Mentoring Mainstream Teachers of ESL Students

Mentoring Mainstream Teachers of ESL Students

"The easiest and fastest way to learn is from other people. Without other people, the old wheel must be re-invented again and again and again." (Feiman-Nemser, Sharon )The reality of teaching ESL in most high schools is that there are not enough ESL teachers to go around. Plain and simple. If ESL teachers are to fulfill their mandate as advocates for students who are learning a new culture, it is incumbent on us to break through the isolation and fragmentation of the teaching profession by becoming leaders in our school communities and actively mentor new mainstream classroom teachers in effective ESL teaching practices.


While students with limited English proficiency have the opportunity to take some ESL credit classes while they are in high school, they have to fulfill the same graduation requirements as any other student. This means that ESL students are usually integrated immediately into mainstream classrooms. Of course, there are some schools that do offer more intensive ESL support to newcomers. However, the intent of this paper is to reach out to ESL teachers in regular high schools, where ESL is seen to be the responsibility of a distinctly separate department, where ESL teachers typically work in isolation and where opportunities for communication across disciplines are generally lacking. Is this in the best interests of our teachers or our ESL students? The Ontario "Standards of Practice of the Teaching Profession", standards that have been collaboratively developed by teachers themselves, were designed to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a teacher?" As ESL professionals and leaders in our schools, we must answer the question, "What does it mean to be an ESL teacher?" Key elements of teaching standards require teachers to know:

  • how differences arising from cultural heritage, language, family, gender, community and other factors shape experience and impact on learning;
  • that teaching students with exceptionalities requires the use of specialized knowledge and skills;
  • how to shape instruction so that it is helpful to students who learn in a variety of ways;
  • how to identify and respond to the factors in a diverse and changing society that impact on learning.

Many of these expectations seem to speak directly to the teaching of ESL students. However, "schools do not require teachers to have ESL certification and with no formal training in ESL, teachers lack the skills to be effective language teachers for the ESL students in their classroom". (Meyers) How are we to fill this gap? Since ESL teachers have the specialized knowledge, skill and experience required to teach students with limited English proficiency, they are in the best position to mentor mainstream teachers in effective ESL practices. Before you shake your head and say "I already have enough to do," look around you and see what is happening to your ESL students. Are they adjusting to their mainstream classes well? Are they able to keep up with their homework? Do they have a fair shot of attending post secondary schools if they want to? Have they passed the new Ontario graduation requirement of the grade 10 literacy test? If you answered no to any one of these questions, then you know that the needs of your ESL students don,t disappear once they leave the doors of your classrooms.

According to the Committee on Integration Issues, the current strategy of integrating ESL students in mainstream classes is based on sound pedagogical foundations. "Successful integration occurs when teachers are comfortable with and capable of meeting the language and literacy needs of their ESL students and when those ESL students are meeting success in acquiring both language and literacy in that situation." (Meyers) However, without appropriate training, many teachers feel inadequate and incapable of meeting student needs and quickly become disenchanted teaching students with exceptionalities. The support of an ESL mentor at the beginning of a teacher,s career can ensure that the next generation of new teachers has the skills and understanding they need to function effectively. 

What Is ESL Mentoring?

ESL mentoring is not simply resource support, but it is "a means of fostering stronger connections among the teaching staff, leading to a more positive and cohesive learning environment for students." (Brewster and Railsback) It involves working on a "mentoring team," along with several other veteran teachers, thereby broadening the support received by novice teachers.

"I always appreciate working with someone with whom I can exchange ideas and reflect on what goes on in my classes. My mentor,s been great. I enjoyed working with her because even though she has vast experience, she,d still ask for my thoughts. Effective communication and a flexible after-school timetable are the two things that make a good mentorship...." (Carolyn Frielink, Teacher, University of Western Ontario ESL course, July 22, 2003)

  • This team approach to mentoring has several benefits for both mentors and novice teachers:
  • New teachers have a support system to get through difficult situations.
  • New teachers become part of the corrective process without assuming complete responsibility.
  • New teachers gain different perspectives from other staff.
  • Mentors have opportunities to analyze their own beliefs about teaching
  • Mentors are able to discuss questions and problems that arise in the course of their work with novices.

Implementing a Mentoring

Mentoring has been a buzzword in educational reform since the early 1980s and over the years a number of key elements have been identified as being crucial to the development of an effective mentoring team. The following best practices come from Classroom Leadership Online, in an article by Randall Turk entitled, "Get on the Team: An Alternative Mentoring Model":

  1. Mentoring must be linked to a vision of good teaching and guided by an understanding of teacher learning.
  2. The program must be supported by a professional culture that favours collaboration and inquiry.
  3. Mentoring teams must be "working" teams that accomplish daily work, have stable membership and are self-led.
  4. Stable membership is essential for maintaining the important element of trust, which takes time to grow.
  5. Trust among team members is the foundation for building caring relationships, a common element of successful teams.
  6. Mentoring teams must possess high performance standards with an established purpose and committed to a common working approach.
  7. Mentors serve as role models, sponsors, encouragers, counselors not as evaluators.
  8. Members have complementary skills and are individually and mutually accountable.
  9. Each member is committed to the personal growth and success of the oth

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