The Mass Exodus of English as a Second Language Teachers

by Marianella Herrera

What You Can Do:

  1. Check out the New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (NYTESOL) website for ways to get involved here:
  2. Interested in pursuing an ESL certification? Find more information on how to get started here:

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a variety of challenges for educational institutions across the globe. Keeping children engaged and maintaining an efficient online classroom have become new worries for teachers, especially those that work with young students. Many educators as a result have found it difficult to uphold their commitment to teaching; according to a RAND survey, nearly one in four teachers admitted that they were likely to leave their job following the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, compared to about one in six in the years leading up to the pandemic [1]. The obstacles presented by virtual instruction are undoubtedly behind such an increase, with participants of the study citing elevated levels of stress and depressive symptoms, as well as individual childcare responsibilities, as some of the reasons they decided to leave their positions [1]. Despite the overall downward trend of teacher employment during the pandemic, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in particular are experiencing record lows in recruitment and retention, generating a nationwide shortage that has the potential to produce long-standing consequences.

ESL programs span across the entire educational spectrum in the United States, ranging from those provided in preprimary schools to those geared towards adult immigrants. In such settings, individuals are provided with the chance to learn English and improve their language skills in a bilingual environment. Specifically in elementary and secondary educational systems, the goal of ESL programs is to integrate non-English speakers into classrooms in order to facilitate meaningful learning, especially if the students are children who will be navigating American classroom life in the coming years. It should be noted that the benefits of ESL programs are far from assimilatory in nature; on the contrary, “compared to their non-bilingual peers, bilingual people have an easier time developing strong thinking skills… and focusing, remembering, and making decisions,” proving that promoting language competency aids in cognitive and social-emotional development [2].

One might correctly posit that the ethnic melting pot the United States prides itself on means that enrollment in ESL programs is quite high. Indeed, a National Center for Education Statistics report conducted in 2018 found that 10.2% of public school students in the country were English language learners, or ELLs [3]. Some states observed percentages well above the national average, most notably California and Texas with about 20% of their public school populations enrolled in such programs [3]. Within this student bracket, 75.2% of all ELLs and 7.7% of all students within the public school system reported Spanish as their native language, with Arabic and Chinese being the next commonly reported languages [3]. Given these staggering statistics that corresponds with the rise of the immigrant population within the United States, ESL teachers are becoming increasingly central to assuring students receive the education they deserve in settings that encourage and uplift multiculturalism.

Despite this necessity, only about 2% of all teachers have a main teaching assignment that consists of leading ESL classrooms [4]. Yet, 64% of teachers in the United States have at least one ELL student in their class [4]. This shortage, exacerbated by the obstacles posed by the pandemic for educators generally, translates into dire circumstances for schools that must cater to large ethnic student populations with little to no English proficiency skills. In Camden, New Jersey, where 53% of its students are Latinx and 14% are ELLs, “the school board last month approved a pilot program to begin exploring recruitment internationally” [5]. The superintendent of the district, Katrina McCombs, stated that they “would assist candidates with their applications and temporary visas to work in the United States and would cover fees and application costs, roughly $2,500 per person” [5]. Seeing as funding is not the problem, and “even though some states safeguard positions in high-need content areas such as bilingual and ESL from ‘last in, first out’ layoff policies,” the tremendous impact that COVID-19 will continue to have on educators makes an already adverse situation resoundingly worse [6]. 

What, then, will the implications of this shortage be? ELLs experience a disproportionately high number of cross-cutting hardships that further complicate their ability to equitably participate in classroom settings beyond a language barrier. The United States Department of Education found that ELLs “represented 14% of all homeless children enrolled in public schools” and “15% of students served by either Public Title I Schoolwide Programs or Targeted Assistance School Programs” [7]. Furthermore, “though [they] made up 10% of students with disabilities, 14% of all [ELLs] were students with disabilities, compared to 13% of the overall student population” [7]. When assessing how such disparities translated to virtual learning, researchers for the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) Center found significantly higher levels of learning loss among ELLs across subjects and grade levels [8]. “Some estimates suggest students will have lost 30% of their annual reading gains and up to 50% of their main gains” as a result of school closures at the start of the pandemic [9].

Given this information, ESL teachers seem to represent much more than a means for students to engage in a bilingual environment: they attempt to bridge the gap between children facing insurmountable barriers and access to the fundamental right to education. Though it may appear to some as trivial as learning a new language, ESL programs cultivate a sense of community; the understanding of culture and tradition that often coincides with shared language is a baseline comfort we should be offering our students in an increasingly nativist society. Promoting educators that do so is but one step in the direction of meaningful inclusivity.

Works Cited: