I know nothing about ESOL: Reflections (and Preflections)

A little over five years I had a job interview. It was for a teacher training job, and it represented a move, at the time, from mainly a teacher to becoming a teacher trainer/educator. In all that time two things have stayed with me: the shame at my shocking handwriting during the written task I had to do, and the answer to one of th questions.

The question itself I’ve forgotten, but it was something like “Why do you want to move from being a teacher to becoming a teacher trainer?”

My answer was this:

“Although, obviously, you can never know everything about teaching ESOL, because every group is different, I think that the gap between what I know and what I don’t know has been getting smaller.”

It was smug, arrogant and I was pretty pleased with the answer at the time. I was successful as well, showing that a little arrogance can win you a job. Without that interview being that successful, I don’t think you would be reading this blog, and I wouldn’t be the person, and the teacher, I am today. It was, as they say, a good opportunity and it paid off dividends.

I have, in five years, taught teachers, taught ESOL, and gotten myself a role in college which provides me with endless challenges, the majority of which I enjoy. I have been able to work with some excellent people, both in ESOL and not. It was a good decision.

Five years on, however, I find myself looking at that statement, and realising that actually the part of my job I have enjoyed the most, out of every class, every coaching and mentoring session, every CELTA, DTE(E)LLS and the rest, the one thing that I really really enjoy doing is teaching ESOL, above and beyond everything else. I have got more satisfaction from a single ESOL class well taught than I have from whole terms of teacher training courses. Most importantly, however, I realise that actually the gap between what I know and what I don’t know was never very small, and indeed, probably hasn’t shrunk since I first stepped into a classroom. It’s just that the nature of what I don’t know has changed.

One of the things I have learned from being a teacher trainer is that there are actually no limits on teacher knowledge. It’s not just in terms of differences in the learners, although the diverse range of strengths, weaknesses, personalities and personal stories makes for an almost infinite combination of classes. Teacher knowledge, and subject knowledge is an enormous thing.

At risk of sounding a bit mystical, your knowledge of your subject and of the teaching of that subject grows all the time. However, as this happens, you become more and more aware of the boundaries of your knowledge. You push at those boundaries, exploring and expanding, but as you push the boundaries, the move away from you, sometimes further and further away. As you know more about it, you also realise how much more there is left to know. Your universe is expanding, but it takes you time to develop the tools to see just how quickly and how far away that universe is expanding.

Let me try another metaphor. You start your career as a teacher in just one room  go in the house. You explore that room, and you find a door to another room. So you go through that door and find another room. After exploring that room, you find two doors. So you explore through those doors, and find further rooms, each with further doors, even windows to the much larger world of knowledge. Sometimes, of course, you like to go back to the first room, and just sit there quietly.

In short, then, my interview answer was actually, despite being a claim to always being open, pretty trite. I have realised that the world of ESOL and ELT is far bigger than I had ever imagined, that there is much more to this than meets the eye, much more to do in my professional practice, much much more development left to do. For a brief while I thought about “broadening” and starting to move to the universe of generic teacher training, but as I contemplate the possibilities of teaching English, I realise that the ESOL world is not narrow at all, and only a fool would ever say it was.

Happily, I am slightly less of a fool than I was, and as I contemplate placing myself once again very firmly in the world of “just” ESOL, the prospect is distinctly exciting.


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