Professional Development for Teachers of English Learners: The Internationals Approach

Blog Post
Feb. 28, 2020

In the flag-filled cafeteria of Oakland International High School, dozens of teachers eagerly gather for a get-to-know-you style icebreaker. Teachers fill a bingo grid with amusing facts about themselves and then circulate around the room, populating the grid with names of colleagues with whom they share something in common. Within minutes, someone exclaims, “bingo!”

These teachers were gathered for a two-day summer institute organized by the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network of 28 schools and academies that serve secondary school English learners (ELs) who are recent immigrants. The Internationals Network Bay Area Summer Institute brought together teachers from four schools in the Bay Area region for the first time: Oakland International HS, San Francisco International HS, Internationals Academy at Richmond HS, and Helms Middle School Internationals Academy. It was one of many summer institutes Internationals held across the country to train teachers in the Internationals Approach, a set of ambitious five core principles that drive teaching and learning at Internationals schools.

Core Principles


The practices at the core of the Internationals Approach stand in stark contrast with what ELs typically experience in school. Oftentimes, ELs are isolated in classrooms and courses where language and content instruction occur separately. And research finds that these students generally experience low teacher expectations, narrow curricula, and few opportunities to actively use language throughout their day. These obstacles can weigh most heavily on newly arrived immigrant adolescents, known as newcomers, who have a short window of time to adapt to a new country, develop English proficiency, master academic content, and meet graduation requirements.

Internationals’ theory of change holds that newcomers have a higher chance of success in language-rich, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and experiential environments. Research backs this holistic approach: students at Internationals schools have been found to have higher graduation rates and college enrollment rates than ELs enrolled in other types of schools. Internationals schools also regularly score positively in measures of school culture and climate.

To prepare teachers to deliver this model, they are provided with immersive professional learning opportunities that help teachers experience the five core principles firsthand. Internationals believes that teachers cannot faithfully deliver on a model they have not experienced themselves. Fittingly, the workshops offered are not traditional sit-and-get sessions, but rather, hands-on learning activities that mirror what teachers should integrate into their own classrooms.

This experiential teacher learning was most on display at the Experiencing the Internationals Approach workshop at the Bay Area Summer Institute. This session began with a lesson taught entirely in a foreign language, without support or scaffolding. Next, teachers were given the same lesson but through the Internationals model. Teachers collaborated in heterogeneous groups, mixed according to school, content area expertise, and years of experience. Teachers supported one another through the lesson, capitalizing on group knowledge as well as available scaffolds. Teachers were then given the opportunity to reflect on the lessons they could take back to their classrooms.

Through a series of hands-on workshops, teachers at the Bay Area Summer Institute learned to adjust instruction, write curriculum, and develop assessments using the five core principles as a guide. These workshops were differentiated: teachers had the option to participate in sessions that followed one of two tracks, depending on their level of experience working with ELs. In one session, new teachers worked in groups to devise strategies for melding language instruction into content instruction. In another session, more experienced teachers participated in a collaborative inquiry on the issue of translanguaging—the practice of allowing students to flexibly use English and their home language. Workshops were also offered to help teachers generate ideas for scaffolding and adapting texts, adopting trauma-informed practices, and deploying project-based learning activities.

The workshops offered at summer institutes notably lay the foundation for ongoing professional development, coaching, and collaboration opportunities throughout the school year. Internationals offers a suite of professional development that covers topics such as scaffolding for high-order thinking, project-based learning, working with students with limited or interrupted formal education, and understanding the needs of unaccompanied minors. These workshops can be adjusted to fit each school context. Internationals leaders work closely with school leaders to shape a year-long professional development plan that meets the professional needs of faculty at each school.

The Internationals way also calls for ongoing, structured opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and in interdisciplinary teams, both within and across schools. Teachers have common planning time during the school day to design instruction, discuss the well-being of students, and decide what language functions they will all teach. Additionally, each Internationals school has an in-house instructional coach that supports teacher teams and works with other instructional coaches in the region to connect teachers, solve problems of practice, and schedule inter-school visits where teachers have the opportunity to observe their colleagues’ skills.

Today, the benefit of high-quality professional development opportunities is afforded to few teachers of ELs. But it does not have to be this way. Though not without hurdles, Internationals’ effort to prioritize professional learning offers a rare example of how to support educators who do the challenging but rewarding work of teaching ELs.

Related Topics
Teachers and Leaders English Learners