NIU offers high-demand teaching endorsement

Project DREAMS provides growing ESL certificate program

James Cohen

James Cohen

English as a second language (ESL) programs are becoming increasingly popular in teaching programs across the country.

And no wonder. ESL credentials are increasingly necessary for teachers to land jobs.

The reason: an exploding number of English language learners in public schools. In this state alone, according to a 2011 Illinois State Board of Education report, almost 200,000 English language learners were enrolled in the K-12 system.

“That number is only growing,” said James Cohen, an assistant professor of bilingual education in Northern Illinois University’s College of Education. “Most of these students are in Chicago and the suburbs; however, districts in the surrounding counties are also growing and are always looking for ESL and bilingual teachers. Every single teacher in Illinois will eventually have an English language learner in his or her classroom.”

Cohen administers an innovative ESL program called Project DREAMS. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition provided a $1.8 million grant to fund the program.

“We are implementing this program because we understand the importance of providing an education for our students that is cutting-edge and modern,” Cohen said. “We’ve taken feedback passed on to us from recent graduates stating the definitive need for these classes that take on diversity and the education of English language learners.”

The grant pays for pre-service teachers or College of Education students who are accepted into the program to take six ESL classes – four as part of their undergraduate program over the summer months – then two as a student-at-large, in between their undergrad and graduate programs. If they do well in their student-at-large courses, they are granted automatic entrance into the graduate school.

“Anybody and everybody who is graduating with a teaching degree should consider the ESL endorsement,” Cohen said. “The endorsement is that important.”

Just last year, for example, Wilma Valero, director of bilingual programs for Elgin School District U-46, hired 59 new teachers, all with ESL and/or bilingual endorsements. “As a practice,” Valero said, “I do not hire people without the ESL or bilingual endorsement.”

The program also offers students hands-on experience with educators working in the field.

“I have been able to interact with and learn from administrators of local school districts, individuals at the Illinois Resource Center, professionals from the Illinois State Board of Education, and local educators with knowledge and experience within the realm of ESL and bilingual education,” said Kristin Kieser, a senior early childhood studies student and participant in the program.

“It has proven to be one of the best decisions that I have made throughout my educational career. I have grown as a student, as an educator, and as a person due to my experiences in Project DREAMS.

ESL: It’s not just for Spanish language teachers

International flags in front of Holmes Student Center“You do not have to be bilingual to get an ESL endorsement,” Cohen said. “Another myth is that the program is geared solely toward teaching Spanish. We have many bilingual programs including Chinese, Polish, Japanese, and Korean. There are a lot of different language groups that are assisted by bilingual programs, not just Spanish.

“In Korea alone,” he added, “there is a huge number of conversation schools in need of English language teachers. The demand is growing rapidly for teachers with not only college degrees, but ESL endorsements.”

Beyond offering increased job security and a strengthened approach to teaching, obtaining the ESL endorsement offers opportunities to reach out to English learners in other countries, as well as experience cultures in far regions of the world.

Cohen himself has traveled all over the globe as a teacher and as a member of the Peace Corps.

“I taught in Sri Lanka for almost two and a half years, in Mexico for a number of months for my master’s practicum, and in Japan for a year. I’ve been to over 30 countries, so I’ve been fortunate to have been able to travel a lot.”

He added that teaching abroad makes an individual a highly attractive candidate for teaching positions when they arrive back in the states.

“School districts become well aware that you have worked with diversity,” Cohen said. “They perceive you as an individual that has had a lot of experience and are inclined to move you to the top of the list when considering candidates for positions.”

Cohen also shared how his experience teaching abroad strengthened his unique approach to teaching and how his appreciation of the profession broadened.

“My first teaching abroad experience was in Sri Lanka with the Peace Corps,” Cohen said. “I learned how to teach with nothing and to improvise. I was limited to a chalkboard and one light bulb. The room had no windows, only a barrier. When it rained, the students had to scoot their desks to the other side of the room so they wouldn’t get wet.

“That experience as a whole, taught me to be much more confident in who I was as a teacher, and as a human being.”

Individuals who wish to participate in this program and to earn either the ESL or bilingual endorsement from the Illinois State Board of Education should contact the Department of Literacy Education in the College of Education at ltcy@niu.edu or (815) 753-1688.

For further information about Project DREAMS, email Cohen at projectdreams@niu.edu. Applications and reference forms are available in the Literacy Education office at Gabel Hall, Room 147.

by Eric Johnson

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