In May 2023, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) hosted a listening session during Teacher Appreciation Week that showcased multilingual K–12 educators. The discussion focused on the experiences and expertise of multilingual teachers in supporting English learners (ELs) and their families, along with resources to promote multilingual education and preserve Native languages.
This Q&A highlights insights from Carol Pagan, from Providence Public School District in Rhode Island, and Sonia Águila, from Canalino Elementary School in California. Check out Part 2 of this series, which highlights two other panelists from the session.
Tell us about your current role and background.
Carol Pagan: I am a teacher with 23 years of experience. I am originally from Providence, Rhode Island. Over the years, I've held various teaching positions: as a bilingual teacher, regular education teacher, and dual language teacher. Currently, I serve as a bilingual literacy coach at a dual language school in Rhode Island, and I work as an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School for Progressive Education. My role involves teaching literacy acquisition to teachers pursuing their ESL certification. Additionally, I'm passionate about advocating for multilingual learners and currently serve as the VP of Special Populations for the Providence Teachers Union.
My path to becoming a teacher began when I immigrated to the United States from Colombia at the age of 10, not knowing any English. My achievement of being the first student in my high school to attend an Ivy League institution inspired me to pursue a career in teaching.
Sonia Águila: I was born in California. I moved to Mexico when I was five and came back to California at age 11 and didn’t speak a word of English. In college, I received the honor of being named Latino Student of the Year. I was also fortunate enough to obtain my teaching credentials and master's degree in education, free of charge.
Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. This is my 25th year as an educator. I teach second grade, dual- language in California. I am also the dual-language immersion chairperson for my district. I am the proud 2022 California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) Teacher of the Year, and this year, 2023 National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) Teacher of the Year. I'm also a radio host for children.
What does multilingualism mean to you?
Sonia: I admire Dr. Miguel Cardona, our U.S. Secretary of Education. He keeps telling everybody being bilingual is a superpower, and I totally agree. Children have the capacity and I strongly believe that they're capable and should speak more than one language.
Carol: It allows our students to use the full linguistic repertoire that they have available to them to communicate, connect, and relate to the world around them. It opens possibilities to make connections, make friendships, and relate to people who share common experiences, as well as those with completely different experiences, simply by the ability to connect through language. It gives them a leg up, an advantage that makes them marketable and allows them to succeed in this global market we have.
What do you do in your classroom to promote multilingualism?
Sonia: As a teacher, I prioritize greeting my students each morning and encourage them to say "good morning" in different languages. It is important to me to have books written by authors who represent diversity and reflect the backgrounds of my students. This allows them to relate easily and feel represented. Additionally, we celebrate special events such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, and Cinco de Mayo. Music also plays a significant role in my classroom. Drawing from my experience as a radio host of 26 years, I have access to a vast collection of music that I incorporate into my lessons.
Carol: During our announcements, we always begin in Spanish. When we address our students, we honor their Native names and don't attempt to Americanize them. We have students who speak Spanish, K'iche', and English, and we encourage the development of their third language. One of the ways we support this is by allowing our students to freely use their full linguistic repertoire in the classroom, regardless of the language they choose to communicate in. Our goal is to have our kids be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural, and to not lose that.
What can be done to better retain effective multilingual teachers?
Sonia: Fifty-five percent of the teachers are thinking of leaving the profession. To be very honest, we need higher pay. It's hard to live on a teacher's salary. We need professional respect, we need a lot of resources, we need to find those bilingual teachers, those teachers that, you know, speak two, or three languages, and really make them believe that they're making a difference.
Carol: Streamlining the process of allowing teachers who have teaching experience in other countries to become certified would be one great idea that I have. Another idea is to go to our instructional assistants, and to our paraprofessionals, and streamline the process for them also to become certified. Additionally, the lack of equity really is a frustrating factor for a lot of the teachers that are bilingual and dual language teachers because we often purchase materials for the monolingual counterparts, and the materials are not fully available for our digital learning system (DLS) teachers.
What are some of the resources you use on a daily basis to ensure multilingual students are served properly?
Carol: Effective co-planning with dual language partners. In my capacity as a coach, it is really allowing myself the time to be able to co-plan effective lessons that are rigorous and that are content-driven, and that do not water down the content for our language learners but scaffold for their understanding. Creating lots of language-bridging activities, especially when switching from one language to the other, to make sure that the content is not lost.
In addition, we have professional learning communities (PLCs) in our building. These structured sessions, lasting one hour per week, are thoughtfully planned and data driven. Utilizing data to inform our instruction is the most effective way to maximize the limited time we have in the classroom.
What have been the most effective professional learning opportunities in your career as a multilingual educator?
Carol: I attended the NAST Summer Academy, where I took ELL 101, a full-week course. When I came back to my local chapter, I integrated some of the lessons into my coaching role with my staff, and the impact was immediate. Also, our school department created a series of professional developments in collaboration with the Center for Applied Linguistics, focusing on dual language principles. These sessions have been incredibly informative and empowering.
I also have sought out professional organizations like NABE and attended their conferences. I find that personalized professional development, where I have a say in choosing it for my own growth as an educator, is the most impactful. This way, you can take what you learn and go right back into your classroom and implement it.
Sonia: As a dual-language immersion chairperson for my district, I am in charge. It's one of my responsibilities to look for professional development. I collaborate with other teachers, and we share skills and ideas, and when I attend conferences, I love making those connections with other teachers. We can learn from each other.
What last thoughts would you like to leave with the audience about your role as a multilingual teacher?
Sonia: As the NABE Teacher of the Year, it's one of my goals to inspire others to follow their dream, to learn a second language, or a third language. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story, and again, very proud to be bilingual.
Carol: I think this one's hard to wrap up in a few words, but being a teacher has been the most rewarding experience of my life, next to being a mom. It has been extremely rewarding in nurturing relationships, not just with my students and their families, but with the colleagues that I have worked with, that have inspired me and motivated me, and just been role models for me, as well.