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?

Integration Issues? Take two ESOL lessons a week until further notice.

Language learning is in the news again. ESOL is making (admittedly small) headlines, thanks to a double whammy of pronouncements by “ex-integration tsar” Dame Louise Casey and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, highlighting the role of language learning, in particular learning English, as the answer to all the issues around integration. Not only is the musty “language learning = miracle integration cure” argument getting it’s biannual airing, but there should be a deadline and a level, according to Casey, by which time everyone should have learned English.

Oh boy. Where do we start with this?

For one, the Communities Secretary is basically presenting a fairly soft and woolly enhancement to the dubious British Values training which we have all dutifully completed, and of which I can only ever remember 3 at a time without googling it. There will be social measures like supporting women from minority backgrounds into work, which is nicely noble sounding, and getting young people from different backgrounds to interact more, which is so going to fall flat because it’s the government, the very definition of “out of touch old farts”, trying to tell young people, who are often, I hope, rebellious and questioning, how to behave. Even your dear author, who was, in his time, a fairly compliant and well behaved young person, would have sneered this out of the classroom just because of where it was from.

But what about language? On one level, as an ESOL teacher, who teaches English to migrants, and who likes being paid to do so, any notion of funding for ESOL ought to be a good thing, even if it is “conversation clubs” (really, that’s all you’ve got?) and funnelled through local government in especially chosen areas for temporary projects. Piecemeal projects that barely touch the need in any area. So yeah, money for ESOL learning, great.

The dangling carrot of funding obscures the actual issue here- the whole discourse around language as a tool for integration is at best simplistic and ignorant, at worst, simply toxic. The key quote that really sums up the whole problem is this, from Casey:

“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief.  And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”

There are so many holes here. For one, adding the weight of the mighty “public” is highly questionable. A generous interpretation of this might be that she means that migrants themselves would also welcome the chance to learn English, but I rather doubt it. It would seem more likely she means narrow-minded middle Englanders who’ve never set foot into a multicultural community, and aggrieved, poverty stricken working classes whose years under swingeing austerity measures have removed both voice and power, and for whom a very visible and even more powerless group can conveniently act as scapegoat. That is the “public” she means, warpping their chips in the Daily Mail or the Sun.

Then there is “one language”. She hasn’t specified English, but the context is clear – everyone should speak English. However, this is not, and has never been, a monolingual country. Would it help if it was? Is there really a need for “one language”? Does language unify a country? In the whole of the history of any country, there have been migrant communities speaking languages which are not the first language of that country, and the factors which have led to unrest and division are not linguistic, nor even necessarily religious, but social and economic. Division doesn’t grow because people in the communities speak different languages, it grows because they are being discriminated against, because they are being savaged by austerity measures, and because they are feeling powerless and isolated. These are social and exconmic problems, and these exacerbate any latent discrimination.

Leaving aside the troublesome notion of one language, I find the notion of a “date” and a “target level” more than a little worrying. What level would you choose? Entry 3? Perhaps B1?  And how would you assess this – more money in the coffers of specially selected language exam boards? And what happens if people don’t achieve that level by the date chosen? Immediate extradition? Such notions demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the language learning issues involved here, although this has never stopped a government from making arbitrary judgments about ESOL learning. 90 hours to achieve a level-up pass, anyone?

Integration is absolutely not the aligning of incoming principles with some notional mainstream flow of cultural norm. Rather integration is a two-way process, where those moving, and the society into which they are moving, must both make changes and allowances. A mature society would recognise this, perhaps, avoiding knee-jerk comments like these. Of course, language learning has a role to play in supporting this process, and it is certainly easier and cheaper to teach minority language speakers to learn the majority language, even if a two-way language learning process would make for a richer, more open and more interesting society. Language also has a primary role in helping people to access support and services, and with this aspect of integration, it does have a crucial role. Beyond this, however, and to suggest that language learning will magically make it go away is disingenuous, a straw man created by government to turn an absence of integration into the fault of those trying to integrate. They haven’t tried to learn, they say, so it’s their fault. It’s not: most ESOL students are hungry to learn, but it has been rendered almost impossible through successive government cuts  by both main political parties. The fault lies squarely with government, and their decisions. Improving integration starts at Number 10.

Action Planning and Other Headaches

So I do a lot of coaching / mentoring / general supporting of teachers in my job. It’s usually a simple enough process: you get someone referred for support, you sit down with them, and then you come up with some things for them to try, which they try, and you basically guide them through some sort of reflection and adaptation process afterwards.

It’s almost always been a loaded process, with things at stake for the person you are supporting – particularly as it is usually linked to the lesson observation/quality assurance systems of an institution. I’ve had more than one new mentee break down in tears, and very often those first meetings you tend to be more of a counsellor, managing not only sadness, but also anger and frustration. This is especially true when the observer has made a pig’s ear of the feedback process, or when the observee has got the wrong end of the stick. Even at the best of times, the first conversation after an observation that went south is around picking apart the observation feedback and triangulating it with the teacher’s perception of the lesson and the lesson plan and resources. This is mostly fine, of course – it can be quite an illuminating process, allowing you and the observee to work out what the actual issues are, i.e. what applied to that lesson, and what is a more systemic, consistent issue with the teaching.

Observers are part of the problem. Now, before anyone starts getting shirty or defensive, every anecdote that follows is a fictionalised amalgam of experiences and general statements: but if you have ever done any of this, then shame on you. Observers are human, of course, and observing human interactions, and while they have training, they are rarely fully objective social scientists, if such a thing exists. But this means that things go wrong, sometimes badly so. One of the worst things I’ve seen an observer do is carry out a high stakes observation, for example where a job or a course pass is potentially at stake, then go to do the feedback without having decided what the outcome of the observation is. So the feedback implies that the lesson wasn’t to the standard expected, and that there is a cause for concern but the person providing the feedback never actually says explicitly that this is the case, and neither does the observer explicitly say that there are consequences. Yes, I know the observee might be able to work it out, but unless they are told in no uncertain terms what is going to happen now, then you have left a dangling thread of hope. Maybe I’ve just about made it? When that person finally comes to meet you as mentor, they have so much frustration, even outright anger, you might as well just call off the first meeting and take them to the pub and let them rant.

There are other, lesser crimes, as well. As a mentor, you and the observee need to know exactly what the problems were and what the specific required actions are. Now, I’m sure that many observers out there will insist that they are absolutely clear about this in their feedback, and will be sure when they finish the conversation that the observee has a clear idea what they need to do. And you know, that may even be true. But even if the spoken feedback is crystal clear, a shining example of precision and concision, eloquently and efficiently passed on, and extensive notes have clearly been taken by the observee, I still want to see your comments written down. It’s not you, you understand, it’s us. I’ve been observed enough times to know that when I get verbal feedback I only really take on the bits I want to hear, the bits I understand and want to work on, and the bits which are difficult, or boring, or which challenge my beliefs and prejudices tend to be quickly forgotten, if remembered at all. Yet it might be the forgotten thing that is crucial, but which remains at the back of your mind until you see the written comments.

My other big bugbear is the focus of the feedback. An observer will often be asked to identify recommended areas for improvement from the feedback. This is a great idea, as it will clarify what it is that the observee needs to do to improve, and perhaps even offer some suggestions as to actions they can take. That said, however, these areas need to be accurately and appropriately identified. areas for improvement that lack focus or specificity, for example, or, and this I’ve seen far too often, do not focus on the learning in the lesson observed, and are entirely based on supporting paperwork. If an observer tells their observee that they only need to improve their marking/feedback, the tracking documentation and the way they write differentiation on the lesson plan, even though none of these things had an impact on the lesson observed, then this raises all sorts of challenges. Because really, what is a teacher supposed to do with this? What am I supposed to do with this as a mentor? It’s a thirty minute job to share some marking strategies, another 20 to help them update their tracker, and ten minutes to show them the box on the form. Simple, easy, and, in the case of the last two, pretty fucking useless. If the differentiation in the lesson was good for the students, and they were all stretched and challenged, then who actually cares if/where/how it is written on a lesson plan? So what if the tracker is a bit shonky: if it’s a problem because of exam requirements, say, then sure, it might need work, but that is a management problem, and almost certainly nothing to do with the lesson observed. Even the marking thing is simply a quick share, and a check up, but these are all things that can, and should, be dealt with through other forms of audit and standardisation, like sampling of marked work, and not through a lesson observation focussed on classroom learning.

But wait, this isn’t one of those evil observers, saintlike teacher moments. Observees can be pretty useless as well. They can have the full monty observation experience: an observer they know and have a lot of respect for, excellent and accurate feedback, a clear set of actions to work on, and yet they still somehow fail completely to grasp what the problem is. This is perhaps because, as we found before, they don’t like what they have to work on: it doesn’t chime with their beliefs or their experiences. Maybe it’s new, maybe it’s a bit different. So it gets sidelined, and one of the jobs of the coach here is to bring that unpopular change into focus. It’s hard, because a teacher’s brain is like an elastic band that keeps pinging back onto the other things, so you do have to work on them, and sometimes sit in with them to make sure they are doing what they say they are.

Then there’s the “I’ve been doing this for years and it’s always been fine” argument. Christ, but that’s a boring one. As an observer and as a mentor, I’ve heard it so many times, and it was boring the first time. Maybe you have been doing it that way for ages, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need to change it.

The companion argument to this is the tedious “I did the same lesson last year and the observer liked it.” Same lesson materials and structure, perhaps, but a there are a stack of other variables. Most crucially, you have a different group of students, who respond differently to other groups. Or maybe you were in a different room. Or it wasn’t raining last year. You’d had curry the night before, not chips. God knows, but it was still a problem and so we have to work on it.

And that’s the other challenge; I can sit down and suggest things. I can demonstrate, invite you to observe me or a colleague doing those things, show videos, all sorts. I’ll summarise it for you in an email or an action plan. But it’s all so much fluff if you don’t try the things out. And try them out properly. Not just once, sulking because that coach bloke told you to do it, and what does he know…. No, you try it and you try it properly: give it a genuine go, and more than once. Anything new isn’t always going to work well first time: but try it a few times, and think about it. You might be worried about capability procedures, or whatever euphemism your institution uses, that may end up with you losing your job, but that should be the thing that spurs you on to engage and reflect and put things into action,

This brings us to the final point: reflection. I know that there are probably people who will disagree with me on this, but, on its own, the act of reflection is not going to change the way you work. I can think about a lesson until the cows have not only come home, but are tucked up in bed and snoring quietly, and it won’t make a difference to the way I work. What it needs is conscious, deliberate action. This goes for the whole process, in fact: unless you make a decision to put changes in place and then actually do it, the whole messy emotional business of being observed and of being mentored is a big waste of time. Willing engagement is no guarantee: I’ve worked with teachers before who make all the right noises, make copious notes, do all the training, and yet somehow fail to then take any of this and turn it into changes in classroom practice. And this isn’t in a passive-aggressive, “doing it to keep them quiet”way but teachers who genuinely seem unable to bridge that gap between feedback and reflection, and genuine change. You do all the right things, and so do they, apart from that one crucial stage of actually doing the things you suggest.

Sadly these are often the cases that bring people close to dismissal: this is not a cosy sector where underperformance gets quietly covered up because “well, he’s so nice with the students, and reliable” but a financially squeezed, pressurised sector where “rapid” often collocates with “improvement”, with scant regard for the realities of professional and organisational development. If you’re on some form of permanent contract, it’s pretty awful, even though you can count on some sort of protection while these processes are happening. However, if you are on a casual or agency type contract, then you quite literally cannot afford to be that person who doesn’t quite manage to change, whether you like it or not.

But this is the onrushing train coming towards you at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and for the vast majority of teachers, myself included, we sometimes dance at the beginning of that tunnel, perhaps even to the point when we can hear the train itself bearing down upon us, at which time we get our act together and manage to jump to safety. The trick, however, is staying safe. Fair enough you get reobserved and it all goes OK, but the reality is that unless you have genuinely managed to make something like permanent change, then next time that observation comes around, you are more than likely going to be coming back down to see me.

This post has focussed so much on observation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was all there is to supporting teachers. Unfortunately it is often a significant proportion of the work that you end up doing in this role, but it’s great when you get to talk good stuff with people: someone wants to try something off their own back and would like to talk it over. Or perhaps someone wants to run a lesson by you, or you just end up having an off the cuff conversation about good ideas. It would be lovely to have this all the time, but I rather suspect that if this were the case, my job would very quickly cease to exist.