Has observation improved me as a teacher?

I was involved in a small debate on Twitter last week about the value/benefit of lesson observation. It’s a well worn topic for me, and I’ve spent plenty of time discussing the problems with lesson observation linked to performance management, the benefits of peer observation and so on.

But one thing came up and that was this statement which I made off the cuff, but realised was probably completely true.

I found myself wondering if this was just keyboard warrior braggadocio or whether it was true: is there anything in my practice that I can trace directly back to lesson observation feedback?

Luckily (or not) I have a bit of a data trail for this, and I have lesson observations from records going back quite a few years, so I went and had a look through them, focussing on the areas for improvement identified.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, but what I did find is that where my practice was confirmed as meeting the standards, that is, the stuff I was doing well, then those things stayed, even where (as in my most recent observation) those things were relatively new or experimental. That is to say, where the feedback confirmed something was effective, then these things have generally become (it remained) a part of my practice.

The areas for improvement, on the other hand, have been more challenging. Sometimes, I think, they’ve been too specific: something which occurred in that lesson and that lesson only but which, as a general rule, don’t seem to happen in most lessons (like an attendance issue in my last one, for example) or which are specific to a type of lesson and may or may not make their way into practice. A good example of this was demonstrating progress and feedback by using email exchanges in an ESOL and ICT class. I know the person who suggested this sometimes checks in on the blog, so just in case, I’m sorry, but I never really did get round to ever doing it, not properly. I gave it a go for a week or two, and it just never felt like it was doing much for me or the students, apart from generating a bit of a paper trail which nobody looked at or cared about.

There are a batch of “procedural” actions, around paperwork or admin, or tracking, or something, which, yeah, next year, I promise, but which are never going to be my strong suit. I’ve had stuff like that in every appraisal, never mind lesson observation, since time immemorial, and I’m still useless at it. Related to this are the comments relating to standardised practice – patronising comments about things which are so bland and meaningless (health and safety, learning objectives on display, that sort of thing), that you have to wonder whether or not the feedback was generated by some managerial predictive text, with the writer simply stabbing the middle button on an iPad app.

More often than not, however, the ideas are just, well, a bit meh. Fair enough in their way, nice ideas, but nothing that really excited me. There was nothing in the “rejected” pile of action plans from previous observations that made me go “fuck me, that’s the answer I’ve been looking for!”. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable with the word uninspiring, but it’s the closest I’ve got.

So, the answer to my question? Was I just showing off? Sadly, no. Sorry to all my observers who read this, but all that carefully crafted feedback and those individualised suggested actions have all come to a big fat bugger all. Partly it’s the reasons above, but also, I think, there’s the element of the observation being done to you. I didn’t get to choose the lesson, for example, be it a comfort zone lesson where I’m trying something a bit out there, and would like some help, or one with the bolshy teenagers where I struggle with what is probably some pretty basic behaviour management stuff, and again, would like some non-judgmental support where the feedback is entirely without consequence on a professional level, but which focusses has n something important. The word I’m looking for here I think is safe. Not safe from criticism, mind you, but rather that the observation and the feedback are safe from the demands of performance management. But what happens instead is that the lesson might have been a bit of a so-what lesson to start with, with me following a safe, predictable and reassuring procedure that I know works well, and ticks lots of boxes (in fact, the chances of that are pretty high, I can tell you now), and so the feedback tells me very little.

There have been some observations leading to change, but these are ones which go back over a decade or more, to when I was doing my DELTA, and thinking through the linguistic and theoretical frameworks behind the lesson. Even here, however, the observation was the culmination of several other factors. Yes, the observation was the agent for change, in the sense that had I not been observed for the course, I wouldn’t have made those changes, but it wasn’t the source of the change. The ideas did not grow from the act of being observed, but rather from other things.

All of which takes to the question of where changes have come from. I’m not in some weird stasis, after all, and I’m not the teacher I was fifteen years ago. Some of it, no, an awful lot of it, has come from me thinking about things for myself, reflecting on things and adapting accordingly, either in the class or after. This isn’t big-headed (well, not much) it’s just that the only regular observer of my lessons aside from my students is me, and that’s what I do. I’ve changed lesson styles, teaching ideas, resources, all sorts, as a result of my own reflections. The other change “from within” is more about trying new things – sometimes I just have an idea I want to try, so I do. It either works, or it doesn’t, and so it goes. By the same token, feedback from students has also contributed to change: less dramatically, perhaps, but where they have made suggestions, I’ve listened and adapted through the lens of my own professional judgement.

Changes have also come from reading. Dogme/Teaching Unplugged has been a huge influence on me, and I’ll tell you now, nobody in mainstream FE teaching would dare suggest that you can learn without having everything painstakingly planned and dictated by the teacher, so that has definitely not come from lesson observation feedback. The main driver for that change has been through exposure to ideas through books, followed by practical experimentation.

The other big source for ideas has been through conversations with colleagues – talking to a peer and listening to their ideas before taking them on. In fact, I can identify several concrete teaching practices that have come from these conversations, or from virtual colleagues via Twitter, or indeed any other source but again rarely, if ever, where these conversations have followed a formal observation.

But perhaps we are being too hard on the lesson observation. Perhaps it’s really not meant to be that effective in promoting change, certainly not the standard once a year model, anyway: why would it be? In educational terms, an observation is an assessment and this model is more like a summative rather than a formative assessment. It’s something that happens once a year, and captures the development and changes that have occurred across that year. It presents an evaluation of the performance of that individual, measured against externally dictated criteria. Actions following feedback are too an afterthought, from both an individual and an institutional perspective; that is to say, development is not the principle driver behind the process. So yes, I am being too hard on lesson observation: perhaps I have raised my expectations too high, or have believed somewhat idealistically in the system as a force for development.

So in answer to my question, after quite a lot of thought, the answer remains no. All that effort around formal observations, mine and my observers, has had negligible impact on my professional practice. It’s quite a frightening reflection, really, given the status accorded to lesson observations, but also one which should be acknowledged by observers (I include myself in that group as well). Could we observers do better? Feedback is so often a recitation of judgements, rather than a discussion and a challenge, but again this is because judgements are demanded by the process: we can’t just debate the pros and cons like professional adults, but are forced into an unequal teacher-pupil type relationship by the observation system. And that, I guess, is why lesson observation has categorically, emphatically, not improved my teaching practice.

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A Question of Politics

My lessons at the back end of last week were centred around the theme of Brexit. Now, I am assuming you know what this is, but just in case you are blissfully unaware, here’s a link to help you. I pitched it as a reading lesson, using resources adapted from that link, and, needless to say, the topic caused some discussion. I chose it because it’s all over the news, inevitably, and will have a direct impact on a number of the students in the class, and probably affect most of the rest through potential changes to immigration laws.

However, it’s also a nakedly political topic, steeped in prejudice and bigotry, and as such raises all sorts of questions, around the inclusion of politics in general and around the inclusion of potentially worrying or upsetting themes for some students. Politics is also one of Thornbury’s PARSNIP topics, avoided by the mainstream ELT publishing world as too controversial for their target markets.

I guess my question is this: should I avoid topics like Brexit, on either personal grounds, in that it might upset people, or on ideological grounds, i.e. that teaching is an apolitical act, and should remain divorced from the terse reality of topics like Brexit.

My short answer on both counts is no.

Sensitive topics shouldn’t be avoided because they might upset. If we avoided things that might upset ESOL students in the UK we’d have nothing to talk about in class, quite frankly, because all sorts of apparently innocuous things might upset someone somewhere, even if it is just a trigger: “My mum used to make a cup of tea just like that…“.

That’s not to say we should be riding roughshod over our students feelings, mind you. If I know a student has lost their family in a war, I might not probe too far, or rely on personalising that topic. And if I found out mid-lesson, I could still adapt accordingly: Last night, in fact, I included a “getting to know you” activity which involved students making notes about their personal life (family, etc.) to share. One student chose not to write anything under that section, and correspondingly I chose not to dig further. I’m not so inhuman that I’d tell them to man up, or put a brave face on it: but also I don’t think I’d avoid the topic either. As hard as it might be, being able to talk about sensitive subjects might even be useful, during that Home Office immigration department interrogation, for example,where keeping your facts straight is half the battle, even if you’ve given the same information at several interviews across a decade of living in the UK. And politically difficult subjects are often a slightly different ball game anyway: there’s a degree of distance from the personally sensitive which allows for a more measured discussion. Sure, students might disagree, but they are adults and would be expected to behave as adults would behave. A little political sensitivity might come into play: two students from historically/socially/politically antagonistic backgrounds might take a bit of handling, and would certainly represent a topic to avoid. The trick is not to avoid topics on might but to avoid topics on the grounds of will and to do this, you need to know your students. It is a question not of principles, but of behaviour management.

And neither should we ourselves be apolitical in the classroom. For one, we can’t. ESOL teachers in particular are engaged in an openly political act: whether you see us as enabling conformist integration through language, or enabling two-way, active integration, where the culture and language of the migrant is recognised and celebrated as equal to the noisy majority, or perhaps you see what we do as just helping students to help themselves or others. These are all political stances, as are the multitudinous motivations of our students, which are far more complex than simply intrinsic/extrinsic.

It’s almost impossible to avoid – while an ESOL class should be a safe space for all students to be themselves and be open, they are also part of a wider linguistic community where students are exposed to political discussions, even on a face to face level. The only answer here is to embrace the political. Embrace it compassionately, of course, sensitive to the human beings in front of you, but embrace it. Understand that in the UK teaching ESOL is a profoundly political process, in a top down policy sense and in a bottom up personal sense.

This is why I will actively bring politics into the classroom. And with Brexit in particular, the issues are now so tangled and complex that whatever your view of the purpose of ESOL, enabling students to understand these issues is a key part of what we do. But our own stances will always come across: I can’t talk for Brexit for more than a few moments without my personal beliefs becoming clear. It’s like accents: It doesn’t take long for my students to notice that I have a different accent to those in the communities where the live, usually leading to a discussion about good and had accents. However, in both cases, my role is not to win people over: rather it is to make it clear that whatever my opinion or accent is, it’s not necessarily the right or best opinion or accent, it is merely mine (I do joke about the accents, gently and lovingly mocking the  boos and moog of Yorkshire’s buses and mugs). By acknowledging my own failings in this regards, this allows students to recognise their own limitations when it comes to perceptions of right and wrong, and gives me scope to (sensitively, appropriately) challenge those opinions, particularly where those opinions are potentially upsetting or offensive to others. I teach adults for the most part, after all, and as such we are equals of experience and understanding of the world. ESOL is sometimes dismissed as a bit cutesy, “lovely ESOL students”, which may be true when it comes to behaviour management and motivation, but brings its own challenges: students who have expectations, students who have beliefs and opinions which can’t be dismissed as being immature or developing, but beliefs and opinions formed out of a lifetime of habit.

Being present

So I taught a lesson tonight. It was a short introduction lesson for a group of intermediate-ish students in preparation for their being taught by our CELTA trainers. It’s a multiply purposed lesson: partly to induct the students into the college; partly to allow me to gauge the level of the students properly; and to provide the CELTA trainers with an observation of an experienced teacher.

The lesson is a take on a first lesson idea I’ve used for years: post a bunch of words or numbers on the board relating to me, and the students have to guess what they mean (for example 2 (children), Banbury (where I come from), New Zealand (where I lived for a year and would happily return), hobbies, and so on. It’s a bit of fun, and by asking students to draft questions to ask, you get a good idea of their technical understanding. In this case I follow it up with a bit of reading where I’ve written about myself and included some deliberate mistakes (“I come from Basingstoke, and have 3 children.”) which I ask students to identify. The students then talk about their own details in groups, and then write about themselves for homework.

It’s a fun lesson to teach, not least because it’s a proper show-off lesson: you know when it’s going to happen, how long it’s going to be, and it’s hard to resist putting on a bit of a show for the trainees. It’s a bit of an ego trip, and not just because the topic of the lesson is little old me.

But because of all this, I tend to put a lot into the lesson. And again, when I say a lot, I don’t mean “a lot of my swelteringly vile ego”, but rather a lot of energy and focus, which is interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that of late.

Where I work, you see, I’m not “just a teacher”. I have time off teaching to mentor and support colleagues, which is a profoundly rewarding role, but also one which can get, well, a bit adminny. Emails tend to be involved, records need to be kept, meetings held, and generally I have to think about stuff beyond the immediate concerns of the classes I teach. And this can be distracting: you can go into class worrying about a colleague, anxious about how you’re going to plan tomorrow morning’s class when you’ve got an afternoon of observations and mentoring meetings, things like that. It can, therefore, be quite hard to leave that at the classroom door, and so you can too easily end up being slightly absent from the lesson, in mind, rather than body.

I’ve done it, I have to admit, although I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, what you realise really quickly is that if you are not entirely present in the lesson, working in the moment, then something is lost.

A tempting metaphor is that of spinning plates: you take your eye off the lesson and the whole thing comes crashing down. But with a bit of experience and/or planning, it is possible to produce an acceptable, workaday lesson that more or less teaches itself: the plates do keep spinning. But (if you’ll forgive my perilously stretched metaphor) the plates don’t spin quite as well. Learning happens, for sure, even if you are a bit distracted in the lesson, tempted away by the siren call of anxieties and stresses from the office end, but you miss all those splendid opportunities for learning that occur when you are properly paying attention.

You also miss reinvigorating yourself somewhat. Take this evening’s lesson, for example. It was at the far end of a long day which had started with a 5am wake up with a poorly child, followed by a visit to the hospital (he’s ok now, thanks for asking) and prior to the lesson, I was basically running on empty. Coffee, lots of coffee, and some rather lovely jalebi was barely keeping me going.

It sounds daft, I know, but whether it was the coffee and the sugary fried deliciousness, but I definitely perked up in the classroom and not because I coasted and let it just happen, but because I was very much “in” the lesson; by which I mean focussed on, and listening to the students, reacting to their comments, noticing their errors and their achievements, and creating learning out of that as much as out of the lesson aims.

But I’m not recommending this because it was reinvigorating: the secret to my youthful skin is not teaching, after all. I’m recommending it because it’s what makes a lesson good, even excellent. You’re not going through the motions, merely following the lesson, but rather you are manipulating the lesson, and the only way you can do it is to be properly in the lesson.

And on that slightly delirious note, I’m off to bed.

Credibility

Many managers don’t teach, particularly further up the pecking order. This seems reasonable. After all, there’s a lot to be done as a manager, meetings to organise, spreadsheets to put random numbers into, tea to be drunk, that sort of thing. I’m kidding, of course: the reality of management is that it can be an incredibly tough call. Never more so than at the lowest level, where you are the buffer between the random whims of senior management and the frustrations of teaching staff and students. Whatever level of management you are at, however, there is almost always some sort of quality assurance role, which involves observing and evaluating classroom practice. This is an emotionally harsh role, linked to process of quality assurance and performance management, with a token nod to teacher development. This political element therefore requires that the judgements made of the teaching of others need to be as subjective as possible of course, but also valid, in the sense of whether the observer is able to make those judgements meaningfully: is the observer not only qualified to make those judgemens in terms of their own experiences, but also in terms of their current practices. Put bluntly, do the judgements of an observer have validity if they do not have some element of face to face teaching in their current role?

It’s a mean question, because I know lots of these non-teaching observers have worked, and still do work, exceptionally hard for their role, and that in order to achieve that role, there has to be some significant experience of teaching at some point in their background, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But that question of credibility is easily raised: who are you to judge me when you’re not actually doing the job?

I’d actually like to look at that question from the other side. Does an extensive current teaching load necessarily mean an individual has extensive knowledge and understanding of teaching? Can I trust your judgement more because you are teaching more? Does extensive experience automatically confer authority? Despite a gut reaction “faith in the profession” desire to say yes, the answer to this has to be no. There are plenty of people in “the Profession” who can’t find their pedagogical arse from their educational elbow: people who have been teaching for years, even decades, but who seem to lack an ability to think on their own practices, and develop as a result. They (still) usually scrape by with lucky escapes during observations and a tactical eye for exam passes. People who lack perception and a skill in critical reflection leading to change: being what we might, at risk of sounding like an education meme, call a permanently learning teacher. Credibility of judgement is not just the ability to say “I’m awesome” but to admit that sometimes you’re a bit shit, and, most importantly of all, to be able to say why and how you are awesome/shit (Since you ask, I’ve been both, sometimes in the same lesson…), and identify changes that need to be made. So, no, there isn’t a causal connection between a current teaching load and an ability to evaluate lessons. That ability can be absent in both teachers and managers, and when it is, the impact on students is terrible.

If there isn’t a link between current teaching and the ability to evaluate the teaching of others, then does it follow then that an observer who is not teaching can make valid judgements of the effectiveness of a given lesson?

Maybe. I’ve had some exceptionally perceptive comments from observers in the past where they have picked up on things I’ve not noticed, in both positive and a negative sense. The better comments, however, have come from those observers who are not only currently teaching, but also subject specialists, able to view ESOL lessons through lenses other than the necessarily cloudy genericism of  most standard college observation critieria. You’re also quicker to have faith in their judgements because you know they are teaching themselves and have an immediate understanding of the stuff that teachers have to deal with on a day to day basis. I’m not saying becoming a manager is some easy ride compared to being a teacher (there’s a reason I haven’t applied for a management role in over ten years, after all) but the higher you climb up the managerial ladder, it seems that the greater the distance between you and the everyday act of teaching becomes. The conscious act of planning and delivering a lesson, and series of lessons, becomes something you used to do, and the pressure associated with that are easily forgotten, or at least diluted in the face of your own new pressures.

Ultimately, then, this is not a question of skill or knowledge. A good observer is a good observer, be they teacher or not. Just like teaching, I’m not entirely sure observing and giving feedback is something you can learn in a couple of hours, but rather through a long process of trial and error. Indeed, observing a teacher is a learning process, I think, and often a humbling one, where as an observer you get as much from the watching as you hope to impart from giving the feedback. This feedback is also a difficult job. I’ve been at it for years as a trainer and as an observer of working teachers, and I still think I could do far far better, particularly at those evaluative, high stakes observations, where the observee’s main focus is have they passed/still got a job. (For the record, in these cases, there is no “right” order to say whether or not the lesson is going to lead to punitive measures: if you say it at the start, the teacher is not listening because they’re just relieved/panicking, and if it’s at the end, then they’re just hanging on for that: “yes, yes, whatever, but am I safe?” The one and only way to avoid this is to ditch quality assurance observations altogether, which, I suspect, no institution would ever have the guts to do). Feedback is hard, and harder still when it’s high stakes, and the outcome isn’t going to be happy: some of the worst moments of my (professional) life have been having to break the news to a colleague that their lesson observation is going to lead to some sort of negative follow up: as a teacher, when it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, you still always hope you’ve just about pulled it together enough to get away with it, and it’s always horrible when you learn you haven’t.

And this is the point: I know that fear. I am a teacher, and as a result I know the fear that comes from knowing that this feedback could be the first step down a long, dark and stressful path. I get observed still, and I know what could happen to me: not just an emotionally and professionally challenging period of mentoring and reobservation, but also an immediate financial penalty because of my role where I work. So that gives a sense of sympathy, of understanding when you observe, and the further removed you are from that process, the less potentially sympathetic you become. Not unsympathetic, mind, but your observee is always aware that you, the observer, doesn’t have to go through this particular process or suffer the consequences. The ultimate in the cold distant observer is the consultant or inspector, of course, masquerading behind a facade of objectivity: they are far beyond ever suffering the direct consequences of their judgements.

I’m being distracted by rants: no, you don’t need to be teaching to be able to make judgements on the teaching of others, and neither do you need to be teaching to be sympathetic. But there’s a question of camaraderie, perhaps, that comes from an ability to say “well, what I do then is…” and “not only am I doing this, but in half an hour I have to go and do it myself”. It’s this solidarity, and equality, which adds more weight to what you say than just a contract and slightly elevated salary.

#BecauseESOL

I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to cognition) taxonomy or engagement with negotiated targets because the students don’t always understand fully what it means. Your native speaker questioning differentiation is so much literal hot air. Because of language, ESOL is a completely different ball game.

This language changes the way you interact with people – it has to. Not in a patronising HEL-LO. HOW ARE YOU TO-DAY? way, but in the clarity of what you say. All that pointless fluff of “I was wondering if you would….” is so much wasted breath when compared to “Could you…”. There is a tendency now to elevate the role of carefully managed explicit instruction (“The defining feature is that canonical methods are fully explained and modelled to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves” – Greg Ashman here) except that while this is not impossible, it is extremely difficult, especially at lower levels because you don’t share a fluent language with the people listening to you. The students may understand you, but it’s very hard to check, (hello, CCQs, CELTA fans) and even if you check, the nature of what we are dealing with, second language acquisition, means that the chances are fairly high that it won’t be evident in the next lesson. Just trust me, it’s different, OK. And I’ve taught English language speakers, and it’s so nice just to be able to tell people stuff, so so nice.

Because Students

Students are students, right? Well yes, and no. On one level, there is a lot of parity between an ESOL student and an adult literacy student, or indeed any adult student – there is a greater sense of need, with sometimes higher stakes, “one last shot” type opportunities. However, there are distinct differences here which come from the background of the students. For one, there is almost always going to be a sense of upheaval, of change, and a siginficant one at that. By a technical measure, I am a migrant in my adopted home in Yorkshire, and this has created a number of challenges, but in any real measure, these challenges are relatively insignificant, and mostly to do with vowel sounds and knowing what a ginnel is. For a migrant from outside the UK, however, the challenges are quite profound, and not entirely linked to language either. And this upheaval, be it voluntary or otherwise, is going to have an impact on how you behave both in the classroom and out of it. Indeed, a classroom for many ESOL students is a safe space, a place where they can relax and set aside some of those concerns.

The students are also diverse in a very striking way, and one which has an impact on the way they approach language and learning. As many people have commented before, including me, the backgrounds of the students in an ESOL class are wildly variable and gloriously unpredictable: a single parent of two with no experience of education might be sitting in a class next to a graduate former teacher.  This makes for not only a diversity of experience and interests, but also of rates of learning – the highly educated graduate may have the study skills, and if they have no children, more time to use to study, and as a result may improve more quickly. Or they may be complacent, and have an unrealistic view of their language and learning skills, compared to the single parent who is also trying to hold down a part time job, but is much more aware of what they have to gain from doing the course.

And the students are also the centre of why ESOL is different to EFL. Literally nothing else distinguishes what we might call good practice in ESOL and EFL teaching, except the diverse personal, social and educational backgrounds of the students, and their motivations for learning English.

Because context.

I’ve worked for all of my ESOL life in a general FE college. There’s a lot to be said for this: you’re generally well resourced, have support for CPD, and an opportunity to collaborate with a team of like minded teachers not only in ESOL but in other things too. It has its own challenges, of course, mostly to do with the systems, processes and policies of the general FE college not always being aligned to the needs of ESOL learning. Indeed, that’s most often the cause for a #becauseESOL reaction.

Yet the general FE college is not the only context for ESOL teaching. A huge proportion of ESOL teaching takes place in voluntary organisations, private training providers, and all sorts of other variations on that theme. So ESOL doesn’t always happen in nice classrooms with lovely interactive whiteboards and easy access to photocopiers, libraries, laptops and all the other paraphernalia that makes college based teaching so much easier. It happens in musty meeting rooms and dingy halls, back rooms of libraries and front rooms of families. It even happens on tables in hallways outside a factory changing room. ESOL pretends to be homogenous and standardisable, but in reality it is a complex, mutating creature: the phrase Entry 2 ESOL lesson can mean any number of things, and rarely are they tidily categorisable.

Because politics.

Oh my, politics. Tell you what, when I hear vocational tutors grousing about the way funding for FE is being squeezed, I have to be very good and nod, smile, and be sympathetic (and I am, actually, because that is a shockingly poor way to treat young people.) But there is a part of me which finds itself reflecting on the fact that the current ESOL squeeze is coming at the end of a long, drawn out suppression of education for migrants. It may well be about to change, and I truly hope it does, but it doesn’t make the last 8 years or more go away.

And the politics of immigration remains a nasty, nasty business. There has been a change in rhetoric, but not much, with the government keeping one eye on it’s more right wing elements, and as a result, very little has resulted. Yet. I’ll grant them that “yet” – things could change, and change for the better. But I’ll wait and see.

Because ESOL.

Because ESOL is fun. Seriously fun to teach. The constraints of language and context force you to be far more creative in your approaches than the comfortably appointed FE lecturer with their nice IWB and rooms full of computers, and students who understand every word. Whether those college students do or not is another reason why ESOL is fun. The students for the most part, want to be there. Even the stroppiest of ESOL 16-18 year olds is less challenging than trying to make sure a group of vocational students get a 4 or above in GCSE maths. This motivation, however, brings other challenges – adult learners come with expectations and demands, both in ESOL and in other subjects. A group of full time students would probably thank you for giving them the afternoon off because a teacher is sick, but a group of adults doing one class a week would feel far less pleased.

Because ESOL is rewarding. Yes, progression might appear slow – but then students are only coming for 2-6 hours a week, and they have lots of other concerns too. And sure it can be wearying with the focus on employability or the endless, oh so endless forms (including the form you fill in to say that the first two forms have been filled in, with the same information on each and every sheet. It’s more rigorous and robust if you write it out three times, apparently). But then you administer an Entry 2 speaking exam to a student two years after they first turned up in your beginner class barely able or confident enough to speak. Or your former level 1 student becomes student union president before heading off to do a degree. Or your student tells you how they managed to talk to their child’s teacher about their concerns, and be understood. Our lives as ESOL teachers are full of stories like this.

And then there are all those brilliant, thrilling, glorious times a lesson throws up a surprise insight, a passionate response or a poignant moment of understanding. These moments are are reminders that what we do is special: not just language learning, but also an exercise in shared humanity.

Because ESOL.

Casual

I qualified as a teacher of EFL in 1999. In 2004, ish, I shunted sideways into ESOL. In 2005, six years since first stepping in front of a whiteboard, I got a 0.5 permanent contract, and in 2006 I got lucky and managed to bump that up to a full time, permanent post, a status I have held onto with a careful eye on the world behind me. So that is around seven years between qualifying and gaining a full time post, that is, a job with paid holidays, sick leave, and all the rest, and in the intervening 11 or so years, I have yet to forgive either the private EFL sector, or the public ESOL one for that horrible gnawing sense that at any time, your income is about to be dragged out from under your feet.

It wasn’t just the uncertainty, either. There were all those teasing glimpses of hope. I lost track of the times I got told that “X is retiring soon” or “Our numbers are up this year, so I’m confident I’ll be able to get some permanent contracts approved”. I think I almost openly sneered last time I heard it. I don’t blame my line managers in this – after all, they probably genuinely did believe what they were saying. My learning from this? Nod, smile, and don’t believe a word until the advert is out. And even then, remember that there is no guarantee until you’ve signed on the dotted line.

Then there are the catches in the casual contract, like how the contract often “includes holidays and marking/admin/planning time/anything we haven’t thought of yet”, an argument, which, once followed through, means that you could probably earn more stacking shelves at Asda.

Don’t forget the CPD, of course. As an hourly paid member of staff, you are expected to attend a certain amount of professional development, even when that professional development is the non-learning of listening to some senior managers talk about stuff. If you’re lucky, of course, you get compensated for that time, perhaps at a reduced rate of pay, but you get paid for committing that time. Even then, however, a compulsory training day can easily leave you out of pocket, because you had three lessons cancelled that day. Very often the planning of these things favours the full time, permanent staff member over the hourly paid member of staff. For the full timer, a day off teaching and planning is perhaps seen as a bonus, even if you do pay for it with far too many senior management talks. For the part timer, it’s a pain. Don’t normally work that day because of childcare / a second job / sanity? Tough, it’s in your contract to attend. You will have to work around it for us.

For me, however, the very worst part of hourly paid work, is that horrible dry pay day at the end of September, where (having not worked part of August), you get about a week’s worth of pay, if that. This is exacerbated by the fact that you may have even worked through September, so you get the psychic grief of working a whole month or so, and getting nothing but a smile and a fart at the end. I know that this shouldn’t be unexpected. After all, it’s a fact of life for an hourly paid teacher, and you know it’s going to happen, but it still feels horrible. From a managerial perspective, it is exceedlingly easy to reduce it all to simple numbers – “we pay person X this much money, and it’s their problem if they can’t manage their finances”.

Don’t get me wrong, casual contracts can be great for some people: where it forms part of a supplementary income, for example, then a few hours a week on a casual contract can be perfect. Or perhaps you are simply are not in a position to commit to a given job or organisation. Perhaps you have other commitments, which always surprises people, who seem to assume that you live only for the job you do for them. Again, the full timer prejudice comes into play here. As a full timer, you are expected to offer a certain degree of full time commitment, but when hourly paid, it’s a bit trickier than that. You might not have time or mental space to commit full time, and this is why you work part time. Or perhaps you are sensible and stick to your guns: you get paid to teach those classes, do the planning, marking and record keeping for those classes, and that is it. Either way, you have only apportioned part of your time to that job. The clue is in the name “part time, hourly paid”.

It doesn’t make it any less stressful either. You might only teach a few lessons a week, but those few lessons can be just as stressful. It’s highly unlikely that an hourly paid member of staff teaching two lessons a week spends the rest of their time with their feet up watching Jeremy Kyle, so their time at work is just as stressful as it is for a full timer, if not more so, because they have to mentally shift roles and carry sometimes several sets of responsibility.

You’d think, however, that over ten years of relative contractural comfort I would have grown out of this grudge. Instead, however, it’s evolved. It’s informed the sense of commitment I have to an organisation. When I was hourly paid I used to do all sorts of extras, in the naive, desperate hope that it would stand me in good stead when the permanent contracts came up. Evening and weekend trips, hours at home preparing resources, giving up free time for promotional events, and generally believing in an organisation. In time, however, I came to the perhaps slightly cynical viewpoint that my commitment to an organisation extended only to the end of my pay cheque: a business agreement, as it were.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, because an organisation is more than simply the name on the sign outside: it is people: colleagues and students. And you do things for these people that are sometimes beyond the boundaries of your contract. However, when it comes to it, there are other students, other colleagues, and, if you’re very lucky, other contracts than that hourly paid one. If it’s a different employer, then don’t let anyone’s handwringing stop you from going. Nobody ever blames you for moving on from a job when for whatever reason that job no longer fits.

Being hourly paid sucks, and I will always remember that when I some senior member of the FE sector demands loyalty for free. I love teaching, I love my colleagues and I love my students. Nobody should ever have to give more than that.

A Board-by-Board lesson

So I’m going to post, in chronological order, with commentary, a board that evolved during my ESOL & Maths with ESOL for Employment class this morning. The lesson, nominally, was recapping shapes and reviewing positional language as they come up in functional skills maths. As a starting point we had a powerpoint showing images of rooms, and students had identified the shapes they could see in the rooms. The feedback on this led to a bit of a discussion around shape nouns and adjectives (circle/circular, rectangle/rectangular, that sort of thing.) I wanted to clarify what an adjective was, so quickly asked for examples, leading to jokes about “A beautiful teacher”. I overheard a hushed discussion in the room at this point, along the lines of “you can’t say beautiful for a man.”

Which led to the firs board: just handsome and beautiful.

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A few moments, quizzical looks and questions later, and we had the following board:

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which led to a whole load of discussions (like how you might describe a baby boy as beautiful, or what it might imply if you described a woman as handsome). This being a fairly low level class, the discussion around gendered language implicit here was limited to the observation that while handsome is almost purely masculine in use, beautiful is used to describe not only a woman, but also objects. There was a little bit of a quiet moment when some of the women in the group digested that observation, although we didn’t pursue it. After all we had other words to attend to, with their own set of challenging social issues attached:

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Oh my. The word gorgeous came up from one student. So we had a bit of a discussion about who (or what) we would describe with these less gender specific terms: how we might, especially men, avoid gorgeous unless we were talking to / about our significant other (otherwise there are some overtones of page 3 of a tabloid newspaper). This was partly because of my own blushes when a student said “a gorgeous teacher”….

This being ESOL/Maths/Employment, I did introduce a workplace appropriacy theme: like what do you say to a (close) colleague who asks you how their new hairstyle looks. Most of the words we had already talked about had connotations of intimacy which might be inappropriate, again, particularly from a man to a woman, or vice versa. So I introduced the less emotive great. Which spiralled into:

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Now, please don’t jump down my throat on the whole beauty isn’t just appearance thing – I realise that this is a bit of a missed opportunity here, but I was thinking on my feet, not to mention acutely conscious of the fact that the lesson was nominally a Maths lesson.

So we returned to our pictures, by way of a brief but unproductive jaunt to charming, and to the “official” focus of the lesson. I elicited and checked  the key positional language (prepositions and what not) then had the students using this position terms resource to make statements about objects in the images (“The plates are next to the glasses.” “The pictures are above the bed.” and so on).

The discussions in groups led to the following additions:

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The appearance of the cupboard/cabinet/wardrobe distinction is fairly predictable, I think, torch arose from a student question while clarifying the difference between a lamp and a light. Oak resulted from a little offshoot (no pun intended) about TV stands: we googled “tv table” which included, yes, an expensive oak table. One student rather wonderfully recycled the word trapezium as being a good shape for a TV table.

As a final activity, the students were testing each other by arranging playing cards for each other and asking, for example “Where is the king of hearts?”. This required, of course, a bit of pre-teaching to make sure we all knew what language to use:

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Around and among caused a bit of a challenge, because they’re a bit more complex, but I had a squeezy corner of board space left to pop it into.

All of this leaves out, of course, all the other interesting discussions – the differences between slug and snail and between at home and in the house, not to mention Queries about why a unused chair is usually placed under the table, but when we are sitting on the chair, we sit at the table. 

It was an enjoyable lesson for me and for the students. I had regular positive comments  (along the lines of “this is better than maths” among other things), and as is often the case, it was the incidental language that the students were talking about at the end of the lesson, not the target language. Having been teaching fairly fixed content sessions a lot of late, it was refreshing to do this again. After all, you don’t hear a lot about “emergent maths” and GCSE English is profoundly driven by the exam content. I do teach English to 16-18s, but they respond better to pace and structure, meaning that this sort of meander tends to lead to disruption. Clearly the answer to enjoying teaching maths to ESOL students is very simple: don’t bother with the maths and carry on as normal.