From Classroom to Community: Dr. Amanda Nelms' Journey in Supporting English Language Learners

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College of Education

From Classroom to Community: Dr. Amanda Nelms' Journey in Supporting English Language Learners

April 8, 2024 | by Cara Davis

Faculty Spotlight: Amanda Nelms

amanda-nelms.jpegDr. Amanda Nelms, assistant professor of education at Belmont University, vividly remembers the moment that solidified her commitment to advocating for multilingual learners and their families. While walking a student home from school in Nashville one day, Nelms witnessed a disturbing scene. As they walked down a busy street, people rolled down their windows, yelled offensive remarks like "go back to your home country," and even threw trash at the student. When Nelms apologized to the student's mother, she was shocked by the response: "That's their normal. That's my kids' normal."

This experience was a turning point for Nelms. She realized that while she could impact 50 students in her classroom, moving into instructional coaching and administrative roles would allow her to work with adults across the world to address perceptions and barriers around multilingualism. Nelms decided to dedicate her career to ensuring high standards and dignity for English learners.

Born in Indiana, Nelms moved to Nashville at 18 to attend Lipscomb University. She fell in love with teaching English learners while student teaching at Glenview Elementary, where 70% of students are active English learners. Prior to joining Belmont's faculty in 2019, Nelms served as a classroom teacher, instructional coach and English Language Development Coordinator for Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). In these roles, she worked with teachers and principals across the district to increase rigor and ensure grade-level content for English learners.

In this Q&A, Nelms talks about the unique challenges and opportunities for teachers and multi-language learners.

How did you come to be at Belmont?

"Before joining the Belmont team, I've been a classroom teacher, ESL teacher, instructional coach and worked in Metro Nashville as an English Language Development Specialist and Coordinator. While I was an ELD Coordinator, a colleague called me about a position at Belmont that aligned with my interest in preparing teacher candidates to support English learners. It was a good time to revise the TESOL [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages] program for accreditation purposes, so I joined the faculty in 2019 to create a program that would prepare our teacher candidates for working with English learners."

Why is this area of study so important for future educators?

"It's predicted that by 2025, one in five students in public schools will be an active English learner. In Metro Nashville, one in three students are from non-English language backgrounds, and [more than] 25% are active English learners. There's absolutely a need for teachers to know how to work with students acquiring English, but the number one reason teacher candidates should be interested in this field is the incredible students and families we get to work with. It's such a rewarding field."

Can you talk about some of your recent professional work and accomplishments?

"I've had the opportunity to present at quite a few conferences over the last couple of years. One area of focus was a whole community approach to supporting active English learners, working with multilingual parents and teacher candidates. The goal was to build bridges between university partnerships, nonprofits and schools to ensure multilingual families are surrounded with support. I also consistently present on maintaining high standards for multilingual learners and providing rigorous grade-level content."

"We want to ensure our teacher candidates have choices when entering the field, and adding additional endorsements provides them with more options."

Amanda Nelms

How does Belmont's ESL program prepare teacher candidates for working with multilingual learners?

"At Belmont, we offer an ESL endorsement as a minor, so students can pursue their primary licensure area, like Elementary Education, and add on an ESL endorsement. This makes them highly marketable, as principals are eager to hire teachers with ESL endorsements. Some principals are even required to only hire teachers with this endorsement. We want to ensure our teacher candidates have choices when entering the field, and adding additional endorsements provides them with more options."

Can you share more about The Branch project you've been involved with?

"I've worked alongside the director of the adult TESOL programs at The Branch for the past three years. My background includes helping nonprofits open adult TESOL programs, so I've been working with their adult ESL program to bring in Belmont support.”

How do you address the achievement gap between multilingual learners and their monolingual peers?

"Specifically, when thinking about our multilingual learners, that's one of the ways we close the gap is we do have studies where students had low work, watered down materials presented, and then just seeing that it's a greater divide. So if we're looking at the subgroup of active English learners, there was a significant discrepancy in the academic scores during COVID. And so really making sure that we're always holding those high expectations. And that might be with additional ESL services and might be with supports outside school, but making sure that what's called their tier one instruction is always on grade level as well. So it doesn't create again, a wider gap."

What drives your passion for advocating for and supporting multilingual students?

"The kids drive my passion. Any teacher interested in working with English learners should come chat with me, but the first thing I'm going to say is let's go into a classroom. At the end of the day, we do this work because of the kids. Seeing their faces when they are learning to read in English or mastering different sentence structures is incredible. Everything we do comes back to the kids."

What advice would you give to students interested in entering the field?

"Go to a classroom and work with kids. See if it's the right fit. I can talk about theory and our program all day long, but teachers really know if working with active English learners is their passion when they sit down across the table from a kid and teach them to read. You have to be in the classroom working with kids to feel that passion."

Learn more about teaching English as a second language.