Conversations with Tim: Leading emergent bilinguals

Dr. Trish Morita-Mullaney
Dr. Trish Morita-Mullaney
November 3, 2020

I recently reached out to my Hoosier friend and colleague, Trish Morita-Mullaney, who works at Purdue University and whose research focuses on language policy and effective leadership for those who serve multilingual learners. Given her expertise, I asked her to write a piece for us on what she sees as the most essential factors in effective leadership for our students. She graciously agreed and the piece that follows is hers.

Leading emergent bilinguals: At the intersection of creativity, resistance and advocacy

Leadership for emergent bilinguals has historically focused on the selection of an appropriate language program model, overseeing instruction that is more linguistically appropriate for students at varying levels of English proficiency — while promoting appropriate staffing and resources. A focus on these leadership tasks is important, but lacks focus on how the emergent bilingual administrative or teacher leader actually experiences leadership.

The Dilemma

A newly minted emergent bilingual director has staffed their programs with licensed ESL or bilingual teachers, placed all emergent bilingual students in appropriate program models, provided professional development workshop to their specialist staff, general education teachers and administrators. The school year has begun! Yet, as the year begins, the director encounters confusion with a building principal with a large proportion of emergent bilingual students:

Director: I was examining the linguistic complexity in the content standards of mathematics in your fourth grade, and am noticing that the language genre of the math is really confusing our ELs. The fourth grade teachers clearly need to work on comprehensible input, so the students can more readily perform relative to their English language proficiency level.

The principal who has limited training and preparation in language learning is thinking, “I’m not sure what linguistic complexity is, but something to do with translation maybe? And language genre — I have no idea what that means. And that thing about input, maybe that’s about accommodations or something. And English level. I’m rather sure that’s their WIDA score, like a 2.3 or something.” The principal responds to the director.

Principal: The fourth grade teachers are working on creating a coherent articulation of the math standards from grades 3-5. They have mapped all their standards and are modifying what they are doing for their emergent bilinguals. They all have their WIDA scores.

The emergent bilingual director thinks, “I’m not sure what she means by coherent articulation of standards, but that doesn’t seem specific to emergent bilinguals. And mapping seems like a district goal and modifying seems like something suited for special education, not emergent bilingual students.

The purpose of this vignette is to illustrate that each leader has a specific discourse and a particular type of training that differs. When the principal listens to the director, she hears ‘specialty’ language. When the director listens to the principal, she hears ‘leadership’ language. Thus, there is a collision between their goals as they both strive for coherence and congruence to meet the needs and rights of emergent bilingual students and families.

This axis point between leadership and specialization has been coined by our colleagues in special education as a necessary point of articulated coherence. How do we connect? Lashley and Boscardin (2003) in their study of special education leaders, demonstrate that by foregrounding specialty, we as emergent bilingual leaders can alienate and intimidate principal leaders — as well as other educators. Alternatively, leadership discourse can intimidate the emergent bilingual leader or teacher specialist. Each person has a different body of professional preparation (e.g., an ESL licensure program versus educational leadership), so it is not surprising that there are unsettling collisions. To arrive at a congruence, I coin the intersection between leadership and specialty as the nexus point (Morita-Mullaney, 2019a; 2019b). Nexus connects the three central ideas of creativity, resistance and advocacy, which are tenets for district, school and teacher leadership for emergent bilinguals.

In my studies of teacher and administrative leaders for emergent bilinguals, I have found that the leadership logics in this role are different in three key ways: creativity, resistance and advocacy. Again, the nexus. As emergent bilingual leaders, we are newer leaders in the landscape of our districts, and bring different ideas to the table that may contrast with the historic operation of our schools. It is important to name these areas to empower our leadership for emergent bilinguals.

  • Creativity: Developing creative and non-standard solutions with emergent bilingual families, in collaboration with emergent bilingual educators, teachers and administrators.
  • Resistance: Challenging the historic ‘business as usual’ practices of our schools, while guiding schools to engage in creative approaches that centralize collaboration with emergent bilingual families and educators.
  • Advocacy: Asserting that the voices brought to us from our emergent bilingual families represent a newer understanding and logic in how we educate and engage emergent bilingual students and families.

So, what does this mean for emergent bilingual leadership?

  • Creativity: Identify how you are creative and with whom you are doing original and innovative work that differs from what your school/district is accustomed to doing (e.g., a bilingual/EL taskforce completely led by families);
  • Resistance: When cooperation is solicited and you know that a particular initiative will disadvantage emergent bilinguals, then gather your allies, ask questions and push back;
  • Advocacy: Reflect on, and commit to, an area that does not center the needs of emergent bilingual students and their families. Too often emergent bilinguals are obscured in the language of “all” in schools. Speak to it;
  • Find your support group: Find others within your district, community and beyond who can support your work of creativity, resistance and advocacy and create a plan for collaboration.

Altogether, this nexus arrives at a newer type of emergent bilingual leadership (Brooks, Adams & Morita-Mullaney, 2010; Morita-Mullaney, 2016, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c).


Brooks, K., Adams, S., & Morita-Mullaney, T. (2010). Creating inclusive communities for ELL students: Transforming school principals' perspectives. Theory into Practice, 49(2), 145-151. doi:10.1080/00405841003641501

Lashley, C., & Boscardin, M. L. (2003). Special education administration at a crossroads: Availablity, licensure and preparation of special education administrators. Retrieved from Gainesville, FL:

Morita-Mullaney, T. (2019a). At the intersection of bilingual specialty and leadership: A collective case study of district leadership for emergent bilinguals. Bilingual Research Journal, 40(1), 31-53. doi:10.1080/15235882.2018.1563005

Morita-Mullaney, T. (2016). Borrowing legitimacy as English Learner (EL) Leaders: Indiana’s 14-year history with English language proficiency standards. Language Testing, 34(2), 1-30. doi:10.1177/0265532216653430

Morita-Mullaney, T. (2019b). Intersecting Leadership and English Learner Specialty: The Nexus of Creativity, Resistance, and Advocacy. In L. C. de Oliveira (Ed.), The Handbook of TESOL in K-12 (pp. 423-440). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Morita-Mullaney, T. (2019c). The Better Immigrant Seeking Genuine Inclusivity of All Immigrant Youth. In E. R. Crawford & L. M. Dorner (Eds.), Educational Leadership of Immigrants: Case Studies in Times of Change (pp. 195-204). New York: Routledge.

About Trish Morita-Mullaney

Trish Morita-Mullaney is an assistant professor at Purdue University. Her research focuses on the intersections between language learning, as well as gender and race — and how these inform the identities of educators of bilingual students. Guided by critical and feminist thought, she examines how these intersecting identities shape policy brokering for bilingual students. She is a former emergent bilingual leader, coach and teacher. She brings these experiences to her research inquiries, including those focused on leadership for emergent bilinguals.

About Conversations with Tim

Head shot of Tim Boals

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a monthly WIDA news column. In each column, WIDA Founder and Director  Tim Boals discusses the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place in the field of multilingual learner education. At times, Conversations with Tim may spotlight a colleague in the field and give voice to their work and perspective.