May as well make it a blog post…

I started to reply to someone’s comment earlier but found I was saying so much and that what the commenter had said was so interesting that I thought I would use the comment as the basis of a blog post. It was on my post on burnout, and I’ve reproduced, roughly, the comment here as a kind of dialogue.

After reading some other posts on your blog, I really hope you have time to reply for the following reasons:

I’m not sure where all these ESOL tutors who know what they’re doing are. I’ve asked for help and get fobbed off. Do they hold the grail containing the elixir of life, or do they, in all honesty, just not know the answers to my questions either? Why can’t they just say, ‘I don’t know’. It would save me a lot of time wondering whether I’m just thick or not.

There were two bits which saddened me a little (I hope that’s not patronising) and this was the first. Are there ESOL tutors who know precisely what they are doing? Is there any teacher who is so brazenly confident in their knowledge that they can plan and teach a lesson knowing that the lesson will not bomb? No. If I’m brutally honest about this, I spend my entire time waiting to see when someone is about to catch me out for the fraud that I clearly am. I am keenly aware of my gaps and my weaknesses (marking, anything with Excel involved, closing lessons and plenaries, record keeping, checking learning by reviewing learning outcomes, remembering to target questions, and I talk way way too much, to name but a few). One day, I know, someone is going to come up to me and say “ah ha! Got you! Now, get thee back to being an hourly paid lecturer and watch your children starve.” So, no, there is no elixir of life and we don’t have some magical cure for all ills. We do what we can and we do our best, and that, pretty much is the secret. On the other hand, is absolutely no excuse for not helping you, a point which I will come back to.

I can really relate to your posts. You say things how it is and aren’t dressing it up as ‘good practice’ bull

Thanks for the feedback, although I’m not sure I’m saying it as it is, certainly that was never the intention behind the blog, believe it or not! There are political moments, and I aim for honesty, but all I do is just describe my own experiences and opinions and reflections on that. I know I do try to avoid being the breathlessly upbeat, permanently excited kind of online persona, finding that sort of thing irritating; hey, today I taught present perfect and I used an interactive whiteboard and it was amazing!. I aim, successfully or not, for balance between criticisms and more open minded reflections, although I suspect I veer toward the former more often than not!

I’d fall short of saying everything we get told is good practice is bull, however, but rather that it’s a bit of a trite phrase which is used sometimes to justify practices which have little or no evidence base. But there are things I strongly believe are required practice, are things we must do, but at the same time, I recognise these for the very subjective ideas that they sometimes are.

Context is king, but if you’ve got some learners that are concentrating on forming structures, context has little impact. Much in the same way that my illiterate Literacy learners I’m using phonics with (whole other conversation) spend all their time decoding, and aren’t able to gain meaning yet. Also, higher level learners aren’t bothered about making an appointment and the task seems futile. Context in self-discovery lessons is king for E1s. E2s at a stretch for that ah-ha! moment. For other levels, I feel it’s a case of ‘here’s the grammar, let’s practise this, this is a list of times we use it, have a go at thinking of these situations and what you can say’.

I’m not so sure: context can be both limiting and also useful as a building block to support language. There are definitely people in the world who think that ESOL as it is taught in the UK public sector should be purely contextualised and meaningful in some way to learners lives, but this only takes you so far, as you say. That said a context or theme can be excellent starting place for higher level learners to uncover language, with a smart enough teacher. Rather than going in an saying grammar first, we go in and say “what do you think about…” then see what language emerges. Teacher selected language input first is very amenable to the fixed, measurable (and measured) learning outcomes so beloved of the FE sector: you know the stuff: “learners will be able to use present perfect to write at least three sentences” and so on. This is not actually evidence of learning, just evidence of achievement: not, I would personally argue, the same thing.

I’m trying to make sense of something which on the whole, I don’t think makes sense and find your posts helpful (in the last 15 minutes, anyway!). Does that make sense?!

It does. This links back to the idea of ESOL being part of the FE sector. Some of the inconsistencies around ESOL, particularly with the threat of the graded observation cosh, arise because it is trying to fit in with vocational and academic learning, which are, for me, a different type of learning. So we have the philosophy of the SMART target, the idea that learning can be broken down into neat, unitised chunks, the “whole year” forward planned scheme of work (if you think that sounds over dramatic, then one question: why do we not just use a coursebook?) and, of course, the increasingly ridiculous limits on the number of learning hours an ESOL learner can be funded for.

I want the sector to be revolutionised with support. I never want another tutor to feel the way I have before. I want to be good enough to commit my time to helping others, who want to help others.

This was the most depressing part of your comment. Now, I don’t know where you work, and what the nature of that organisation is, but I do know that if you were working at my institution this statement would fill me with horror. This is in part because it is my job at college to support people, but mainly it is because I can’t imagine a context where colleagues and managers are simply as unsupportive as you suggest. You said it before as well: “I’ve asked for help and I get fobbed off.”

Support for teachers should be institutionally managed, of course, and there should be people around whose job is to do this. They might be called advanced practitioners, senior tutors, advanced teaching and learning coaches, super-smug clever bastards, or something along those lines. If they are there then you need to find them. They may not be ESOL specialists, but at least you can bounce ideas off them, but as one of these smug-clever types myself, you get an awful lot from talking to other teachers of anything. It’s possible, of course, that you work for a private training provider for whom staff support is an unnecessary expense they would rather not have, or a very stretched charitable organisation who simply do not have the funds for such things. In which case I would advise that you build up your own network of support online through twitter is a good source of people (look at the people I follow and take it from there) as is membership of a professional organisation like NATECLA and getting involved with local and national events through them.

But even where support is not formally available, where Twitter is an unruly mass of people talking about what they had for breakfast, and attendance at conferences and so on simply unaffordable, you should at least have colleagues, and colleagues who can help you. And if they don’t, or can’t, or won’t, then my honest response is to consider whether or not you should continue to work for that organisation. I’m guessing a little here, but you don’t sound like you’re in a full time contract post, and so there are still jobs on a part time basis coming up from time to time. There are other ESOL learning providers out there, and if you can vote with your feet, then do.

If FE is the Cinderella sector of education, then ESOL is the Cinderella department of that sector. Teaching adults ESOL is not politically sexy at the moment, and we’ve always been slightly annoying for the sector because our subject is not neatly unitised and our learners are awkward adults with things like children, jobs (or lack thereof) homes, marriages, and, well, you know, lives beyond the five hours they spend in college, and so don’t fit in to the dominant institutional paradigm of the 16-19 year old vocational course. So if you are teaching in a small department of, say, one, in a distant corner of the campus, line managed by someone who doesn’t really know you or your subject, then it can be a terrible, lonely, isolating experience. I hope you’re not, and if you are, I hope you can get out.

Good luck.

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