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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue A ::: October 2002

A Conversation with FOB...

Counseling in ESOL Programs

Focus on Basics spoke with two English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) professionals, Myrna Atkins, CEO and president of the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning in Denver, Colorado, and Nazneen Rahman, Education Director at the International Institute of Providence, Rhode Island, about the role counseling plays in ESOL programs. Both the Spring Institute and the International Institute serve large numbers of learners in a variety of ESOL programs. Neither ESOL program has specialized counseling staff, but both recognize the role of advocacy and referrals as important in lowering students' stress levels. The teachers in both programs take on the counseling role.

The Spring Institute's Atkins explains, "The ESOL teacher is in a key role. The contents of ESOL lessons take on the role that a counselor might play. If the teachers see themselves in that role [of counselor], although they might be teaching survival skills, housing, shopping, parenting, they think and teach and listen to students differently." Dialogue journals, in which the learner and teacher write back and forth to each other, are one example of an ESOL activity that can be slanted to deal with issues traditionally considered counseling. "You look at what you get from your students [via journals] differently if you're thinking of it as a mental health activity," she points out.

Teachers as Counselors, Advocates

Atkins finds that most of the mental health work with refugees and immigrants is being done by ESOL teachers. "They have more face time, are seeing students longer than mental health teachers; the teachers have relationships and trust and use methods that involve talking about issues that are key factors which need to be handled when promoting mental health. The goal is not to turn teachers into mental health workers." She is careful to differentiate between mental health and mental illness, and what the teacher's role is and is not. In mental health, she explains, you are "looking at behavior and psychological factors that lead to someone being healthy." Coping, being in positive employment, and having good physical health are all elements of positive mental health. These are issues that can be addressed in ESOL curricula. For example, the Spring Institute's pre-employment ESOL program includes an activity called Steps to Success, which helps learners see that, while they are currently ESOL students, they are on the road to other things. It's an ESOL activity and also a mental health activity.

The teachers - indeed, all the staff - at the International Institute of Rhode Island, explains Rahman, are counselors. But they define their role as being advocates for the students. "It works in several ways. For example, a student wanted to attend our morning class. Her child was in Head Start and needed to be able to attend [Head Start] an extra hour if the mother was to attend ESOL class. It took 10 telephone calls, but we finally got that approved. Other learners might ask for help with writing letters, or making phone calls. I've gone to children's schools with parents, because the parent's don't understand what the teacher said." This approach, being advocates for learners, is not a formalized aspect of the program, yet all the teachers adopt it.

Both programs find referrals important. "As teachers," explains Rahman, "we don't handle domestic violence." They had a workshop on it, and have a relationship with a domestic violence program in their community, so they can make referrals when they are needed. "We are not equipped to do a lot of mental health or other counseling. We do as much as possible and then do referrals. We have an informal list; most teachers have their own contact people."

Rahman emphasizes building relationships with the other services offered by her organization, as well as with outside service providers. "Many refugees and immigrants have immigration and naturalization problems. We have immigration and naturalization services here. We have a lawyer and caseworker; they give workshops and handle cases for our students. We also have interpreting and translating, helping with documents. We have a refugee resettlement division. We work very closely with them. When we start our school year, we give an orientation, and then departments are invited to give an orientation to students. Minority health is giving information and referrals. Whenever they hold something, all the students are invited."

Spring Institute's Atkins stresses the need to form relationships with outside agencies before referrals are needed. "In our program," she says, "we have close relationships with the Rocky Mountain Center for the survivors of torture. I changed what I was doing to partner with one of those staff so the students would get to know them. The referrals go both ways. That's an important partnership. There are not enough of those partnerships. The time to form those relationships are not when you need them, but before."

Target Needs

To improve the counseling available at the International Institute of Rhode Island's ESOL program, Rahman would like to see more training for teachers on specific counseling issues. A separate counselor, too, is a possibility. ESOL programs considering counseling "should look at their student body first to see what the needs are. Is it mental health? Is it job search and employment? Then get counselors in those areas. Our population has huge needs in immigration and naturalization and our institution has that. You have to start with who is coming in and what their needs are," she reminds us.

Atkins counsels ESOL programs to focus on staff needs: "Teachers have to be aware of how stressful working with people who have so many needs can be. We have to make sure of our own mental health. Some teachers get overwhelmed with the enormity of the tasks both timewise and stresswise. They start taking on a lot of their students' concerns. They have a responsibility to take care of their own mental health. Who takes care of the care givers?"


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL