They’ve let me back into a classroom. Well, I say “let” but I think “I jumped at the chance during a discussion about what to do about a particular bit of cover” is a more accurate description, but you know…. It’s not an ESOL class, which is interesting, but rather it’s a GCSE English language. I figured that if I can teach level 5 subject specialisms for ESOL and literacy, then I could get myself together to do a half decent job on a GCSE, especially when half the students are second language speakers. Now, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “but Sam you have, at best, a patchy history or teaching other subjects: you hated teaching maths, loathed PSD, and have a confused relationship with teaching ICT, so what are you thinking??”
Well, three sessions in and I’m rather enjoying it. I’ve got to admit that part of the enjoyment is from being a cover teacher: you come in and do your thing without needing to take a global view of the course, or at least not too much, anyway. The supporting admin stuff therefore tends to be minimal, so you can relax to an extent, and concentrate on the lesson by lesson learning. If the cover does continue after the Xmas break, then I will have to pull up my paperwork socks a bit, but hitherto it’s been really enjoyable, Partly it’s down to the simplicity of being back in the classroom with students and concentrating on the bit of the job I really really enjoy – thinking of ways of getting people to learn something, and then putting them into action. It’s a comfort zone / structure thing, as well. I know classrooms, and what is supposed to happen there, and I know what my role in that context is.
There is a challenege, even if GCSE English language is within my subject knowledge comfort zone. It’s English, after all, and the students are adults. The challenge comes from elsewhere, in particular the challenge of coming to terms with the different demands and focus of the qualification. It makes you realise that in many respects teaching ESOL tends to be about the technicalities of using the language, and less about how to describe and explain it, but the GCSE assumes that many of the basic technicalities of using language are there (word order, tenses, a certain level of vocabulary, that sort of thing), and that students need to learn about explaining and analysing that language. The needs of first language, or first language type learners are quite different: they don’t need reminding about articles, tenses, word order and the rest on that deep implicit level, but rather develop an explicit meta-awareness of the language they are using. We’ve been looking at Paper 1 which is a section on analysing text: a literature element, if you like, and it’s interesting to come back to more literary concepts such as metaphor, simile, and personification after a fairly hefty break (20 years or so since I last worried about such things). It’s been a proper pleasure rediscovering what is, for me, the joy in language at this level, which would probably explain my slightly manic delivery.
The other part of the challenge is the diversity of the group. The diversity of ages, backgrounds and motivations among the rest of the group makes for an interesting, engaging mix of people who fall outside my more familiar remit of ESOL: even the students with an ESOL background in the class have a different set of needs and challenges to when they are in an ESOL setting. That diversity, so complex and so hard to capture into neat “differentiation” boxes on a lesson plan, is what makes the group so interesting. You get those snippets of the students’ backgrounds, the dinner lady, the school dropout, the former refugee; the people with hopes and university aspirations. It’s a different kind of heartbreaking to teaching ESOL when your students didn’t succeed at school, didn’t go to college, and now find themselves trying to piece back together some semblance of prospect. Even though I’ve only taught the group three times, I’ve already picked up on some of the mistakes, tragedies and social abandonment that have led to these individuals missing out, and in so many ways I find myself very aware of how these things could quite easily have happened to me, in a much more direct and relatable way than sometimes you have with ESOL learners. Don’t get me wrong: ESOL is where my heart, rage and passion lie, but it’s (happily) unlikely that I’ll ever need to migrate to another country any time soon. However, my small-town late-teenage self could very easily have had to give up A-levels to support a baby, or been diagnosed with a debilitating illness, or simply made decisions that didn’t pan out.
All of which pulls together the ideas which have been running through my last few blog posts. I’ve always said that for me this job is as much about love for your subject as it is about love for the students and the learning (I’m wary of anyone who does it solely for the students, or to give something back to the community, or whatever. Such people are crazed idealists, and cannot be trusted). I fear I have been making a mountain out of a molehill, because really, all it boils down to is that I like teaching, and despite years of training teachers and supporting teachers, writing blogs and articles, doing research, running workshops, and all that sort of thing, I still have lots and lots to learn from it. I’m not done with classroom teaching, and neither, I hope, is it done with me.