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The Scarlett Letters

Destigmatizing ESL from the administrative level
By Tim Sheu
The Scarlett Letters

Destigmatizing ESL from the administrative level
“My daughter enjoys your class, but I really hope she can get out of ESL as soon as possible. How can she prepare for the placement test?” asks an anxious mother at a parent-teacher conference.
“My son feels very discouraged that he didn’t pass ESL, and I worry about his self-esteem. I don’t think he needs any more language support,” another parent writes in a brusque email.
From earnest pleas to exasperated demands, these are just a few of many ways that students and parents express resistance to receiving ESL—often because of the social stigma and costs associated. This problem persists among many international schools because it is multifaceted and difficult to tackle. Yet, with the rising number of English language learners around the world, it has become ever more important for international schools to recognize these students as an asset as well as understand the social challenges they face.
While teachers have a direct impact on building ESL students’ confidence and competence in the classroom, administrators play an equally essential role in “setting the value” of ESL at their schools. As unnerving as this may sound, part of the perception that ESL is inferior to the mainstream actually stems from administrative decisions and policies.
Faculty Recruitment
While administrators are unlikely to openly assert that ESL isn’t as important as the other subject areas, sometimes their beliefs and values are manifested through their recruitment decisions. For instance, to recruit or retain a desired teacher for a position that is relatively difficult to fill, international schools would sometimes also hire that candidate’s spouse, whom they would not have employed if interviewed separately, for the position of ESL. The idea of having someone with no formal music training teach string orchestra is clearly absurd. Yet, it is deplorably common to see candidates with inadequate experience and credentials hired as ESL instructors simply because they speak English as their native language.
If school leaders do not esteem ESL as a specialized field and uphold its recruitment standards as highly as those of mainstream subject areas, then this bias will eventually trickle down to the faculty and parent community. Thus, elevating the status of ESL begins with recognizing ESL teachers as language specialists who are an integral part of the teaching team, rather than serve an adjunct role.
From the Admissions Office to the Classroom
Another way to prevent or curb stigmatization is to set clear admissions standards and ensure they are not compromised for short-term enrollment gains. While many international schools, especially fledgling and small-scale ones, face constant pressure to meet their budgeted enrollment goals, they must also implement a reliable system of assessing whether applicants would truly fit well in their academic programs. Because ELLs vary greatly in language proficiency levels and backgrounds, schools should realistically determine whether they have the capacity and personnel to accommodate the learning needs of all the applicants they accept. A mismatch between student and program can set the student up for failure, and it is the association with unsuccessful academic performance, rather than the program itself, that engenders the stigma of ESL.
The Question of Fair Pricing
Perhaps an even more contentious issue is the additional ESL fee that many international schools charge. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that many administrators are disinclined to discuss because of the extra source of income it provides. Teachers also avoid this topic, often out of fear of potential repercussions or the notion that it is “beyond their level.”
However, when the extra cost of ESL is not commensurate with the additional amount of language support students receive, or when other non-ESL services are not charged likewise, the ESL fee implicitly appears more like a fine, and it fuels the stigmatization of the program. Furthermore, when student learning has direct financial impact on the parents, it often places an unfair amount of pressure on the students and saps their innate interest in learning languages. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear of students being berated or punished by their parents for not exiting ESL quickly enough.
Therefore, schools that charge an ESL fee should reevaluate whether the amount, if any, is truly justified. Some schools, like International School Bangkok (ISB), have completely eliminated their ESL fees and witnessed improved parent-teacher dialogues and increased focus on student learning. Dr. Andrew Davies, Head of School at ISB, recalls that “it was an ethical decision as we felt that it was wrong to charge for ESL when we do not charge for Learning Support. At the end of the day, it is all about giving kids the education they need to be successful.”
To conclude, school leaders have considerable influence on the status of the ESL program within their schools, but the responsibility should not entirely rest on their shoulders. It takes the collaborative effort of administrators, teachers, and parents to effectively address the challenge. In the next issue, I plan to discuss some strategies for how teachers and ESL coordinators can clear up common misconceptions about English language learners and help the community appreciate the diversity and value that these students bring to the classroom.
Tim Sheu ([email protected]) is the Middle School EAL Department Chair at Taipei American School.

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