advocate to say, yes, you can do it if you focus on this. I believe that getting into this profession is my way of sort of, like, paying back and paying[ing it] forward. I wanted to be able to provide the experience for students that I didn’t have.

Despite roadblocks and challenges, veteran teachers have asset-framed mindsets.

The opening question in each of our focus groups was “If you could describe the school year in one word, what would it be?” The veteran teachers mostly used positive words, such as “exciting,” “empowering,” and “refreshing”—by contrast, early career teachers tended toward words such as “difficult,” “rough,” and “challenging.” This isn’t to indicate that our veteran teachers were entirely content with their professional situations, but they were more reliably optimistic about the direction of the school year and their teaching practice in general.

Our veteran teachers universally talked about all the cultural knowledge, language, and experiences their students bring. They marveled at how their ELs enrich their classrooms and improve their classroom environments through their perspectives. The veteran teachers we spoke to were committed to the profession. As one teacher told me, “I will die at the whiteboard.”

What wisdom can veteran teachers share about how to improve current policies and structures for ELs?

Our veteran teacher groups identified challenges that EL families face when encountering and engaging with the educational system. They also bemoaned the fact that the rich linguistic and cultural gifts that ELs bring to schools and classrooms go unrecognized by key local, state, and federal policy structures and pedagogical approaches.

EL families need more support navigating the educational system.

Many teachers mentioned the challenges that families faced as their students navigated the U.S. educational system. One building leader in Massachusetts shared his concern that many of his students, because of their parents’ busy work schedules, have to get themselves up, prepare themselves for school, and get on the bus themselves, which can affect their ability to attend school. And due to parents’ language barriers, sometimes communication during meetings such as parent–teacher conferences can be lost in translation, so that parents may not know what to expect, or what is expected of them—a particular challenge if the parents have emigrated from a country with different norms and expectations regarding government systems such as schools. These cultural and structural issues make the work of the teacher more challenging. Teachers can take the responsibility of explaining and helping families navigate these educational norms, but without the support of administrators or the school community, teachers are left to add this component to their already hectic workload.

Veteran teachers also raised the question of rights: specifically, ELs’ right to language access and the right to specialized language services. Many families trust the system and/or lack the language skills or institutional knowledge required to question whether the services their child receives are adequate. For example, one teacher mentioned the quick transition of students to placement in special education services before they have had time to develop their English skills.

Most curricula are designed with a monolingual mindset or are not at grade level.

Veteran teachers discussed the curricula that they had to work with in teaching ELs, or the lack thereof. They expressed the need to work with students using appropriate grade-level material—despite where a student may be academically. Teacher access to grade-level material depended on their geographic location. For example, in Massachusetts, one teacher spoke of the change to a curriculum that stressed the science of reading, from Readers’ Workshop. She expressed her enthusiasm and support for this change because through this curriculum, all students—including ELs—were accessing grade-level material. She said,

The non-ELs are doing a five paragraph essay about an environmental issue that ties in with the text that we did this unit. The English learners are with sentence frames, they’re doing one paragraph. Some are doing two paragraphs. Same expectations, same standards, just based on what they can do. It’s totally changed it and I love it . . . because the expectation is that everyone is working with grade level text this year. The kids are flying. It’s phenomenal what they can do.

That said, the teachers agreed that many texts and materials do not cater to or support the education of the bilingual/multilingual learner (ML). One teacher shared,

I have a problem with us always having to modify a curriculum that is not designed for . . . multilingual brains. If you are not an experienced teacher in bilingualism, you are going to, again, not include that asset that these students bring, which is another language. You’re not going to facilitate that.

Veteran teachers shared that the inclusion of ELs in their curricula typically does not extend beyond a small text box included in their teaching guide, which suggests that the parts of curricula intended to accommodate ELs and guide their instruction often seem added as an afterthought, rather than being designed with a full consideration of the linguistic variation and backgrounds these students bring to the classroom.

Veteran teachers want more autonomy so that they can do what they do best.

Many teachers discussed the different policies and controls that schools or districts have that limit the decisions teachers can make about what they teach and what their students need. Teachers of English learners, particularly ESL teachers, want trust from school and district leaders to use their professional skills to provide students what they need to support their linguistic growth.

Veteran teachers expressed that, in many cases, ESL teachers are viewed as a support to general education teachers, even though ESL may have its own curriculum and standards. Put another way, some general education teachers don’t consider addressing the challenges that ELs face as their responsibility. But as one ESL teacher stated, “Supporting MLs is not ‘more on the instructional plate’ . . . it is the plate.”

Veteran teachers want the flexibility to make choices appropriate to the needs of their students. They want their school administrators to give them more flexibility in what curriculum they use, particularly because many times, the teachers are not left with materials that are created for their ELL students. One teacher shared,

When we come up with creative solutions with what we have, sometimes we’re not allowed that, because, oh, that curriculum has expired or that we’re not using that anymore or we’re using a district-wide curriculum that we’ve designed and, use this strategy. . . . Sometimes we want to have the flexibility to add to what we’re using, to modify what the district has laid out. . . . Sometimes the admin will say, oh, we’ll go to this training or go to that training. . . . Sometimes those trainings are not applicable to the specific needs of our students. I think sometimes, admin forget or whatever it may be, because we’re the ones in the field working with the kids, working with the families, we know the needs, we understand it.

Looking Ahead

Whether the veteran teachers in TCF’s focus groups were ELs themselves, or lived in an area heavily populated with ELs, or were the only EL educator in their school, they all spoke with a sense of urgency, passion, and commitment to their work. Communities and school leaders should include these teachers’ voices in discussions about EL education and listen to what they have to say—they are exceptional allies and advocates in the drive to improve educational outcomes for EL students.

Veteran teachers are also key leaders on their campuses—serving as mentors for peer educators earlier in their careers. Their role is pivotal in encouraging early-career teachers to stay in the classroom. Veteran teachers should have ample opportunities to share their “why” within their school and district communities, and they should be celebrated for what they offer the students, the families, and their early-career peers. Perhaps highlighting veteran teachers, their commitments, and their ideas will encourage more teachers to stick with teaching in the long run.