Leveraging Teacher Apprenticeship to Grow the ESL and Bilingual Teacher Workforce

Blog Post
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
May 13, 2024

Over the past two years, K-12 teacher apprenticeship programs have been registered in 34 states and Puerto Rico. While many of these programs are in early stages, this moment offers an opportunity to develop approaches that both address specific teacher workforce needs and that align with changing student demographics.

To support the linguistic development of the rapidly growing English learner (EL) student population, targeted language instruction is required. School districts work to meet this need, but vary in how language services are provided: some use bilingual education models such as dual language immersion that provides content instruction in English and a partner language, while others use English as a Second Language (ESL) models that are primarily focused on the acquisition of English. Yet, federal data indicate an overall decline in the number of teachers certified to teach English learners. Leveraging teacher apprenticeship could be a strategic way to reverse this trend.

Tennessee prioritized the need for ESL teachers within their apprenticeship programs, offering dual endorsement in elementary education and ESL that can help general education teachers receive specialized training and learn the right skills to support ELs’ language development. As it stands, many teachers report a lack of preparation and limited professional development related to teaching students identified as ELs. By integrating ESL endorsements into teacher apprenticeship programs, there is an opportunity to offer more robust clinical training in classrooms and schools that serve these students and to apply coursework to a real-life context.

While there is less attention paid to preparing bilingual teachers within emerging apprenticeship programs, several states such as Arkansas, California, Georgia, and Oregon have existing programs that employ Grow Your Own or teacher residency to recruit and train bilingual teachers. These efforts intersect with teacher apprenticeship and can be integrated to create programs that cultivate the linguistic assets of the local community and provide accessible and affordable on-ramps into teaching.

Another way that teacher apprenticeship programs are primed to prepare more bilingual teachers is through the recruitment of community members. High school programs, for example, generally begin in 11th grade and are designed to help students earn some college credits and work experience in classrooms. Some programs also offer opportunities for students to learn the skills and competencies necessary to work as a paraeducator. These youth apprenticeship pathways could be a tool for helping bilingual high school students enter the teacher workforce. Additionally, school systems could build apprenticeship pathways for students who graduate with a Seal of Biliteracy and have demonstrated proficiency in two or more languages.

Many teacher apprenticeship programs are also recruiting paraeducators, a diverse workforce that is already in place to support student learning, particularly for students with disabilities and students identified as ELs. Paraeducators often share cultural connections with community families and are more linguistically diverse than teachers as a group: around 23 percent of paraeducators speak a language other than English as compared to less than 14 percent of teachers, according to a recent policy brief by the U.S. Department of Education.

Notably however, bilingual paraeducators often face barriers on the pathway to becoming a teacher and require targeted recruitment, preparation and induction support. Around two-thirds of bilingual paraeducators lack a bachelor’s degree, which is the baseline credential necessary to teach in most states [1]. As previous research reveals, the path to earning a degree is filled with obstacles such as the high cost of college, unpaid student teaching, the need to continue working and earning pay, and English-only coursework and assessment. Teacher apprenticeship provides a progressive wage to all apprentices as they gain on-the-job skills and competencies under the guidance of a mentor teacher. Most programs offer significant support covering the cost of tuition and related fees, meaning that many teacher apprentices will be able to graduate with little or no debt.

Lastly, there may be creative ways teacher apprenticeship can expand how coursework itself is offered and taught to students. Postsecondary institutions such as Highline College in Washington state already offer coursework in languages such as Spanish and Somali, while others like the University of the District of Columbia offer an entire associate degree program in English and Spanish. At the same time, many teacher apprenticeship programs are competency-based and allow students to earn credit for skills already learned. Such prior learning assessments could help apprentices who earned degrees or worked as teachers in their home country earn credit for content they have already mastered.

As evidenced here and in many ways, state and district leaders must capitalize on the momentum around apprenticeship to design programs to prepare bilingual and ESL teachers who can attend to the growing linguistic diversity of our nation’s schools.


[1] We conducted an analysis of the American Community Survey to better understand the demographics, educational attainment and other characteristics of bilingual teachers assistants. 2021 ACS 5-year PUMS data, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/microdata.html