Interview With Dr. Sandra Quiñones-Hemphill, “The Language Lady”By Kaitlyn Webster
June 26, 2020
Dr. Sandra Quiñones-Hemphill has dedicated over 18 years of her life to education, working both in teaching and school leadership positions within the ESL field. These roles have provided her with unique insights and experiences that ultimately led her to become a successful teacherpreneur. Known as “The Language Lady” on her popular YouTube channel, Dr. Quiñones-Hemphill inspires ESL educators across the globe with her creative teaching tips and classroom activities.
As an educator in the US, you’ve taught all grades and levels. You currently work as an 8th grade English Language Development (ELD) Specialist at an inner-city school in Pennsylvania. Can you tell us more about your role?
As an ELD Specialist, I am responsible for delivering our district’s instructional program for English language learners. When our students enroll in our district, they complete a home language survey. When a student is found to speak another language other than English at home, I am responsible for testing them and relaying their language proficiency level with other content teachers, providing curricular support when possible. I deliver intervention for our students to bridge the gap between them and their English native speaking peers in literacy skills. I provide individualized support for each student during the intervention course as well as co-teaching with both of the English language content teachers.
You teach English to international students at different language levels. What advice could you give another teacher about teaching a class of students with differing language abilities?
I would suggest teachers acquire an understanding of what language ability looks like in reading, speaking, listening, and writing at each language level and what supports look like for each level. A lot of the supports I provide for my students stem from the Can-Do Descriptors laid out by the WIDA consortium, as well as best practices that I know are best for students at every level. Once you have a handle on what they are able to do at each level, you can then differentiate the instruction in a way that allows each student to utilize speaking and writing skills in English.
You teach students from all over the world but have a lot of students from the Caribbean and South America. How would you describe the mix of cultures in your classroom? Do issues ever arise because of cultural differences?
It is exciting to have so many different students of varying cultures in my classroom. The expressions of the Caribbean, Central, and South America are very different. Although my students use different words for objects in Spanish and have their idiosyncrasies as well as idioms based on their culture, most of the students do not have a strong handle of Spanish in their native language. I think that factor makes them feel comfortable being together in my class and don’t feel like the “odd man out” so to speak.
In terms of issues, cultural differences do not cause issues within my class. However, when they attend their content classes, there can be moments of tension between them and some of the African American students in their classes. There are issues of misunderstandings and cultural assumptions as well as biases, which is something that as a school district we need to improve upon.
You briefly worked as an ESL Coordinator in between teaching jobs. How did working as an administrator help you evolve as a teacher?
Working as an ESL coordinator allowed me to really get a comprehensive understanding of federal and statewide guidelines and regulations. When you are implementing these guidelines within a school district, you become well versed in them and are able to provide effective programming advice and consultation. Being an ESL coordinator also allowed me to visit many classrooms in the district and see varying levels of classroom teaching practices and provide teaching support, professional development, and guidelines for teachers. Additionally, I was able to advocate for new programs and policies for the English language learners program.
These experiences and so many more provided me with a deeper understanding of the pressures that administrators endure. Once I was in the classroom again, I taught with more fervor and urgency because I understood academic achievement and language learning from a much global perspective. In essence, I was able to see the “big picture.”
You’ve taught in schools with limited funding and resources as well as schools where resources were plentiful. How did each setting affect your teaching style or perspective?
Teaching in a school district with limited funding really forces you to become creative and come up with tools and resources that are at your disposal. It forced me to create games and to look for new games and activities that will help enhance my students’ literacy skills. I feel that I am a better teacher because I have access to technology that offers so many free resources that can help bring my classroom alive.
What challenges did you face as COVID-19 forced your school to move to online learning?
Our school district prior to COVID-19 was not a one-to-one school in which each student had technology access. Students did not receive laptops until about a month and a half after students were quarantined. Not all the parents of students had access to wifi and technology to be able to have online sessions. Once the school district decided to utilize classroom laptops, we were successful in getting technology into the hands of each student.
However, getting English language learners to effectively understand how to access and log into Zoom, for instance, was an incredible challenge. Another challenge we faced was that not all students were accessible each day so it made communication difficult. Lastly, our students live in poverty and when their parents had to stop working, it made life for them very difficult. Suddenly, day to day survival was more important than picking up a laptop to complete assignments.
You made the move from teacher to “teacherpreneur” when you launched your YouTube channel, The Language Lady. Tell us about your YouTube channel and what made you want to start making education ESL videos for fellow teachers.
In 2015, I graduated with a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration. My dissertation research centered around the professional development of mainstream classroom teachers and their familiarity with best practices for ELLs. It was eye-opening to understand their perceptions. It compelled me to begin my YouTube channel to help teachers with quick tips in a fun and engaging way so that they would feel less anxious about teaching ELLs.
I started my channel in September of 2019. It has been interesting to see that my audience stems from teachers all over the world, from poverty-stricken to wealthy school districts. My audience also spans from teachers with 20 years of experience to teachers who are just preparing to enter the field. It has been very interesting to see how much teachers need this type of content. I originally thought I would be reaching a much smaller audience.
Where do you get the ideas for your videos?
I mostly get my ideas based on what I see teachers searching for online. I pay close attention to which videos perform the best on my channel. This is the clearest indicator of what my audience is looking for. In addition, I study Google trends to find out what topics teachers are looking for. Lastly, I read the comments on my channel, Instagram page, and various Facebook groups so that I know what teachers are needing more support in. I also post questions on the “community” section of my YouTube channel to get an idea of what my teachers want to see in future videos.
How do you market your videos to reach the biggest possible audience?
I ensure that my videos are optimized with relevant keywords in my title, description, and tags in my video so that when a random teacher is looking up for a particular topic on YouTube, they will then be able to find my videos in search results, similar to what one does when you are looking up key topics on Google. I also share my resources on relevant Facebook groups.
What advice could you give other teachers looking to make a similar transition to teacherpreneur?
I think the advice I would give is to know your “why” and to understand what value you want to provide for others. Once you have a handle on those two things, it is important to write out a plan of how you will deliver that value through your business. It is important to do your research and connect with others who are successful so that you can learn from their mistakes. There is a great book that I am reading now that is called, The Edupreneur’s Side Hustle Handbook by Lisa Dunnigan. This book will give you insight and inspiration into the world of teacherpreneurship.
You have been working as an educator in the US for over two decades. What are some tips you could give to English teachers who are just starting out?
My advice is to be easy on yourself and know that there is a lot to know with regards to teaching English, stemming from theory all the way to practice. Make sure to have a mentor and invite your principal or mentor to visit your classroom and have them do model lessons for you so you can learn good practices. Make simple goals and master them before moving onto others. I think as teachers we can try to do too much and are hard on ourselves if we can’t meet those goals. You are making a difference every time you teach your students because you are opening a new world for them and providing an invaluable gift. I want you to know that I appreciate you and celebrate what you do each and every day for students.