Learning How to Approach Interviews with Teachers

By Emily Basham, Politics ’12

During the Researchers’ Caucus at the National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC), a woman in the group said “You have to ask what practitioners know- they might know important things that no one is asking them about.” This caught my attention, and when the meeting was over I explained to her that I am currently doing research about the ESL policies and practices in the Walla Walla Public Schools. We talked about how this idea of accessing practitioners’ knowledge applied to my project, and I realized that there were some very obvious questions that I hadn’t yet articulated in the process of planning my interview questions. What do ESL teachers do that they think is effective? Who are the master ESL practitioners, and what sets them apart? She told me that some teachers “have it” and some don’t, and I should be asking the teachers I interview what they think makes the difference between the two.

At the same time, a message that I heard repeatedly in the panels on Youth and Education was that teachers (and ESL teachers in particular) work incredibly hard for their students, and you have to approach the issue of improving ESL policies and practices with a lot of respect. Hearing this really prepared me for my interviews, and gave me an important insight to balance all of the articles I’ve been reading about how schools are failing English Language Learners (ELLs). I think I had grown disheartened by reading so many reports with similar messages about the widening achievement gap, low-graduation rate, and ineffective classroom methods that Latino ELL students face. It was good to be reminded that teachers care immensely about their students and want to help them learn as much as possible, and it is surely frustrating for them that their efforts aren’t bringing ELL students to an equal level with non-ELLs. In light of all this, saying that some teachers “have it” and others don’t seems like it gets into sensitive territory: the teachers I am interviewing are all very devoted to their students and committed to improving ESL education, and I don’t want to suggest that just because ELL test scores aren’t rising (or there isn’t improvement according to some other mode of assessment), the teacher doesn’t have what it takes or isn’t doing a good job.

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