Leaning into Advocacy as a TESOL/Bilingual Education Professional

By Gina Johnson Wells, PhD

Advocacy, defined as speaking or acting on the behalf of someone, an idea, or a cause (Oxford Learners Dictionary, 2020), is an eight-letter word that can stir up a multitude of thoughts and emotions. It takes many forms—from sending an email in support of someone in need, to raising your voice with scores of others, to asking lawmakers to support policies, and is wide-ranging, active, and intentional. The idea of advocacy can be exhilarating for some and frightening for others. In fact, many think it is not for them. 

The teaching profession lends itself to advocacy. Advocacy in the realm of English Language implores teachers to support learners, their families, and to challenge the systemic inequities that they face (Harrison & Prado, as cited in Linville & Whiting, 2019). However, teachers do not always embrace their roles as advocates (Bradley-Levine, 2018). Linville (2020) notes that advocacy is now an expected role for teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs). They need to learn to embrace the role of advocacy, especially in this time of uncertainty and unpredictability. Teacher advocates must ensure “that every student has the support they need to be successful” (para. 5, SuperEval Blog, 2020). 

Under ordinary circumstances, ELL teachers often find themselves advocating for their students for better learning conditions. Because the circumstances are not ordinary and it is not enough to hope that students are doing well and being successful, advocacy is direly needed to fight against unfair policies and practices that affect our students and the profession.  

Around the world, countries have been experiencing the effects of and living under the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly a year. Along with the plague of this novel coronavirus, the persistent and harmful plagues of racism, systemic bias, social inequities, and injustices have become even more prevalent. The required adjustments have been heartbreaking and mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging. 

Even prior to the pandemic, there were barriers that prevented minoritized students from having access to an equitable education. Medina (2020) maintains that school systems in the United States were not created to be equitable. The truth of this statement is even more apparent during this pandemic in which multilingual learners are not receiving an equitable education, in spite of our efforts (Sayre & Braum, 2020).

Access to gains made toward an equitable education is currently jeopardized, especially for ELLs and other minoritized student populations. Disparities that existed before the pandemic are more evident now. To make matters worse, minoritized groups have been adversely affected by the pandemic. [According to the Atlantic Monthly Groups’ COVID-19 Tracking Project report (2020), Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in numbers of COVID-19 cases per capita in the United States.] 

The move to remote learning has further expanded awareness of the equity gaps in our educational system in the United States. Students who live in areas where Wi-Fi connectivity is limited, unstable, or unavailable and students whose families, due to socio-economic marginalization, do not have access to the computer hardware necessary to participate in online instruction are not receiving an equitable education. Robertson (2020) notes that the support systems that teachers and students are accustomed to are not as readily available in an online environment. Moreover, parents who are “a critical component of distance learning” (para. 1, Robertson) need to know what is expected of their children as they learn remotely.

Considering all of these issues, it is evident that ELLs need advocates. Though the task may seem great, even overwhelming, it is essential that we look to the future with hope and do what we can to advocate for and support our students. Advocacy opportunities exist on a variety of levels: on a personal level, on behalf of your students, their families, and on a professional level.  


Self-care is a necessity. In order to adequately advocate for others, you may first need to advocate for yourself. Take inventory of your own well-being and seek help when needed. Be the best advocate you can be for your students by being the best advocate of yourself, particularly in these uncertain times.  Self-care and self-advocacy are essential elements that contribute to successful advocacy at the other levels. 


The next step would be to advocate for your students. Linville (2014) states that advocacy for English learners is “noticing ways their educational success is challenged and then taking action with the goal of improving their education experiences, outcomes, and life chances” (p. 4). Advocacy for students involves “working for ELs’ equitable and excellent education by taking actions on their behalf” (p. 8, Fenner, 2014). 

Checking in
Whether you’re teaching remotely or in person, there may be students who are not regularly attending class sessions. A simple check-in with the students and/or their families may make a difference. You may need to collaborate with others at the school to contact those students so that the burden does not fall solely on you. Advocacy requires persistence. Do not give up.

Student self-advocacy 
Many students, ELLs in particular, may not know what is needed to access an equitable education. They may not know that they are not receiving the services they have a right to receive. Through your curriculum, provide opportunities for students to learn self-advocacy. If, and when, necessary, be the voice that speaks for them.

Technology needs
If students are not attending virtual classes because of technology/internet issues, find out if your school and/or district have policies for technology support. If there are no resources available in your school or district, contact community organizations that may provide assistance to families.


Helping their children navigate school can be challenging for the parents of ELLs in ordinary times. Asking families to guide their children through remote or distance learning “is a big thing to ask of families who are juggling multiple concerns and stresses, especially if they have recently arrived in this country” (para. 1, Robertson, 2020). Knowing what their rights are regarding education can ease the pressure and stress for families of ELLs.

Families have the right to receive information in their home language. Providing information in the home language allows families to know what is expected of the student, to advocate for the student, and to support you. Check with your school or district for translation services. If your school or district does not have translation services, there are multiple, free resources available online to translate texts for you.

Also, if students and their families are having difficulties with resources (financial, food, or medical), your school or district may have a resource list that students and their families can access if they need. Or, you could create a resource list of the places they can contact and make it accessible to the families in need.


Collaborate with other TESOL and BE educators to learn how they are advocating for their students. If you don’t work with other TESOL or BE teachers or do not know any others, connect through ITBE. Become active in professional organizations that can provide support and avenues for advocacy.

Build relationships with others in your school and outside of your school. Advocacy begins on the relationship level. Advocacy encompasses building relationships with the people who can help solve problems and know how to negotiate with them (Linville, 2014)

Advocacy with policy-makers
Policy-makers often depend on information that their constituents provide. You, as a practitioner, have insights that could be useful to them. Because you are aware of the most urgent needs and issues, you are in a position to advocate for your students and their families, school, district, and profession. The following steps may help in the process of planning advocacy actions:
  • Study and be informed so that you know what to advocate for.
  • Prioritize the issues according to the level: classroom, school, district, state or national.
  • Know what those issues involve and formulate ideas for possible solutions. Plan what you want to say.
  • Ask questions. Decide who you need to ask those questions and be persistent until you ask the right person or persons and get a solution. 
  • Learn who your local government officials are and when necessary, contact them for assistance. 
  • Study and be informed so that you know what to advocate for. Some of the useful resources are: 1) Illinois TESOL and Bilingual Education (ITBE) Advocacy page, 2) Illinois State Board of Education website (for policies that are being considered) 3) To contact your state representative, these websites have their contact information: https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative/. 4) The TESOL Advocacy Action Center (https://www.tesol.org/advance-the-field/tesol-advocacy-action-center)  provides information on bills that are before congress. 

Advocacy is of paramount importance in our profession. As Linville (2020) states, we must want to be advocates. Further, Fenner (2014) asserts that many times it is our roles as advocates that determines how successful our students will be. Then, advocates we must be—with our words, our voices, and our actions. There is a sense of urgency that requires us to use the  agency that we have to an even greater degree in these times. As you consider the steps you will take as an advocate, remember these words from Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963): 

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable  network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

Gina Johnson Wells is the  ITBE Advocacy Chair and a faculty member in the Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) TESOL Department.

Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners:  A guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

King, M. L. (1963, April 16). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Retrieved from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Linville, H. (2020). A closer look at ESOL teacher advocacy: What we do and why. TESOL Journal, 11 (e508). Retrieved from https ://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.508

Linville, H., & Whiting, J. (2019). Advocacy in English Language Teaching and Learning. New York. NY: Routledge.

Medina, J. (2020, October 15). Engaging Students and parents in remote learning. Lecture presented at IAMME Virtual Fall Event. Oxford Learners Dictionary (2020). Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/advocacy

Pagano, A. (2020, February 25). A Brief History of Native American Languages in the US [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.ititranslates.com/2020/02/25/a-brief-history-of-native-american-languages-in-the-us/

Roberts, J. L., & Siegle, D. (2012). Teachers as advocates: If not you--who? Gifted Child Today, 35(1), 58-61. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1076217511427432

Robertson, K. (2020, August 16). Distance learning for ELLs: Lessons learned about family partnerships. Retrieved from https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/distance      learning-ells-family

SuperEval Blog (2020, May 12). How schools are supporting students without access to         technology during COVID-19. Retrieved from https://supereval.com/blog/how-schools-are-supporting-students-without-access-to-technology-during-covid-19/ 

The Atlantic Monthly Group. (2020) The COVID-19 tracking project: Racial tracking data. Retrieved from https://covidtracking.com/race/dashboard

Vanek, J. (2016). De facto language policy in legislation defining adult basic education in the United States. Language Policy15(1), 71–95. https://doi-org.neiulibrary.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10993-015-9356-0

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