The language of success: using one pandemic inequity as an opportunity for community and learning

I co-wrote this piece with my colleague and friend Sana. We discuss our experiences and learnings leading a series of professional learning experiences around language during the pandemic. Find Sana at

In adapting to classroom instruction during the pandemic, each of us was aiming to bring the most important elements – perhaps joy, trust and safety, or strong feedback loops – from our classrooms to this new arena.. Figuring out how to adapt these crucial elements of the classroom to a virtual environment was a project, and we immersed ourselves in the challenge.

Months later, though, we were exhausted. The virtual environment threw up new challenges every day. In addition, our students’ experiences with poverty meant that there were new and scary emergencies every day. Worsening attendance for a myriad of reasons – shared childcare responsibilities, financial pressures to work part-time, and illness meant that academic gaps were worsening while we as teachers were more overworked and less capable of solving student problems than ever. After many years of teaching (five for Sana and eight for Sruti), this was the first time we felt helpless. We needed to see impact if we were going to remain educators.

We teach in an experimental school, Avasara Academy, which is one of a handful of majority low-income international curriculum schools in India. Our students experience daily challenges of patriarchy, caste discrimination, and economic instability. At the same time, they learn from both school and, often, at home the importance of feminism, equity, and leadership. Avasara’s goal is to equip students to both navigate the world that is and transform the world (El-Amin, 2015). The diversity of experiences our students come with means we have to be cautious – our interventions have to benefit all students. Academic language, for us, was a high-leverage area both for bridging learning gaps and for collective professional growth. 

Because we were both designing professional learning for teachers and teaching ourselves, we felt the same sap in motivation and energy that our colleagues did. We knew that our academic language sessions had to be useful, engaging, and ultimately motivating. Through the many discussions that we had with teachers and our shared reflections on our own experiences, we focused on building empathy with students and solidarity with each other. Both, we believe, are indispensable in building an equitable classroom. 

In the rest of this article, we will address two key takeaways from our experience introducing teachers to academic language and the urgency of teaching it. We will discuss how we arrived at the conclusion that teachers needed empathy for both students and the language demands we impose on them. Then, we’ll shift to how we built solidarity among teachers and we’ll conclude with a discussion of what is and isn’t translatable to other contexts from our work. 

Key Takeaway #1: As teachers, we need to understand that the language demands we place on our students are intensely challenging. We need to have empathy for their struggle and respect for their resilience.

Understand that each component/discipline/subject is hard. Even for us.

During our first session, we did two things to help teachers understand what we ask of our students.

First, we began our session by comparing teachers’ descriptions of a Taylor Swift song with a description written by a pop music scholar. We asked teachers to reflect on the language and how it made them feel – Did we feel capable of using this language to describe music, even if we were very comfortable with the artist/song?

Second, we put teachers in breakout rooms by department and asked them to solve one of two Cambridge A-Level exam papers. Science and Math teachers attempted an A-Level History paper and humanities and English teachers attempted an A-Level Biology exam.

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Figure 2

We gave teachers the opportunity to solve the paper and reflect on what was easy/hard about the work. 

In hearing our teachers’ reflections after this activity, this is what we heard:

“Just reading it [the question paper] gave me cold feet.”

 “I wish the Biology teacher could see us. We were just disgraceful.”

“We didn’t know if we were supposed to read between the lines? Read the lines? Compare the lines? The mark scheme itself was a puzzle.”

If this exercise was complicated for adults, how can we expect A Level examinations to be easy for students, who are experiencing the curriculum for the first time? We must provide them with more support! 

Understand how much we ask from students.

Teaching is hard. We lesson plan and teach, check in on individual students, remediate, assess, reflect, learn, meet, give feedback, and much more. One of the core takeaways of these two exercises was that being a student is hard too.

One teacher said, “I’m just thinking about students who sit for one hour of biology and then go for one hour of economics… I just have immense respect for them.”

While we expect them to do their best in our classes, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that four other teachers have similar expectations from them. Empathizing with this aspect of a student’s life does not mean that we lower our expectations as teachers. It does mean that we need to offer better support to students as they navigate school. 

Understand our students’ learning needs with an empathy lens.

Before our sessions, we frequently heard from teachers some version of “I teach Mathematics/History/Chemistry, so I can’t think about teaching English, too.” 

Another common refrain is “We never learnt about academic language as school children. Why must we teach it to students? Shouldn’t they be doing this on their own?”

Here’s our answer:

Our students experience poverty. Our school features an international curriculum. Most of their siblings attend Indian government schools, and the homework and syllabus we teach them look nothing like what their friends, neighbours, or siblings have ever seen. Many of them are first-generation learners and almost all of them are first-generation English learners. Most of our staff did not have these barriers. Most of us had school, a peer group, and families that could support us academically. Most of us were enrolled in a school curriculum that more closely matched what our homes could support.

After we began our academic language sessions, we heard this refrain from teachers less frequently. Part of the equation, we think, is that teachers were encouraged to read student work with an empathy lens, rather than a purely evaluative one. For example, take a student response that says “when we mix two or more chemical elements of an atom, it’s called a compound.” A teacher could mark it correct, and say that it’s mostly on the right track. A teacher could get frustrated and assume that the student wasn’t paying enough attention in class. Or, a teacher could pause and consider that the language of a science classroom hasn’t been sufficiently embedded into the classroom. We could teach “combine” as an explicit vocabulary word. We could explicitly disambiguate mix and combine. Exploring academic language helped give teachers a framework for understanding at least one large category of student errors as language errors.

Acknowledge what students do know, and commit to teaching the language that they don’t know. 

Students require many more skills than those learned in school to be able to do well on assessments – skills that are often built at home. Our students, given their backgrounds may still watch and discuss the news, but in Hindi, Marathi, or another Indian language – they rarely engage in these conversations in English.

During the pandemic, overworked and burned out, we were at a loss to explain consistent student underachievement – at the worst points, we blamed students. Understanding student academic output as evidence of content knowledge and academic language helps teachers take ownership over addressing these skills. 

Through the session and the discussions, teachers were reminded of our students’ classroom experiences. Teachers were able to use academic language as a lens to look at student work again, and this time see issues of language implicated. All of this helped reiterate where we fit into a student’s picture. Since the assessments or curriculum don’t make accommodations for our students, we must scaffold effectively for student learning – that is where we fit. 

Key Takeaway #2: As teachers, we need to come together as a team. We need to believe that every single one of us contributes to a collective goal and that student success is contingent on our shared expertise and effort. We must think about the whole child, which means thinking about the whole school that serves them.

Every subject is difficult, not just ours.

In India, and increasingly around the world, there is a growing awe of STEM. So much so that in 2018, almost 25% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded worldwide were STEM degrees. Out of those STEM degrees, 29.2% were from India (UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2018). When Sruti  was in college, she often heard “Oh, those smart engineers…” As a Humanities and English teacher, this attitude is infuriating for her. Excellence is hard, everywhere. With that said, defensiveness (along with that of other arts teachers), is counterproductive too – for true solidarity and collectivity, we have to acknowledge that all subjects are hard, differentially, for students and for teachers. We have to have the humility to see the value other subjects and teachers add and avoid the chip on the shoulder that can prevent meaningful collaborative growth.

Our first session on academic language tried to begin here. We tried to start with teachers solving papers outside of their comfort zone, to help everyone understand the importance and difficulty of other subjects.

My subject is not as easy as I might think – I should probably break it down.

Sometimes, what we need as teachers, is to see other people we recognize as competent and intelligent, stumble in our lesson plans. When we see students stumble, we should probably ask more often whether the instructions were clear, whether the subject matter was pitched at the appropriate level, and whether the pacing was right. Most of the time we do, but sometimes we get frustrated at the student rather than at the lesson. When we asked teachers to solve each others’ work, we were able to re-trigger that productive reflection. By asking teachers to reflect upon the scaffolding that would have helped them answer the questions for another subject’s exam with the teacher who usually leads the classroom, we put ourselves in students’ shoes. We remembered that our curriculum might be easier and more straightforward for us than for anyone else at school.

My subject is not as easy as I might think. I must consider the whole child.

In our second session, we asked teachers to read Alliance for Excellent Education’s report on Literacy Across Content Areas. The excerpts we chose emphasized the difference in discipline-specific dispositions that we can often take for granted. Teachers reflected on the fact that, for example, business and economics classes tend to expect students to express uncertainty using language like “probably” and “perhaps” in long-answer questions. Immediately, science teachers exclaimed, realizing that this explained much of why students sounded so unsure of themselves in science classes, where concepts like gravity are much more definite. 

When our colleagues stepped back and were able to discuss these expectations together, we were blown away by the number of competing theories of knowledge our students had to navigate throughout the day. We realized it was crucial that we explicitly name the assumptions our subject makes and that we know when students might be presented with seemingly contradictory instructions.

Solidarity – and collaboration – were required to help students make sense of why sample sizes were relevant in biology and economics, but perhaps not in physics or history. We needed to ensure that spelling routines were the same in middle school English and in mathematics. Teachers needed to come together to ensure excellent achievement in their individual subjects, or students’ brains would explode.

Student success is dependent on successful instruction everywhere.

While in the US, there seems to be a somewhat higher emphasis on high-stakes exams to hold teachers and institutions accountable, the rest of the world’s examination systems place the majority of the burden on students. For our students, this means that secondary school leaving examinations in 10th and 12th grades determine their access to higher education opportunities, their eligibility for low-interest loans, their marriage prospects, and their long-term financial independence.

While our job as teachers is to ensure that students achieve ambitious outcomes in our subject, students’ opportunities are, unfortunately, dependent on high outcomes everywhere. As an AS-level science teacher, this means that Sana’s students spend 75% of their time in other classes. Their learning and experience in her class are bound to affect their learning in other classes and vice versa. 

In Sruti’s department, the English team has a strict no-homework policy in 11th and 12th grade because, historically in our school, other subjects require more revision to achieve high scores.  Contrastingly, in our middle school program, only English class assigns homework on a nightly basis – students are expected to read 30 minutes a day, every day. 

In our sessions, teachers shared that it is important to identify the structures that must be similar across classrooms as well as structures that must be different. Thus, if we really want our students to be successful, a collective effort is needed. 

Whole child necessarily means whole school.

As important as it is for teachers to empathize with students, show solidarity, and collaborate to identify effective structures and practices, it is also as important for schools and institutions to provide spaces for teachers to be able to do all of this. In a school catering to predominantly low-income students, this solidarity is even more important – adults’ roles can involve more emotional resilience, truly holistic and trauma-informed teaching requires more collaboration, and teacher retention is both rarer and more crucial. 

The school plays a key role in providing the space and environment for these interactions to occur (Ávalos, B. , 2011). We realized that collaboration would not happen spontaneously. It would require a conscious effort to make it possible. Our sessions exploring academic language started with the realization that for the development of the ‘whole child’, the ‘whole school’ must be involved – various subject teachers, instructional leaders, and counselors. 

A truly responsive and supportive approach to student learning is necessarily a systemic approach – school-level leadership must value this work by creating spaces for teachers to work in solidarity and then listen and implement the outcomes. 

We engaged in this work because both of us needed to do something, after months of pandemic teaching that sometimes felt like running into a brick wall. We chose to explore, with our colleagues, ways to honor and eventually support the language challenges that our students have always faced and that the pandemic certainly exacerbated. In diving into the language demands that we take for granted in so many of our classrooms, we built empathy for students by deepening our understanding of the range of things we have always asked for but don’t explicitly teach and came together as educators with a stronger commitment to collective efficacy, collaboration, and solidarity in service of equitable academic outcomes.


El-Amin, Aaliyah (2015). “Until Justice Rolls Down like Water” Revisiting Emancipatory Schooling for African Americans – a Theoretical Exploration of Concepts for LIberation. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Avalos, Beatrice. (2011). Teacher professional development in Teaching and Teacher Education over ten years. Teaching and Teacher Education. 27. 10-20. 10.1016/j.tate.2010.08.007. 

Bailey, Drew & Duncan, Greg & Murnane, Richard & Yeung, Natalie. (2021). Achievement Gaps in the Wake of COVID-19. Educational Researcher. 50. 266-275. 10.3102/0013189X211011237.

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development – Technology and Innovation Report 2018

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