I envy my colleagues who teach vocational and academic subjects, sometimes, I really do. I envy the way FE standards and processes are based around the way those courses are run (oh to be a dominant majority) and the fact that their subjects are widely recognised and valued across most of society. Particularly, however, I envy the way they get to plan a whole year of course content in advance, and then use it again the following year with another group of broadly similar students. And then, probably, use it again the year after that. Even if the content changes, as well it might, or the subject needs a little updating, there is likely to be a whole load of content which can be recycled before being reused once again. They are, essentially, jammy bastards. 

Because this kind of forward planning is simply not a possibility in ESOL, not really. Sure there might be elements of content which can be recycled and rehashed in a different order, but there are also significant chunks of single use lessons which may never see the light of day again. Topical lessons, for example: I have a brilliant brilliant set of resources I designed for a level 1/2 class on Brexit, which are now entirely useless, and some election resources from the 2015 election which I couldn’t re-use because the gao between elections was so stupidly short I was still teaching a number of the same students. But then there is the rolling nature of an esol class, presenting diverse, spiky profiles and being, by and large, a different ball game every time. Even two classes at the same level in the same year may well diverge, meaning that any promise of reduced workload across the course quickly disappears. And students stay on as well, sometimes taking more than a year to progress a level. This is particularly applicable at the upper end of the esol scale, where students could easily take two years to complete all the qualifications in a given level, due at least in part to the intermediate plateau. And for a teacher this means that one resource or lesson idea may have to wait a full two years before being reusable. Sure students may not remember, but they often do, and anyway, a little professional pride..?

One of the effects of this is a kind of creative weariness. How many ways can you teach articles, for example, or conditionals, or even present simple? We all of us have a preferred lesson or lessons, a bunch of ideas which we go back to time and time again, but even when I have new students in a new class, I sometimes find it hard simply to grab something off the shelf, even if it is my own privately built and assembled shelf. I freely admit that this is self imposed: I know plenty of teachers who will happily grab something off the shelf, and absolutely why not? But then part of the pleasure I get from teaching is the thinking up of ways to do things, even, perversely, enjoying the frustrating challenge of finding a resource that doesn’t quite fit the lesson you had in mind. I have known many teachers who have taught the same level for years, and somehow find this relaxing. 

Planning for ESOL is, arguably, a more complex planning process than teaching a fixed vocational qualification. Planning is a continuous, evolving and mobile process considering both content and method, not the fixed delivery of particular content that must be covered for the unit specifications to be met. The payoff for this is the lack of marking and formal assessment: as a wise colleague of mine once observed, ESOL courses are front loaded: all the effort each year goes into the course planning and development, rather than into the summative assessment. In comparison to many vocational and academic subjects, summative assessment is almost negligible. As a result, while my colleagues in vocational areas are madly gearing students up for their final bits of coursework, final exams, not to mention marking huge heaps of coursework, and so on, I’ve had to mark a single exam for each of my students, stick them into coloured folders (even if this does involve the mind-crushing task of writing the same piece of information on three pieces of paper in the same folder), and hand them over. In fact, I’m almost finished. There are two weeks left to go, I have a couple of bits of exam for students to resit and that’s about it. 

It’s a nice enough payoff, but it does still mean that teaching the same level year on year can be somewhat draining, and one gets curious to experiment at other levels. There’s also a danger of becoming lazy and complacent: oh I’ll just use that lesson on that thing that I’ve taught every year since the year dot. Sure it may be a cracking lesson but, and this probably says more about me than about anything else, could there be an even better one out there? And this is the challenge: as a teacher you can get stuck between complacency and a need for change, which doesn’t really bode well for anyone. 



  1. Thanks for this. This basically captures my feelings about materials, especially ‘supplementary’ materials. Arguably it means digitally stored materials in easily editable form should be the default, because you might have bits of stuff that come together well, or could take part X from file Y and rewrite something new around it. Teacher as materials remixer, playing different sets every time.

  2. Another perceptive blog! More than being creative I sit there when I am helping students through revision for a re-sit thinking ‘crap, I really didn’t teach this well and I haven’t got the foggiest how to help this student sat here in front of me now and I don’t know how to make it better next year’. But we do. We do make it better this year because you know what, we do it subconsciously. It a word, an anecdote, a moment of inspiration. And you know what. Sometimes students don’t want all that creativity. They just want to get that bit of grammar they don’t understand and when a teacher explains it and they get it they have their wonderful moment.

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