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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing info@wida.us with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.

Cherrilynn Woods Washington: Featured Educator

Novenber 2016

WIDA “Featured Educator” November: Dr. Cherrilynn Woods Washington has worked in various capacities to support language learners, including being an ESOL teacher, serving on the board of Georgia TESOL, and teaching ESOL endorsement courses to in-service teachers. She has been described as the “educator that all English learners deserve to have.”

photo of Cherrilynn Woods Washingtone
Cherrilynn Woods Washington

Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

CWW: I’ve been an educator for over 20 years. I have been an itinerate ESL teacher in the southwest part of the Atlanta Public School District for 16 years. I have the privilege of working in several schools, which affords me the opportunity of seeing many different teaching contexts. I never have a dull day.

What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about the location, size and about the composition of the student body?

CWW: In all of my schools, 99% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The schools are located in some of the roughest parts of Atlanta. They are all focus schools, meaning that there is a strong focus on closing the achievement gap and increasing the graduation rates. As you know, Atlanta got hit with a cheating scandal a while back, and a few of my schools were affected. We have been able to rise from the ashes.  One particular school actually had the highest gain in the city of Atlanta school this past year, and we are all really proud of that! My students contributed to that, so it is great to be a part of such a success.

As for the students, 80% are African American and most speak Spanish or Portuguese at home.  We also have several students from Tanzania who speak Kirundi, Dinka speakers that came to us from refugee camps outside of Sudan, and Gujarati speakers from India. It is an interesting mix!

Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

CWW: Politics frustrate me. They can take away the innocence of education. Mandates and deadlines can complicate things that shouldn’t be complicated. Education should be open for any and every one and sometimes politics will limit it in ways.

What do I love? I am a teacher who can honestly say that I see growth.  When you have kids that come speaking no English at all and the end of year they are speaking in sentences, reading to you, and expressing themselves in their writing, that means a lot.  No test score can show you the amount of growth I get to see with my students every day. And to see these students show up and try their best every day, after many times having seen or experienced things that most adults haven’t had to go through, and knowing that many of their parents haven’t had schooling past the 3rd grade, it is inspiring. It is humbling thing and makes me appreciate everything I have.

I come from a family of educators. I truly felt that I was meant to be lawyer but when it came the time, I found myself teaching. It is just what I do.  If I am not teaching students, I am teaching teachers. If I am not teaching teachers, I am teaching girl scouts or at the church teaching Bible study.  It is just in me. And not trying to pop my collar but I think I am pretty good at it (laughs)!

How do you advocate for your students and families?  Why do you feel this is important to do?

CWW: I want the kids and their families to know that I am here for them. When they send their child to our schools, I want the parents to be sure that they are being taken care of. And the kids know that. I help communicate with cafeteria workers and classroom teachers to make sure they understand any allergies or conditions affecting the kids. If they need a school uniform, I find a way to get them one. Often, the families I work with don’t always have a voice, so I teach them how to have a voice and what to ask if they are in a meeting about their child. For example, if they are in a meeting with me, I will ask them to tell me what is going on with their child at home, and how this is important to share. I want them to know that they can speak up for their children. I also make sure there is an interpreter at all meetings so parents can be included.  All parents, regardless of background, want the best for their children. Even if they don’t speak the same language as you or I, they want the same opportunities for success for their child.

Can you tell me about your work with the ESOL endorsement courses? What is something you would like all pre-service or in-service teachers to know or understand about working with language learners and their families?

CWW: From 2008 to 2014 I taught ESOL endorsement courses for Atlanta Public Schools.  These courses served in-service teachers, para-professionals, and administrators. My first year teaching these courses, I had a cohort of administrators.  One of the pieces we focused on was how to evaluate an ESOL teacher, because it should be different than how you might evaluate a classroom teacher.  The test scores might not reflect all the learning and growth that language learners have gained.  Understanding this helps administrators advocate for their teachers and the students.

If you are working with language learners, I think you need to understand the WIDA Standards and Can Do Descriptors. If you understand these resources, you can’t go wrong. Also, teachers need to understand that in many countries and cultures, teachers are held up as priests are, and parents assume that the teacher knows best.  So they might not ask questions or give you suggestions. This might be interpreted as being uninterested in their child’s education.  But rather, this attitude may come out of respect for the teacher.  It is critical for the teacher to understand the cultures of their students’ families and remember that all parents want what is best for their kids.

Do you have any advice for other language teachers who also take on a role of professional development in their teaching context?  What have you found helps educators connect with or understand how to support language learners?

CWW: Every year I look at what my schools are doing and think about how they can help language learners.  Then I hold three in-service trainings for grade-level groups, because I think it is more effective to hold small group trainings. I find that working in a small, familiar group helps people feel comfortable and connected to the work. During the trainings, we talk about what is changing for our students and in Atlanta, then we look at their lesson plans or unit plans to see how they can support their students. So we break things down together and look at the Can Do Descriptors to help understand what will work for their students. From there, we talk about differentiation and how to do student grouping in the classroom so that no one feels left out and everyone is getting the support they need.

I feel so lucky that I get to work with a staff that is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their students are successful. They are willing to try new things and change their ways as needed.  This collaboration and willingness to try new approaches has made the teachers happier and the kids, too.  You know the saying “happy wife, happy life” well I say “happy teachers, happy kids!”

What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?

CWW: Their culture. It is rich. It is important. We try to create opportunities for parents to come in and share their heritage. Because there is something powerful when you hear the kids or their parents explaining the significance of things that the other kids see but might not understand?for example, why one student might braid her hair a certain way. Our kids bring pieces of their culture with them and expand the awareness of all students. They make our school district look amazing and enrich our lives!

Most of their stories haven’t been told in schools.  But once you hear their stories, you are just in total awe of these students.  Every day I learn from these students. They make me a better woman, better mother, and better teacher.