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Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: The Pedagogical Impact of Middle School Teachers’ Perceptions of English Learners

By The Room 241 Team December 22, 2018

There are close to five million English learners in U.S. public schools, which has increased by about eight percent since 2000. Teachers must adjust their teaching styles to fit their needs, and that means they need to be armed with the tools and knowledge to do so effectively. Rachael Hoffert, EdD, who recently earned her Doctorate of Education in Instructional Leadership, is a professor of education at Grace College and Seminary in Indiana. Her dissertation, “The Pedagogical Impact of Middle School Teachers’ Perceptions of English Language Learners: A Phenomenological Study” sheds light on this topic.

Hoffert hopes that educators can expand their thinking to better assist English learners in their communities. She has already shared her research multiple times, saying, “I have presented my research at our monthly Faculty Forum at Grace College and I’ve used my research in my teacher education classes. I will be presenting my research to our local school district this spring.” Let’s take a closer look at her work and some of her key findings.

The impact of educators’ perceptions on middle school students

The Institute of Education Science reports that an educators’ perceptions impact the way they interact with students. When an educator has a positive outlook on a student’s behavior and potential, he or she encourages the student. That allows a student to grow emotionally and academically. Educators who have a negative outlook on their student’s behavior or interactions with others may allow that perception to bleed into other areas of their interactions. They may not offer the same support and encouragement.

When working with middle school students, an educator plays a vital role in their view of their own self-worth and abilities. When teachers look at an English learner in a negative way, they will not provide the same level of support and focus that they offer to other students. But by recognizing the potential risks associated with teacher perceptions, it is possible to foster changes within a school and encourage improved understanding for students who do not speak English as their first language.

Recognizing teachers’ perceptions of English learners

By recognizing a current perception, teachers can adjust their behavior and their method of instruction to assist with long-term academic growth among their students. In Hoffert’s dissertation, she notes that the rise in students who are studying English means that teachers must take steps to encourage the learning process to fit the needs of their students. A larger portion of students in rural and suburban areas are learning English as a second language. When teachers do not adjust their method of instruction, they miss out on the chance to impact a student’s life in a positive way.

To study teachers’ perceptions of English learners, Hoffert selected those who discussed perceived professional development needs in this arena. The 11 teachers who participated in the study taught core subjects (science, math, social studies, language arts, and health/physical education) and were all at the same middle school. The school site draws from rural and suburban areas and has experienced an increased English learner population over the past decade. In fact, the site has seen over a 33% increase in identified English learners in the past ten years. This surpassed the national average and culminated in over a quarter of the total school population. One-third to one-half of the students at the site are now considered to be part of the minority population — a dramatic shift in demographic data.

Digging deeper

Hoffert’s driving questions included:

  1. How do middle school teachers perceive the second language acquisition process?
  2. How do middle school teachers perceive the emotional needs of ELL students?
  3. What pedagogical skills do middle school teachers currently implement while teaching ELL students?

These questions helped shape the semi-structured questions she asked participants. She asked open-ended questions so that they could share their perceptions by talking about their experiences and interpretations of the experienced phenomenon of the increase of English learners within middle school classrooms.

Some of Hoffert’s interview questions were:

  1. Describe a typical day in your classroom.
  2. Explain your experiences with ELLs inside of the classroom.
  3. Describe your interactions with ELLs outside of the classroom (e.g. hallway, school events, etc.).
  4. How do you perceive the emotional needs of ELL students?
  5. How do your ELL students interact with their peers?
  6. How long do you believe it takes an ELL to acquire English academic proficiency? Why?
  7. What are the strengths ELLs bring to the inclusive environment?
  8. What are the disadvantages ELLs bring to the inclusive classroom?
  9. What pedagogical skills do you implement for ELLs within your classroom?

Summarizing teachers’ perceptions

Hoffert summarized narratives, themes, and supporting details that described teachers’ perceptions of the increased population of English learners in their school.

Some key findings include:

  • Participants perceived various lengths of time for academic English proficiency.
  • Many noted the challenge of second language acquisition and cultural diversity was mentioned as a strength by the majority of participants.
  • Several participants discussed the need for more professional development to better understand and support English learners.
  • Over half of the participants perceived English learners wanting to belong and be accepted within the school environment.
  • Some participants attributed behavioral issues to English learners’ emotional needs not being met while others thought students who struggled more to learn academic English exhibited more behavioral issues.
  • Other participants perceived English learners needing to be understood and respected, and that those desires were critical emotional needs.
  • Only a few participants talked about the need for professional development in relation to the emotional needs of English learners.
  • Scaffolding content, maintaining well-managed classrooms, and fostering vocabulary development, were common pedagogical strategies discussed by participants.

Fostering empathy and understanding in the classroom

Hoffert notes that transforming societal perceptions and recognizing the emotional needs of English learners helps promote empathy in the classroom. Middle school teachers must understand that a key part of the problem with poor outcomes when students study English is the lack of proper support and encouragement in the classroom.

When students are encouraged to speak and work on projects by an empathetic and understanding adult, they are able to focus on their studies rather than the errors they make in the classroom. That support helps students improve their language skills and their academic performance. A teacher has the opportunity to foster understanding by treating students with respect and adjusting their methods to address challenges when students are still learning the English language.

Focusing on empathy and support encourages other students to treat their classmates with understanding and patience. That results in a positive adjustment to the way students respond to the classroom environment. The result is greater acceptance of differences that arise in a diverse and complex society.

Hoffert’s findings provide rural and suburban school leadership teams in the Midwest an opportunity to understand commonly held perceptions of English learners in middle schools. Recognizing common gaps in understanding can promote meaningful conversations, a path leading to the creation of a more inclusive learning environment, and specific topics for professional development.

Through the whole research process, I learned about the emotional piece that English language learners face,” says Hoffert. “It’s not just academics. It’s how other students and people perceive them at school and those challenges that these kids have to overcome that are different from other students in the classroom. There are so many underserved in our own backyard and, as teachers, we have to be a light for them. The emotional wellness piece and students’ sense of security are so important to the whole learning climate.”

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