Bilingualism Today Series: Could you be a Dual Language Educator?

Examining the Traits of Successful Dual Language Educators:  Challenges and Opportunities

As dual language programs (both One-Way and Two-Way) continue to gain popularity and acceptance, bilingual experts are beginning to grapple with the question:  What are the qualities and characteristics of an excellent dual language educator?  This question, while appearing straightforward and logical is in fact quite complex in today’s educational climate.

First of all, teacher shortages in certain critical areas of need seem to be a reality of the times.  While school districts continue to seek creative ways to fill those positions, teacher educators are faced with the certainty that there are not enough candidates in the pipeline to fill the growing number of positions resulting from demographic trends and normal attrition among the teaching ranks. Patricia Gandara in her recent book Forbidden Language (2011) describes the effects of restrictive language policies on student achievement and highlights the acute and growing need for certified teachers for the increasing population of English learners. As an example, she cites that the State of Texas would need to produce 58% more teachers with bilingual/ESL certifications to meet the needs in our state (Gandara, 2011).

In addition to teacher shortages, other pressing issues directly impact teachers’ availability to thrive in innovative programs such as dual language immersion.  Among those, meeting teachers’ professional development needs presents a challenge for school districts. These needs are linked to the goals of the programs being implemented.  As we know, programs that serve bilingual populations have different goals and expect different outcomes; therefore, they may in fact require vastly different approaches and methodologies, which in turn create vastly different professional development needs. Notwithstanding the above-cited controversies, the proven positive outcomes of dual language programs far outweigh the complexities of initial implementation. Let’s quickly review some of the findings in the dual language literature with respect to the characteristics of a successful dual language teacher candidate.

First of all, experts would argue that the ideal candidate needs extensive knowledge of first and second language acquisition principles and implementation (Wong Filmore and Snow, 2005).  The issue of sensitivity to cultural differences and willingness to be a student advocate also come to the forefront as necessary traits (Tellez & Waxman, 2006).  Rimbau and Day, 2001 outlined some of the critical competencies needed by dual language teachers.  Among these, they highlighted linguistic, interpersonal, affective, instructional, programmatic, and curricular abilities and sensitivities displayed by successful teachers in these programs.  Most challenging among these traits is perhaps the ability to teach and utilize the academic register of both languages of instruction.  This requires the ability to “stay in code”, without switching languages during a lesson.

Finally, a careful examination of Howard and Sugarman’s Realizing the Vision of Two-Way Immersion (2007) would provide some insights into the three cultures required of bilingual immersion programs.  By adhering to the principles established by the Cultures of Intellectualism, Equity, and Leadership, aspiring dual language teachers would realize that certain traits are essential.  Among those highlighted by the authors: being a life-long learner of both languages and cultures, advocating for all students in one’s classroom regardless of linguistic differences, and being an avid spokesperson and an advocate for additive bilingual programs at all times, come to the forefront.  They argue that cultivating these basic traits would provide the tools needed by great beginning dual language teachers, while continuing to develop the additional programmatic and grade-specific techniques and methods to become a truly outstanding language educator.

Dr. Higinia Torres-Rimbau

Chair, Dual Language Programs

University of St. Thomas


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