Walking in English Learners' Shoes: Preservice Teacher Struggles Result in Empathy

Walking in English Learners' Shoes: Preservice Teacher Struggles Result in Empathy

Debbie Powell, Roberta J. Aram
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0169-5.ch025
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This chapter reports on a university short-term study abroad immersion experience in Costa Rica for preservice teachers. Qualitative data from instructors' field notes and participants' photo blogs, exit interviews, and formal course evaluations were analyzed for evidence of expressions of empathy for English Learners (ELs), resolve to use effective teaching strategies with ELs, personal growth and cross-cultural awareness. Findings show that participants demonstrated empathy that was linked to personal and professional growth as a future teacher. The course's design strategically causing authentic physical and emotional struggles similar to ELs' with purposefully facilitated reflection time to address feelings and experiences was effective in achieving overall course goals.
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In the 2011-2012 academic year, 9.1% or approximately 4.4 million of public K-12 school students in the US were English Learners (ELs). There has been a steady growth across the nation in all but 10 states since 2008-2009. Of the 4.4 million children, it was estimated that 85% were economically disadvantaged, 61% were in elementary school (Kindergarten to Grade 5; K-5), 20% were in Grades 6-8 and 19% were in Grades 9-12 (US Department of Education, 2014). Approximately 79% of ELs in the US were from Spanish-language backgrounds (Payan & Nettles, 2007). These statistics may not represent a true picture because in 2014, 22.7% of California’s public school students were ELs, but 43.1% of public school students spoke a language other than English in the home (California Department of Education, 2015).

While many ELs experience situational economic difficulties, they also come from a range of cultural backgrounds, speak over 150 languages (many of these are separate languages or dialects grouped into a general category) (Batalova & McHugh, 2010) and bring with them a variety of educational, social and personal experiences. School districts, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, are required by law to meet targets for ELs set by their states or face sanctions. It is estimated that there is only one ESL certified teacher for every 150 ELs in the US (George Washington University, 2013), so regular K-12 classroom teachers are expected to help these students fill in educational gaps and make significant progress. Teachers cannot be expected to learn all of their EL’s languages. However, by experiencing the struggle of living in a new culture with lower economic wealth, and being surrounded and learning a new language in an immersion inquiry study abroad course, preservice teachers can gain empathy for their students, recognize and break down barriers, and learn strategies and build pathways to more effective English language learning.

Preservice teachers can also greatly benefit from developing the qualities of a globally-oriented citizen. The globally-oriented citizen maintains a delicate balance between potentially conflicting virtues, such as appreciation of our common humanity and of our deep differences, courage of conviction and humility, a firm sense of one’s moral identity and a willingness to revise it, internationalism as well as patriotism, and rootedness in a community as well as openness to others (Parekh, 2003). How can a short-term study abroad experience and its predictable struggles to become comfortable in another culture develop preservice teachers’ empathy for the struggles of ELs in US classrooms? How can ‘walking in their shoes’ ultimately benefit preservice teachers in becoming globally oriented citizens? We assert that an inquiry approach based on careful recruitment, induction, and program development that includes ample time for introspection and facilitated reflection develops global citizen-teachers who emerge from the study abroad experience with a heightened ability to synthesize their own moral and cultural identity and appreciation for and empathy with those children and their families engaged in the struggle for global citizenship in English-speaking classrooms.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cultural Immersion: Actively integrating into an unfamiliar community, interacting with local people, and seeking to understand the way others live in that community by being there and engaging in daily life activities.

Introspection: The process of examining your own thoughts or feelings; self-examination.

Preservice Teachers: Individuals preparing to become licensed teachers and nearing the end of a teacher preparation program.

Photo-Blog: A personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of entries or ‘posts’ that include photos illustrating text related daily life experiences; typically displayed in reverse chronological order.

Empathy: The capacity to relate with another, to feel the experiences of another, enter into the inner lives of others and to see and understand the world the way as they do.

Short-Term Faculty-Led Study Abroad: A part of a university degree program that enhances professionalization and global citizenship through increased opportunities for intercultural and experiential learning.

Home-Stay: A form of study-abroad that allows visitors to live in the home and engage on a daily basis with a local family.

Poverty: A serious lack of resources for proper existence or to support a minimal level of health.

English Learner: An active learner of the English language whose native language is a language other than English and who comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant; may who may benefit from various types of language support programs.

Facilitated Reflection: The use of methods designed to enable active, persistent and careful consideration of experience in order to enable better choices or actions in the future as well as enhance one’s overall effectiveness.

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