A day in the life of an ESL teacher

Story by Sarah Brannan

Photos by Sarah Brannan

Today’s lesson in Patricia “Patty” Baer’s fourth grade English as a Second Language math class is Uncle Ben’s Chicken Farm. On a whiteboard, she has written a word problem: “How many egg-laying hens does Uncle Ben have? Uncle Ben has ____ egg-laying hens on his farm.”

It’s 9:15 a.m. and Baer, 52, is holding her class in the hallway.

The ESL department and its subsequent classes at Waterman Elementary School have changed locations several times in the almost 39 years she’s been teaching there.

This is in large part due to the increase in immigrants and refugees migrating to Harrisonburg in the past few decades, requiring a more expansive ESL department throughout the city. When Baer first began at Waterman, there were only a couple of ESL teachers covering all of the elementary schools. Today, there are at least three to five at each.

“Sometimes, you’re not forced to do something until you have to,” Baer explains, comparing the growth of Harrisonburg’s ESL department to that of other Shenandoah Valley schools. “And I’m not saying that to be critical of anybody. You have to prioritize.”

While the ESL department has grown out of some urgency, Baer doesn’t doubt that the community is better off with its expanding diversity.

“I think being with people who are different from us are opportunities for us to grow, and that’s a good thing,” she says.

Baer’s hallway “classroom” consists of a small table, a stand-up whiteboard and a few chairs. She explains that she tries to use pictures and terminology that the students already know to explain more complex word problems.

The ESL program isn’t for students who don’t know English, but rather students who are not yet proficient in academic English. They might speak everyday English conversationally, but aren’t as familiar with academic terminology. This has the potential to affect their advancement in school.

“Nobody’s first language is academic language,” she explains.

Having an ESL teacher co-teaching with the classroom teacher can be beneficial for all students picking up academic terminology, whether English is their first language or not.

Two of the 209 English learners enrolled at Waterman sit down at the table. Baer passes out notebooks and starts by reading the word problem with the students.

She starts by drawing a box, or “chicken house,” and asks the students to help divide it up into sections based on the specific chicken group.

Once all of the chickens are accounted for, she asks the students, “Are we adding anything together?” The students confirm.

“Are we taking anything away?” asks Baer.

“Yes,” the students respond in unison.

Baer gives them a chance to each solve the problem on their own. Baer talks through the answers with the students before sending them back to class.

Last year, it was reported that more than 56 different languages are spoken in Harrisonburg City public schools, but the majority of Baer’s students speak Spanish.

“Our trends sort of follow what’s happening in the world,” Baer explains.

She notes that when she started as a classroom teacher in 1990, there was a large Hispanic population, but this was followed by an insurgence of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, refugees from Kurdistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo moved in.

Today, Baer reports there’s been a wave of students from Honduras.

Baer herself is from Maryland. Through a volunteer program in her church, she spent two years as a teacher’s aide at Ed Smith Elementary School in Syracuse, NY before attending college.

Eastern Mennonite University is what brought her to Harrisonburg. Baer, who’s Mennonite, heard about the school through her father after he attended a semester. Baer was drawn to their education department and the small atmosphere.

After two student teacher placements at Waterman, Baer became a classroom teacher right out of school and hasn’t left since.

“It felt like home,” she says of Harrisonburg and the friends, community, and church she’s found there. She confirms that being Mennonite does impact the way she views her work.

“I don’t see what I do as just a job. I view it as a calling … It’s who you are and how you provide service and serving others,” she says. She notes that Mennonites tend to “think more globally.”

Since her start, Baer has moved to the ESL program and currently works as a lead teacher and an ESL specialist. Her responsibilities include running meetings, following up with students who have exited the program and training new teachers in the program.

Baer’s second group is meeting in an upstairs classroom shared by several other small groups. At times it’s hard to hear the lessons over them. Baer explains that there isn’t always enough space for small groups like this to meet.

Baer introduces the same problem of Uncle Ben’s chicken farm. She asks the group what the number 440 represents.

She clarifies that this represents “all of the chickens” and that roosters and hens are different but both are chickens.

This brings up a discussion of words for chickens in Spanish.

“‘Pollo’ is ‘chicken’” Baer confirms. “What’s ‘rooster?’”

The group discusses the difference between “gallina,” (hen) “pollo” (chicken) and “pollito” (chick).

“Well if you figure it out, you let me know,” Baer says as she tries to get the group to move back into math. She calls on one student.

“What’s something else we need to add?”

“‘Gallo.’ It’s ‘gallo,’’’ another student interjects.

The rest of the group confirms that “gallo” is the word for “rooster.”

Baer listens patiently before trying to get the group back on track.

After three math groups, Baer moves on to reading. She explains that, in keeping with the idea of using academic language as much as possible, they mostly read books on scientific topics. She tries to correlate this with the lessons the students are learning in their main classroom.

This week’s lesson is on electricity and energy. The group reads about and discusses different forms of energy, currents, circuits and fossil fuels. Baer tries to use as many scientific terms in regular conversation that she can.

Four and a half hours and six lessons later, Baer heads back to her office for lunch.

Baer’s office is located inside a trailer behind the building that she shares with four other ESL teachers and sometimes a class. The wall behind her desk reads “Welcome to Ms. Baer’s Den.”

Baer puts her lunch in the microwave. She only has thirty minutes before she has to move on to her role as ESL Specialist at Spotswood Elementary School.

As a specialist, she provides guidance and support for other ESL teachers in the school system. It’s a packed day and it doesn’t end when the children go home. She points out that working ESL requires tons of time and a lot of flexibility. She spends a large part of her day collaborating on lessons with several different teachers as well as coming up with her own.

“As a classroom teacher, it’s sort of easy to be stuck in your grade level and not really see sort of the big picture of the whole building, so it’s a challenge and it’s also a benefit I think to have that,” she says.

It’s not a “straight up nine to five,” she explains. “I’ve been known to sometimes be here until 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock … I don’t have children of my own so I don’t need to be responsible for anyone else.”

For her, it is worth it to help support students and their families. She explains that she feels the best way for the community to support families of ESL students is “recognizing the fact that the families that we have contribute to our community. They’re here, they work hard,” she explains.

“I think that it has broadened my view of the world. I think that it has made me more kind of aware of the community,” she says of her job. “The fact is I think it’s pretty universal that parents want their kids to have a better life than they had.”

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