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.



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.


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.


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.


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.






I don’t teach a subject, I teach students.

“I don’t teach a subject, I teach students.” That’s a noble sentiment, isn’t it? It’s not so much an observation as an ethos, maybe even a philosophy, implying that one is committed to the wider education of the individual. Not just their learning of English, say, but their development as a human, a member of the human species, developing global learning and skills. It’s the kind of self-aggrandising statement which attempts to elevates teaching to some sort of grand calling.

It’s also, if you’ll excuse my language, bollocks. You may think that harsh of me. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being concerned with developing good citizens of the planet, or grit, or whatever it is people mean by “teaching students”: it is a fine sentiment. It’s just not right, that’s all.

With the exception of primary education (which I exclude from what follows), most teachers have a specialist subject they teach. For me it’s English language, especially, but not exclusively, to speakers of other languages. And let me be clear, I really really like teaching language. Not in a hitting-people-round-the-head-with-a-grammar-book, irritating pedant way, although I do sometimes do that, and have to stop myself. No, I am really interested in the way languages work, the nuts and bolts, the ins, outs, aboves and beyonds. And I’m also really interested in how people learn said languages, both as a child and as an adult.

As a result of being interested in these things, I am enthusiastic about them. Only the other evening I got quite over-excited about the difference between raise and rise, much to the bemusement of my students (it also led to a completely snafu’d discussion of the difference between lie and lay, which was embarrassing). I will quite unashamedly call some random facet of language “cool”, even though it does make me sound anything but cool. Expanding from teaching ESOL to also teach GCSE English, CELTA and the old Level 5 ESOL specialism, has only really served to worsen this geekiness. It’s not healthy really, but I do get terribly excited about things like the structure of the Landlady, and in what is either a nadir or an apex (I’ll let you decide) of geekiness described the Very Hungry Caterpillar as a thriller. (Assume you know nothing about the life cycle of a butterfly, and it’s a very different book).

Enthusiasm, even when slightly misplaced, can only be a good thing. Do it well, and it’s infectious. I’ve managed to get one of my students to read at least three books she would never have read, and to have a go at something a bit more challenging. It’s also reciprocal: another student has declared a newly acquired love for the great 19th century novelists, which has made me consider exploring the black hole that exists in my literary habits between about 1800 and 1930. Well, maybe one day, anyway.

An absence of interest in the subject, however, creates a very different situation. According to the grand social motivation of “I teach people”, one would be prepared to teach them any old subject, and I think this holds for a lot of primary school teachers, a profession for whom my admiration has only grown in the last 6 years of having my own primary age children. Beyond this, and things change. Over the years, I’ve grown to love teaching ESOL not just for the subject, but also for the students, and for the difference it can make to their lives: there are few things more satisfying than watching former students go on to do well, or even just to achieve a degree of comfort and security that they might not otherwise have achieved. It’s a great, nay, magnificent feeling.

But it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to motivate you to teach them something you’re not interested in, for example. I’ve been teaching ESOL and maths of late, for example, and honestly, I can’t wait for it to end. I don’t get it. For one, I find it hard: my mental arithmetic is shocking, my memory for things like calculating percentages and doing long division is truly shameful. I also find it, well, uninspiring. For me, maths is like cabbage: sure, I’ll eat it, if I must, and some varieties are OK, and I know, I know it’s really good for you, but given the choice, I prefer my soup made of butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

And it shows. Oh my, does it ever show. Not one maths lesson have I taught that I am at all proud of, and only a couple I enjoyed. If there was a Headway of maths, I would be slogging through that course book like a new arrival, fresh off the CELTA.

But according to the “I don’t teach a subject, I teach students” school of thought, the what of teaching shouldn’t matter – only that I am contributing to some greater good by teaching maths to ESOL students. The same goes for teaching, say, employability skills, or ICT – the sheer joy and satisfaction of making a difference should be enough for me to enthuse and engage students. So why doesn’t it? After all, I would describe myself as committed to ESOL learners, and the field of ESOL generally, and interested in their development both in English and in their wider lives.

It doesn’t hold because to teach anything you need to be interested in the thing you are trying to get people to learn. You need to have an understanding of the thing you are teaching, which implies that at some point you have to engage with learning, or gaining sufficient understanding of the thing. You can get away with it to an extent, as I have with maths, but the cracks start to show really quickly under the slightest pedagogical pressure. That pressure could be behaviour issues, for example, or even something as simple as forgetting that 27 isn’t a prime number. I’ve been on a hiding to nothing since that particular mathematical faux pas, yet my cock-up with lie and lay I could quickly gloss over because I have the knowledge of and confidence in everything English-y to compensate for it.

This works both ways, as well. There are many people in post-16 learning, for example, who go into it for noble reasons, but don’t have a particular interest in the subject. They simply want to help. Which is terrific, and I applaud their motives, but they need to think of something to teach. ESOL especially suffers from this, particularly since the removal of specialist qualifications, and the increased reliance on a voluntary sector. People assume that since they can speak English, they can teach it. Sometimes there is a natural knack for teaching that emerges, perhaps combined with really perceptive reflection skills, but this isn’t often the case. You need to learn how to teach the thing you want to teach, and you need to learn what it is: the desire to teach on its own is not enough.

Ultimately, “I don’t teach subject, I teach students” is one of those false dichotomies so beloved of those who want teaching to be a simple process. I teach English to students. The two things are part of the same thing. I want to empower and help my students as much as I can, but by far the best thing I can do for my students is not teach them subjects in which I am personally  and professionally unqualified,  but to teach them English. You need to be interested in both things, not in the cheap division of one or the other suggested by the trite mission statements of an educational gimmick merchant.

Troublesome Research

So that’s where all this business about conversation clubs comes from. It turns out there has been a study carried out by the Learning & Work Institute, among others, and commisioned by the government. It’s an interesting read, and one which throws up a couple of interesting insights.

To summarise, and very briefly, the study looked at the impact of students attending 4 hours of lessons, plus 2 hours of conversation club each week, and compared it to the relative language development of a group of students who didn’t. It’s not quite methodologically pure, on my understanding of these things. In the sense of an RCT in a medical context, the identity of those who are receiving and those not receiving the actual intervention is meant to be hidden from all but the researchers, but I guess it’s close enough, and this kind of blinding is hard to create in a social context. Certainly the methodology suggests that the participants were selected randomly, or as randomly as possible within the constraints of the study.

The study was looking at two main outcomes: language development and social integration, and how these things are related in the minds of the learners.

In terms of language learning, the findings were striking in their predictability. Those students who received roughly 6 hours of language education each week, provided by a trained specialist teacher, managed to significantly improve their language skills. Although the provision in the study was community based, there was no suggestion that this was the reason for its success. This is important, and we will come back to this later. There were two genuinely interesting insights, however. One of these was that women with higher levels of previous education tended to do better than those without. A bit obvious, perhaps, but interesting nevertheless. The other really interesting finding was that those women whose children were aged over five, that is, old enough to be in full time education, did better than women whose children were younger than five. This is something that could be explored further, I think, although I doubt that this will happen.

So far, so interesting. What about the impact on social integration? Overall things seemed a bit woollier here: where integration measures were more functional, i.e. engaging with health professionals, schools and other services, participants reported higher levels of confidence. In more informal interactions, making friends, speaking to unfamiliar members of the community and the like, findings were a bit less convincing. Again, not terribly surprising: the social rules surrounding formal interactions tend to be more rigid: turn taking is more clearly defined, and the relative status of those involved is much more straightforward. In an informal setting, things are more complex, behaviour patterns and linguistic expectations are less fixed, more fluid, and culture-bound. There is a much clearer list of “things you might say to the doctor”, as opposed to “things you might say to Mrs Herbert next door”.

But that’s research for you. Complex, interesting and often not saying the things that those who pay for the research might want it to say. Not that that stops it being read in a particular way. Have a look at this bit of reporting from the Times Educational Supplement. The article has been updated a few times since I first read it, but in its first version it included the following sentence:

“English classes taught in community settings, rather than adult education institutions, not only work, but also promote social integration, according to new government research.” (My italics)

The sentence has been changed now, but that hasn’t stopped community esol providers badly misinterpreting the research (I’m not into naming and shaming on this, hence the anonymised tweet):

This creates, or perhaps exacerbates, a dividing line in ESOL provision which shouldn’t exist: an organisation that works solely in the community is not a competitor to a large FE college, not really: just different. And anyway, ESOL has been delivered in the way described in the research by colleges for years, even if, in some cases, funding cuts and government driven prioritising of 16-18 vocational and apprenticeships have led to a reduction in community provision. There is nothing new in this kind of provision, the research hasn’t suddenly highlighted some magical new way of delivering ESOL that hasn’t been tried before. No pedagogical one-upmanship is justified by this research. It’s a study commissioned to justify a government project: there is no research that compares different types of ESOL provision, and neither is such research needed. ESOL learners need a range of options, diverse provision for a diverse group, with good signposting and guidance to link it up. If everyone started to think and work a little more cohesively, a properly developed network could maximise the potential of all providers of ESOL, not to mention other elements of adult learning. Competition is not in the best interests of learners: instead we need collaboration.

Government priorities are rarely the priorities of students, and divided and conquerable is how they like the public sector. Misreporting and misinterpreting research like this plays into this discourse of division and competition, when in fact all providers in the post-19 learning landscape need to be working coherently for our learners. Which isn’t too much to ask, now, is it?