ESOL is Fabulous

The Fabulousness of ESOL

My most popular post recently, indeed ever, was about some of the problems with ESOL. What was interesting for me there was the fact that given that most of my posts of late have been non-ranty (a real challenge) and about professional development, the most popular out was a rather unbalanced grumble-attack-whinge. Not sure what this says…

Anyway, as two of my fabulous colleagues have pointed out, it was a trifle unfair. Yes, colleges are under a lot of pressure to produce results, and yes, the government and significant swathes of the general public have deeply held ignorances about the people who access ESOL classes. But there are lots of good things about ESOL too.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the learners are fabulous. You see, actually despite all the crapness that their lives can throw at them, the vast majority do actually keep coming to class. Any absence or lateness or being withdrawn is usually due to things far beyond their control. They tend not to miss lessons, even when they are unhappy with them for some reason. Retention issues are generally not down to the learners, but to some unknown factor, and when pressed they often make a real effort to come back.

And I definitely said this before: they are dedicated and motivated like you can’t imagine. I have a lady in my evening group who is a proper full on beginner, and I don’t doubt that she comes to class and really struggles to follow what is happening, despite differentiated tasks and instructions. Which, if you think it through, could be really demoralising. Really really. Yet she comes, without fail. She has probably the best attendance record in the group.

There are learners like that across the board. As a teacher, there is no feeling in the world like seeing a former Entry 1 student on an embedded Entry 3 childcare course, especially when you remember negotiating her goals two years since and her stumbling attempts at explaining she wanted to do, yes, a childcare course. Top feeling of admiration and pride in her dedication, but also not a little professional pride. Find a handy ESOL teacher, prod them (gently) and they will all be able to tell you stories like that.

And they work. Hard. They go to work all day in some of the crummiest jobs in the country, then troop up to college two evenings a week. They look after sometimes large families full time; and if you think that sounds easier than your job just try the complex managerial, psychological, and physical work of being a housewife/husband for a large family, bearing in mind as well thatyou won’t get the weekends off. They put up with quite insane levels of paperwork, often inexplicable, at least to an E1 learner, being thrown at them, and they progress. They sit through batteries of assessments at the beginning, and struggle to achieve qualifications that are less generally recognised than a GCSE grade E. Yet they work at it, because in the first instance there is immediate payback. A skill, an ability to ask for something, make a little more sense of the working tax credit documents (good luck there, having seen them myself). In the longer term it’s about making your way through a society which is clearly and sometimes brutally intolerant of multilingualism (yes, Britain, that means you: no quantity of translated NHS leaflets is about to change that. Incidentally, the NHS and local government are probably the only major organisations in this country to pay attention to the fact that their service users may not be fully fluent in English, so a positive spin there: well done NHS and local government***).

Let’s also not forget what ESOL learners are trying to do. Balancing all this stuff with the extremely challenging task of learning a language. It isn’t just learning how to write, although it can be that. It isn’t just knowing which bit of grammar to put in where, or that it’s OK to say someone is slim, but offensive if you call them skinny, unless they are a good friend, and you are on certain relationship terms with them (vocabulary is that complex, yes). It’s a long process which is sometimes two steps forward, one step back, sometimes, one forward and two back, sometimes just back. All against this challenging social backdrop. Yet again, in spite of this, learners manage to learn.

And there are no doubt just as many reasons why the learners are great. I’m sure that you can all add a bunch of other reasons. Please do.

Language is fabulous. Of course. Grammar is groovy, phonology cool and lexis sexy. I’m not sure all ESOL teachers would agree, but you know, that’s just me. The skinny/slim/thin distinction mentioned above; the way we squash all words into blurry mutterings except for the words which have real meaning; fact we end on a high intonation when we are just pausing in a longer utterance but when we fall at the end of an utterance we are sending the signal that we have finished and are now inviting response. (Try it, it really freaks people out.) Can we add in the marvellous verb system: two tenses, three aspects, (four if you want to count perfect continuous, five if then include simple), no future tense, and a whole bunch of modals which give us degrees of possibility quite unnecessary for human communication, the distinction between “you must” and “you have to”. “Be” which is magisterial in its complexity and, in some regards, uselessness “I am happy” “I happy”? How necessary is the “am” there? The admirable ability of English to hijack words from other languages, or simply make them up to fill a gap, and shrug off the attempts of groups like the Queen’s English Society to standardise language and kill off creativity. And the swearing, oh, marvellous swearing. Fuck, for instance, operates as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an interjection and provides us with one of our very few infixes. The only other two (that I can think of) are “bloody” and “blooming”. The English language, indeed language in general, is abso-fucking-lately marvellous.

And so teachers. I count myself incredibly lucky to work with a bunch of people who remain creative, funny, interesting and passionate in the face of mind numbing inanity and policy driven bureaucracy. Sometimes the passion gets misplaced, or the creativity runs on a low ebb, but contrary to popular belief, we ESOL teachers are merely human.

But here’s a thing, and I think this is special to ESOL, or at least to ELT generally. There are a bunch of practices, like active learning, assessment for learning and elearning which seem to be top of the leader board for staff development. But you know what? Active learning is stuff like what ESOL teachers call pelmanism, card matching activities, information gaps, games and so on, and you know, what we’ve been doing it for decades. Literally decades. Assessment for learning: I call it monitoring and error correction in speaking tasks. I’ve provided formative feedback codes on learner writing since I started in 1999 and that kind of thing was old hat back then. And elearning? I was using elearning with Windows 98 when the Internet was a bunch of clunky websites which took a week to download unless you had a fantastic ADSL router. I remember when your online learning was Dave’s ESL Cafe, Activities for ESL students and and if you had a clunky javascript hangman you were lucky. But there has been a free online hangman game, however primitive, for at least 12 years. Not to mention various CALL books: OUP had one of its “Resource Books for Teachers” on CALL published in 1989. Which is pretty damned early.

I’d be interested to see if vocational subjects had access to the free resources, and that sense of global sharing which ESOL tutors had.

But when I think of my current colleagues in my ESOL team I think of a a bunch of people who lead the way in sharing, in using social media, in collaborating. 12 people in our ESOL team have twitter accounts, even more have Facebook accounts, and are active users of both. There are class blogs, individual blogs and teacher development blogs. We have self described technophobes using the VLE to share resources and links. We share schemes and resources as standard through a shared resources drive. Not forgetting, of course that old “face to face human communication” thing: to find what you need all you have to do is stand up and simply ask in a suitably loud voice before people by and large fall over themselves to help you. The fact that they got cross enough with me for being so down on the negative impacts of assessments to actually come and tell me that they had in fact NOT been doing exam stuff that morning says an awful lot about the kind of people I work with. And even the grumpy noncommunicative ones are grumpy about the way in which their learners are being treated, or about the systems not working, as they see it, to support them.

I read that back just now and it sounds gushy, but it is actually true. And I can’t say it holds for all ESOL departments all over the country: I’m basing this on the two I’ve worked with, one slightly better than the other, but still, with most of it holding true for my last employer. In a word, ESOL teachers are great.

And finally, the managers in ESOL departments are pretty good as well. Like the teachers, they want to help the learners. In the same way as teachers operate as a kind of buffer zone between the learners and the systems, managers have to operate as a buffer zone between the teachers & learners and the general shifts of government policy drivers which would very much prefer it if ESOL didn’t exist. They sort timetables, arrange cover, IV assessments, set up and manage initial assessments and screening, liaise with narky community centre managers who have an axe to grind, and manage self centred, grumpy teachers (for there are one or two) who see wider government policy issues as a personal attack. And that barely scratches the surface. Can I add budget management, weird stuff with spreadsheets and databases, and HR? And most of the people I know in a managerial role do this while also teaching half the week.

In short, then ESOL is not as bad as all that. There is a lot to celebrate about ESOL, and most of it is to do with the people who work in it. And I would very much like to add to all those people who trained me, worked with me and indeed who work with me still, thank you very much for being fabulous.


*** just by way of a footnote to the point about the NHS: my partner works for the NHS supporting the mental health needs of among others, asylum seekers, new arrivals and refugees, and has access to a range of interpreting services, both on demand and prebooked. A note to government: how much does this cost you and how much would teaching everyone English cost less?


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