Educator Spotlight: Sarah Ottow, Engaging English Learners

Sarah Ottow, Founder of Confianza

By Adam Strom

As an educator, Sarah Ottow has spent her career focused on issues of equity. Key to her success is working with school teachers and administrators to help schools serve and empower culturally and linguistically diverse students. Sarah has been a classroom teacher, ESL teacher, instructional coach, lead mentor, district coordinator, and bilingual reading specialist, as well as ELL Director for the Center for Collaborative Education. When you speak with her, you can hear the insights she has developed from each of those positions. In 2015, she founded Confianza, a Boston-based consulting organization with the mission of advancing achievement, equity and opportunity for multilingual/bilingual students through professional learning partnerships with schools. Confianza was recently recognized as a ‘bright spot in the field’ for innovative professional learning for English Learners in GettingSmart’s Supporting ELLs with NextGen Tools and they co-creators of the Teaching Channel’s ELL Deep Dive.  I hope you enjoy reading our conversation.


Adam: Hi Sarah. Before we talk about your work, can you tell us something about yourself as an educator? How did you get interested in working with English Learners?

Growing up with a younger sister with extreme special needs, I had watched her struggle and had seen how my parents advocated for her.  I always knew that I had to speak up for those students at school who were disenfranchised, those who didn’t fit in or belong.  I had also been an ‘at-risk’ student myself in high school so I’ve had the experience firsthand of feeling lost in the shuffle and like an ‘empty vessel’ to be filled with knowledge which is still all too common in our high schools. I can say that the most of important part of being an educator is what my dad taught me, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care” and I have built my career around that belief.  My first teaching experience was as an after-school art teacher at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  Then, after graduation from art school, I decided to become a classroom teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools through an innovative, hands-on teacher residency program.  Eventually, I ended up at a bilingual school as a monolingual English teacher where my Spanish-speaking students delighted and fascinated me when they helped me improved my bilingual skills and taught me about their cultures.  At the time, I also was earning my Masters in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on Social Justice in Urban Education that raised my awareness of equity issues and made me want to be even more of an advocate for others whose voices may not always be heard.  I knew then that I had to put myself in my students’ shoes and live in Latin America.  There is nothing like trying to communicate in another language and I wish every educator had that experience in order to keep that empathy and need for meaningful, communicative instruction front and center.  Puerto Rico was where I chose to teach and that experience was so transformative that it prompted me to earn my ESL license, Bilingual license and Reading license upon returning to Wisconsin.  From there, I had have several leadership roles which all led me to Confianza.  In my work promoting equity for English learners, I always carry my students’ stories with me, knowing that each one is a treasure, some like icebergs that has so much below the surface we must try to get to know, to honor and to incorporate at school.


Adam: Sarah, the name of your organization is Confianza. I know it doesn’t directly translate into English, but what does it mean and how does it reflect the work that your organization does?

Confianza is a word that doesn’t quite translate into English.  One might look at it and assume the meaning is its root word–confiar, like the English word confidence.  Yet it’s much more than a word, it’s a concept, with roots in teacher research that starts with students’ strengths and funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, 1992). One of the beautiful things about knowing another language is that we have access to concepts and expressions that have special meaning in one language and yet can’t quite be expressed in another. As a voluntary language learner myself in different situations in my life, I’ve seen how challenging those nuances, those cultural concepts can be!  Now, our students, mind you, are not voluntary language learners: they are involuntary language learners and often negotiate between two or more worlds.  Language and culture are intimately connected and highly complex.  There is so much going on below the surface!  Therefore, to be a learner of language is to not just be an EL, an emerging bilingual or a multilingual learner, but also to be a cultural mediator, a symbol decoder, a truth-finder.  At Confianza, we always start with students, promoting an equity-based mindset so that all educators see themselves as change agents to support all students, particularly culturally and linguistically diverse learners who may not be truly seen or honored at school so they can be part of the community and so they can achieve to their full potential.


Adam: We are going through a difficult moment when it has become clear that our polarized environment is impacting students and schools. I’d love to know what you are hearing from the educators you are working with? Can you give us an overview of the conditions and concerns of EL students in schools?

This is very hard to talk about because there is a lot of pain and fear for so many.  As educators, we must bolster enough strength to show up every day and let our students know that they are safe with us.  However, many are living with the extreme stress of not knowing what will happen.  Many students’ families are being broken apart by deportation and, as educators of EL students, many of us are absorbing the anxiety of their students.  The day after election day, I drove on auto-pilot, in shock of the national news, to one of Confianza’s partner schools as scheduled, only to receive a call on the road from the EL Director I was going to see, voice quivering and scared, telling me that I should probably just go home since there was so much distress at the schools that she was basically on triage duty consoling students, families and teachers.  Since then, it has been a constant sense of concern and suspense; much of my time is focused on coaching leaders through these times as a thought partner, as an ally, and as a problem-solver when solutions seem out of reach.  I’ve also witnessed incidents of student-on-student racism, anti-LGBTQ remarks and graffiti, and even one undocumented Guatemalan student telling another undocumented Guatemalan student, “Donald Trunk is going to take you away.”  (No doubt an EL-moment of using ‘trunk’ instead of ‘Trump’ to connote the real fear that people are being taken against their will into vehicles.)  However, as frightening as the conditions are currently, I can tell you that I personally know many educators who take this moment to reignite their fire for teaching, for leading, for making sure that students have the language skills to navigate themselves and their families through these complex times.  So many EL teachers, classroom teachers, school leaders, guidance counselors and other educators are finding it more imperative than ever to make sure that student groups being targeted are cared for and that school can still be a functioning, welcoming place, even when the world outside is so uncertain.  To this end, Confianza proudly collaborates with Teaching Tolerance and integrates their incredibly helpful resources into our work, including keeping up with policies and sharing tips about working with Immigrant and Refugee Children: A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff.


Adam: What are some of the things you have seen that help English Learners thrive? Are there particular practices and educators that you think do a great job creating welcoming schools and reflective learning environments for English Learners?

English learners deserve what we refer to at Confianza as three components for schooling–Equity, Language and Literacy.  First, as mentioned above, it all starts with an equity-based mindset where every educator in a school, not just the EL teacher, gets to know students and families through reciprocal relationships based on mutual respect and trust.  Equity means that school is safe and engaging for every learner and that students’ languages and cultures are embedded into the school community to reflect our richly diverse society at large.  Beyond that, equity means that educators know how to interrupt prejudice and bias, making sure that schools are transformative for all groups, not just those who have historically benefited from the status quo.  Second, Language.  Language means that every educator, not just the EL educators, have the tools and skills to plan, teach and assess with a ‘language lens’.  When the whole school promotes scaffolded, functional language, ELs benefit, and ALL students benefit.  In fact, we like to say that ‘ALL’ stands for ‘Academic Language Learners’ because we are all learners of academic language.  Plus, college and career readiness standards promote academic language and literacy instruction in every classroom so we support this shifts in our work.  Finally, Literacy.  Yes, literacy means the traditional reading and writing proficiency, which of course we want for our ELs, and unfortunately isn’t happening across the board.  So we need to make sure that every teacher knows how to embed literacy skills in their classroom.  Yet we also mean Literacy POWER where students are equipped to have critical thinking skills for college, career, and most importantly, life.  We want all students to see how their actions impact their own lives and the lives of others in their community and globally.  In our work at Confianza, we partner with schools across the US and internationally to build capacity around these practices.  Shifts in classroom practices and student impact is the way we like to measure our effectiveness.  We like to feature partners’ work in our ever-evolving professional learning resources so that educators can learn directly from other educators about what’s possible to help ELs thrive.


Adam: Sarah, if people wanted to know more about Confianza, where would you have them go first?

I would invite people to first check out our new Confianza Resource Center where they can peruse blogs in our key areas of focus, plus read about how schools have found these practices useful.  If they are interested in our services, I recommend visiting our Confianza’s Professional Learning System where we show how we engage with partner schools.  Finally, if people would like to hear more about the results of our work, I would say to check out our first (more to come!) of our case studies.  


Adam: Sarah, I can’t help but want to share one of our resources that serves as a great compliment to your work. I encourage educators to check out our Moving Stories project and storytelling app. It is a great way to encourage our students to share their stories, build empathy, and break down the isolation of newcomers. I look forward to continuing to collaborate and learn from each other.

Here’s Sarah’s most recent blog:

Start with the End User in Mind: Student-Centered Curriculum Design