The Internet TESL Journal

Mentoring Mainstream Teachers of ESL Students

Rosalie Mittica
rosalie.mittica [at]
Ontario, Canada
"The easiest and fastest way to learn is from other people. Without other people, the old wheel must be re-invented again and again and again." (Feiman-Nemser, Sharon )The reality of teaching ESL in most high schools is that there are not enough ESL teachers to go around. Plain and simple. If ESL teachers are to fulfill their mandate as advocates for students who are learning a new culture, it is incumbent on us to break through the isolation and fragmentation of the teaching profession by becoming leaders in our school communities and actively mentor new mainstream classroom teachers in effective ESL teaching practices.


While students with limited English proficiency have the opportunity to take some ESL credit classes while they are in high school, they have to fulfill the same graduation requirements as any other student. This means that ESL students are usually integrated immediately into mainstream classrooms. Of course, there are some schools that do offer more intensive ESL support to newcomers. However, the intent of this paper is to reach out to ESL teachers in regular high schools, where ESL is seen to be the responsibility of a distinctly separate department, where ESL teachers typically work in isolation and where opportunities for communication across disciplines are generally lacking. Is this in the best interests of our teachers or our ESL students? The Ontario "Standards of Practice of the Teaching Profession", standards that have been collaboratively developed by teachers themselves, were designed to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a teacher?" As ESL professionals and leaders in our schools, we must answer the question, "What does it mean to be an ESL teacher?" Key elements of teaching standards require teachers to know: Many of these expectations seem to speak directly to the teaching of ESL students. However, "schools do not require teachers to have ESL certification and with no formal training in ESL, teachers lack the skills to be effective language teachers for the ESL students in their classroom". (Meyers) How are we to fill this gap? Since ESL teachers have the specialized knowledge, skill and experience required to teach students with limited English proficiency, they are in the best position to mentor mainstream teachers in effective ESL practices. Before you shake your head and say "I already have enough to do," look around you and see what is happening to your ESL students. Are they adjusting to their mainstream classes well? Are they able to keep up with their homework? Do they have a fair shot of attending post secondary schools if they want to? Have they passed the new Ontario graduation requirement of the grade 10 literacy test? If you answered no to any one of these questions, then you know that the needs of your ESL students don't disappear once they leave the doors of your classrooms.

According to the Committee on Integration Issues, the current strategy of integrating ESL students in mainstream classes is based on sound pedagogical foundations. "Successful integration occurs when teachers are comfortable with and capable of meeting the language and literacy needs of their ESL students and when those ESL students are meeting success in acquiring both language and literacy in that situation." (Meyers) However, without appropriate training, many teachers feel inadequate and incapable of meeting student needs and quickly become disenchanted teaching students with exceptionalities. The support of an ESL mentor at the beginning of a teacher's career can ensure that the next generation of new teachers has the skills and understanding they need to function effectively.

What Is ESL Mentoring?

ESL mentoring is not simply resource support, but it is "a means of fostering stronger connections among the teaching staff, leading to a more positive and cohesive learning environment for students." (Brewster and Railsback) It involves working on a "mentoring team," along with several other veteran teachers, thereby broadening the support received by novice teachers.

"I always appreciate working with someone with whom I can exchange ideas and reflect on what goes on in my classes. My mentor's been great. I enjoyed working with her because even though she has vast experience, she'd still ask for my thoughts. Effective communication and a flexible after-school timetable are the two things that make a good mentorship...." (Carolyn Frielink, Teacher, University of Western Ontario ESL course, July 22, 2003)

Implementing a Mentoring

Mentoring has been a buzzword in educational reform since the early 1980s and over the years a number of key elements have been identified as being crucial to the development of an effective mentoring team. The following best practices come from Classroom Leadership Online, in an article by Randall Turk entitled, "Get on the Team: An Alternative Mentoring Model":
  1. Mentoring must be linked to a vision of good teaching and guided by an understanding of teacher learning.
  2. The program must be supported by a professional culture that favours collaboration and inquiry.
  3. Mentoring teams must be "working" teams that accomplish daily work, have stable membership and are self-led.
  4. Stable membership is essential for maintaining the important element of trust, which takes time to grow.
  5. Trust among team members is the foundation for building caring relationships, a common element of successful teams.
  6. Mentoring teams must possess high performance standards with an established purpose and committed to a common working approach.
  7. Mentors serve as role models, sponsors, encouragers, counselors not as evaluators.
  8. Members have complementary skills and are individually and mutually accountable.
  9. Each member is committed to the personal growth and success of the other members.
  10. Most mentoring programs provide some orientation and training for the mentors. Common topics include: research on effective teaching, beginning teacher concerns, theories of adult learning, etc.
Effective mentors demonstrate a willingness to nurture another person, be people-oriented, open-minded, flexible and empathetic. Collaborative and cooperative skills are particularly crucial social skills as are receptiveness, responsiveness, openness and dependability. Training in communication and active listening techniques, relationship skills, effective teaching, models of supervision and coaching, conflict resolution and problem solving are areas that are often included in workshops for mentors. (Janas, Monica)

Possible Obstacles

One of the main reasons that many mentoring programs fail is because the purposes of mentoring are unclear. Specific functions the mentor will serve must be clearly stated and plans must be established for reaching the stated goals.

Also, most mentor teachers have little experience with the fundamental activities of mentoring – observing and discussing teaching with colleagues. Opportunities for formal and informal one-on-one meetings, as well as group interaction are vital to the process. Finding the right task to share and scheduling enough time are key elements that also need to be addressed as early as possible.

Physical arrangements and logistics can also be a challenge. Creating an environment to support mentorships and to reduce isolation is a critical initial concern. (Janas, M.)

Goals Specific to ESL Mentoring

New teachers are faced with fresh challenges on a daily basis. While this can be exciting at times, the demands of the first years of teaching can easily overwhelm new teachers who are trying "to do it all." The addition of ESL students in a mainstream classroom at this stage in a novice teacher's career may even go unnoticed since, typically, ESL students present little trouble in the classroom. For the most part, "they sit quietly and don't disrupt classes." Of course, they don't participate in class discussions, often don't do their homework and hand work in late. Because of this, some new teachers are not aware they have ESL students in their classes until well into the semester. Therefore, one of the first goals of the ESL mentor is to assist the new teacher in learning how the school identifies ESL students for the classroom teacher. Is there a special list available? Who distributes this information? Furthermore, a teacher needs to know some basic background information: Where is the student from? How long has the student been in the country? In what stage of language development is this student? The guidance of an ESL mentor at this stage can help a new teacher understand his/her ESL students quickly and prevent possible problems later in the year.

As new teachers begin working with ESL students, they often become frustrated and give up because they do not see ESL students progressing like the other students. This is the time for the ESL mentor to step in and provide training on accommodations and alternate forms of assessment. The ESL mentor must promote on-going opportunities for observation and conversation about appropriate ESL teaching practices, second language acquisition, etc.

While most teachers are likely to be motivated by their students' achievements and discouraged if their students fail to achieve, mainstream teachers of ESL students may not see the academic results they expect in one semester since learning the academic competencies required to be successful in a new language take time. The ESL mentor can assist the new teacher to set achievable goals for the ESL student at the beginning of the semester. Does the student need to acquire basic vocabulary? Is the student hesitant to participate in class? Does the student need to work with a tutor? In teaching ESL students, success is not always measured on a report card. New teachers have to be guided to observe his/her ESL student closely. Has the student demonstrated progress over time? Is the student more comfortable participating in class or asking questions? As ESL teachers, we know that there is nothing more rewarding than watching a newcomer learn to speak English. Let's share this satisfaction with mainstream teachers.

Above all else, ESL mentors must provide a "vision of students as capable individuals for whom limited English proficiency does not signify deficiency and for whom limited academic skills do not represent an incurable situation" (Walqui, 1999). Not only are our newcomer students capable, but they bring the world to our doorstep. ESL mentors can guide new teachers in discovering his/her students' strengths and celebrating multicultural education.

Benefits to ESL Mentoring

The role of an ESL teacher in a secondary school is certainly not for the faint of heart, neither is teaching ESL students in mainstream classes. It takes much patience and dedication on the part of all teachers. Secondary school ESL students are now faced with more challenges than ever which means that t eaching ESL students must be a matter of "our job." By fully involving mainstream classroom teachers in the education of ESL students, our students will be more likely t o achieve success and adjust to their lives in a new country. As ESL professionals, we must lead the way by mentoring mainstream classroom teachers who are new to teaching. Remember, nothing succeeds like success and "t eachers who realize success are more willing to spend the time to plan those interactive, student-centered lessons that we know work so well with children." (Clark, Franklin T.)


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 11, November 2003