In 2008, I was hired as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher in a rural school division located within the Greater Richmond Metro Region. I was told I would be responsible for both administrative and educational tasks for four out of five schools in the county.

Being an ESOL teacher in a rural Virginia county is challenging. Often, ESOL teachers in rural counties are responsible for administrative work, designing language support curriculums, plus implementing the regular teaching load. In addition, ESOL teachers create the bridge between language and culture for ESOL families and the rest of the community. They are agents of change and advocates for those who do not have a voice or who are not familiar with the American system of education. Because change is difficult, ESOL teachers can encounter barriers from those who want to keep things the established way. At times, change creates resistance, so an ESOL teacher must learn the balancing act of pushing for change slowly and incrementally. You can read more about this work on my school blog.

Though the years that I have worked in my county, the ESOL program has developed from infancy into an established ESOL program. During this time, we have observed an increased level of school-based and division-level administrator support, which has helped to further develop our program. Together we have worked with our school community to familiarize them with Title III (ESOL) administrative requirements and regulations, ranging from the home language identification processes, translation needs, to testing accommodations. Our work has paid off. After our 2016 audit, we received recognition from the Title I/III specialists of the Virginia Department of Education and were asked to present our ESOL handbook, timeline and sample curriculum at an upcoming consortium conference. The hope is that our rural ESOL handbook and timeline can serve as a model for other rural counties in the state of Virginia.

I have always felt supported by my colleagues, administrators, and community volunteers. But pioneering the work of a new program in schools can be isolating. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and start making connections beyond county lines. Early in May 2016, I stumbled across an email from Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR). The subject header stated, “Six days remaining to apply for Leadership Quest.” My interest was piqued. I started to research Leadership Metro Richmond’s mission statement and programs. I read “(LMR) is a community leadership development and engagement organization with a mission to connect and educate a diverse group of community leaders, inspiring them to serve the greater Richmond region.” The words “connect, educate, inspire, and serve” incentivized me to apply for the program. I applied and was accepted.

There are so many experiences that stand out during my 2016/17 LMR leadership quest. I will only name a few because they reaffirmed my career as an ESOL teacher. The first was the friendships and connections I made. LMR places participants into immersion groups and our job is to investigate and create a project related to a regional topic. In this case, my group was selected to address the topic of immigration. We were composed of extremely diverse and talented professionals such as the chief executive officer of the YWCA, a dean at the University of Richmond, and an executive director of construction operations. My group set out to learn more about the topic of immigration and to understand its complexities through visits and interviews in the community. We went to places such as Crossover Clinics, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Sacred Heart Center. A culminating event was when my group hosted a movie screening and panel discussion on the topic of immigration at the University of Richmond. For more information on my Leadership immersion group experience, refer to the LMR link entitled Immigration.

In addition to forming long-lasting friendships and “enduring bonds,” there are a couple of other people who spoke to our LMR class who inspired me and reaffirmed my career choice as an ESOL teacher. One person was Jonathan Zur (LMR ’08), director of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. His talents lie in the area of facilitation and drawing in the perspectives, experiences, and emotions around some of today’s toughest topics. He presented on “Practicing Courageous Conversations.” I have written in my LMR journal three questions that referenced courageous conversations. I refer to these questions often in my job as ESOL teacher. These questions are “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said right now? Does it need to be said by me?” Contrary to thought, courageous conversations involve listening. But, they also require us to not cower and cover up what needs to be said. When we cover up or ignore an injustice or an unfavorable trait, we are not standing up for civil rights. We are perpetuating them. We must stand up for those who are deemed unfavorable and be a voice that champions injustice.

Another individual who impacted me in my role as an ESOL teacher was Damon Jiggetts (LMR ’16) who works in the east end of Richmond and currently serves as the executive director of the Peter Paul Development Center. He spoke on the need to teach people to ask themselves “What can we do for ourselves?” He stated that if we empower those who are impoverished and help them find their self worth, they find that they have so much within themselves to give. Damon Jiggetts spoke again at our LMR graduation ceremony in June 2017. Three words that have guided him in his professional pathway are “passion, purpose, and profession.” He stated that his passion guided what he did professionally. This outward expression of passion has become his purpose. He also spoke of learning through his career and how his purpose evolved into a profession, which was consistently motivated by the lessons he’s learned.

For me, the privilege of being part of the class of Leadership Metro Richmond helped me to connect to an amazing network of professionals and it helped me become more educated about the intricacies and complexities of community issues. Most importantly, it reaffirmed my passion to continue serving the ESOL population in the greater Richmond region. I am grateful for my career as an ESOL teacher and also for the experience of Leadership Metro Richmond, which has educated, inspired, and enriched my career in so many ways.

Renae Townsend
Class of 2017

2 thoughts on “Reaffirming My Professional Journey

  1. Renae
    Enjoyed your article and your words made me think of my professional teaching journey. As a retired educator who taught in Baltimore’s inner city and correctional facilities, I still am grateful for the career path I chose. And then how grateful I am now that I became a volunteer in your ESOL program. I know how much you do in the classroom and your endless hours outside of the classroom. Thank you. Continue to teach and educate. It’s a pretty worthwhile journey.

    1. Thanks Lizz!!! You continue to inspire me with your dedication and love of the teaching career. Thank you for the hours you have put into helping my ESOL students in the Goochland Community. You have made such a huge impact in their lives.

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