ISU prepares passionate educators to serve English learners
Airon Giron believes his desire to become a teacher was first awakened in a college-level mathematics classroom in his homeland of Guatemala. His instructor’s ability to make complex concepts relatable and easy to understand made a tremendous impact on him.
“The reason I want to teach math is because of him,” Giron said. “He was studying to become a teacher, but he always made time for us. And he always kept his students in mind and provided as many connections as possible to our knowledge base. So, math wasn’t really hard anymore, even though it was complicated work. He had a passion for teaching, and he helped me to find my passion. That is the level of effort I try to show my students.”
At age 20, Giron did not believe becoming a teacher was entirely feasible for him. Among his seven siblings, only one had earned a bachelor’s degree. His first goal was to find a position that would enable him to earn a living. Possessing the equivalent of an associate’s degree from the University of Guatemala, he was faced with a job market where only those fluent in English with professional work experience were being hired. It was then that he decided on a plan to improve his English language skills, pursue an education in the U.S., and return to Guatemala with more options.
Giron’s journey led him to Waukegan, where he was accepted into Illinois State University’s federally funded grant program titled Transitioning Paraprofessionals (TPTEL). The off-campus cohort model enables Giron to commute to a Waukegan University Center where he and fellow bilingual paraprofessionals take coursework to complete their four-year bachelor’s degree in elementary education with bilingual and ESL (English as a second language) endorsements. As paraprofessionals, the students work in curricular support roles such as teachers’ aides during the day, and take college course work on weeknights, weekends, and in the summer.
Illinois State offers two additional programs similar to TPTEL. The Transitioning Paraprofessionals into Teachers (TPT) is also managed out of Northern Illinois. And a third program, the Training of Pre-Service and In-Service Teachers in School District U-46 (TPI U-46), serves Elgin. In addition to paraprofessionals, the TPI U-46 program provides course work to both bilingual and monolingual practicing teachers, which leads to endorsements in bilingual education and ESL.
These degree programs are rare, representing only three of six offered to paraprofessionals in the U.S. However, the need in Illinois for educators with the language and cultural competencies to teach English learners (ELs) continues to grow.
Bilingual graduates are among the most sought-after teachers in the state, said Maria Zamudio, director of both the TPT and TPTEL programs. In Illinois, the general student population to teacher ratio is approximately 19-to-1, while the ratio of English learners to bilingually certified teachers is almost 30-to-1.
“Each semester, we receive multiple emails and phone calls from principals and even superintendents across the state asking if Illinois State has graduates with bilingual endorsements,” said Maria Zamudio, director of the TPT and TPTEL programs.
Currently, 108 paraprofessionals are being prepared through Illinois State’s grant work, and an additional 105 are enrolled through the University’s on-campus elementary bilingual degree program. This work has helped Illinois State serve as a primary pipeline for bilingual educators for the Midwest.
“The demographic is growing for which we don’t have an adequate amount of teachers who have been educated in the methodologies and research-based practices to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of ELs,” said Pauline Williams, associate professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, who co-directs the TPI U-46 program with associate professor Elizabeth Skinner.
Enrollment requirements for the programs help safeguard the quality of its candidates. The students must be bilingual, have completed four prerequisite courses, hold an associate’s degree, and be working as paraprofessionals in high-needs schools.
Once accepted, the program is rigorous. Giron’s days are jam-packed. After working at Highland Park High School, he takes night classes twice a week and on Saturdays. During the summer semester, the paraprofessionals take a full course load of 12 credit hours. For most, the program takes three years to complete.
“Most of the students have faced a lot of obstacles just by being minorities in our society,” said Williams. “Many of them are nontraditional students and are grateful to learn about this opportunity. They work hard to meet our expectations, set their own goals, and push themselves to achieve them.”
Like Giron, approximately 90 percent of the paraprofessionals are Latino and find that they possess a natural advantage with connecting with ELs.
“Most of us have the experience, most of us know the concepts,” Giron said. “Now, when we go to classes, we’re remembering our own experiences. We compare our own experiences to the content in the classes. So it is easier for some of us to make that connection. And, because I am Latino like my students, they tend to easily identify with me.”
During her 10 years working for Illinois State’s bilingual education program, Zamudio agreed that the transition from paraprofessional to teacher is often a natural one.
“For many of them, they have been working as paraprofessionals for five or even 10 years,” said Zamudio.
“Our main contribution is to prepare them with the research practices that will help them to better understand how to approach and solve a problem. They have a lot of passion for teaching and a personal investment for serving their students.”
Giron will graduate from the TPTEL program in 2016. It will represent the culmination of a challenging journey that began when a fellow Guatemalan educator showed him the power a teacher can make in the life of students.
“I am motivated every day through my goal of one day having my own classroom,” Giron said. “I want to continue sharing my own story to students who don’t think school is important, and give them a love for math.”