My apologies. It’s been a little over a week and I’ve been sitting on this post that whole time. But bear with me – I hope it’s worth the wait.
It is probably unnecessary to report back on the NATECLA AGM, which, I have to admit, I have only ever attended once before, and that because the lovely people at the Ruth Hayman Trust were going to say thank you for raising money for them (which I strongly urge you to do as well, because as far as I know they are the only charity that do the kind of work they do to support migrants in the UK). I have to also admit that I can’t decide if I find the whole business of proposing, seconding and voting on motions to be either charmingly democratic, or just a teensy bit archaic. Sorry: I think I am a bit of a dictator at heart, and if I did apply to be co-chair of NATECLA, I worry that I would probably turn out to be a bit like Chancellor Palpatine. Mild gags aside, what really struck me was how much influence NATECLA has gathered in recent years against a backdrop not only of funding cuts to ESOL but also of a worryingly convincing anti-immigrant discourse both politically and socially.
However, business duly done and it was time for what can only be called the graveyard shift at a conference. Almost inevitably things tend to thin out at this time of day as people head home a little early, and all the exhibitors have packed away and gone. I’ll admit that I’ve done this before, but for this one I stayed, because the final workshop I attended was on a theme which intrigues me and I was interested to see what was being said. The session was on “brokering Britain” and the notion of ESOL teachers as “mediators of Britishness.”
It was less of an input, and more of a discussion, starting with an introduction to a book on the theme that Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell (with others) were working on, and to which we were contributing, sort of , some of the final chapter. Certainly, the discussion is one which has appeared in this blog before: the responsibility and function of an ESOL teacher as more than just a language teacher, but also as brokers of the dominant social and cultural context in which English occurs in the UK. It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with as a direct “duty”, for example under the Prevent programme, and yet despite this, something which I’ve engaged with in the sense of encouraging active citizenship. This distinction was one which was raised at the beginning of the session: between getting students to engage with democratic processes and to be pro-active in their communities, social activism, tempered with the discomfort of ESOL teaching as a tool of the state, of teaching language as a “social proxy”, perpetrators of the notion that language is a measure of ones loyalty: you cannot be British if you can’t speak English. In that sense at least we are both gatekeepers and prison wardens: “I judge that your language is not yet to standard, therefore you are not ready for the appropriate exam.” This, coupled with the unrealistic learning expectations of students, which I wrote about recently, can taint the relationship between student and teacher.
In our group the discussion hinged around the nature of the texts we bring into class. As a frequent user of authentic texts, it certainly got me thinking about the political edge which we bring to the ESOL class perhaps subconsciously: my sources of choice are newspapers of the left and the centre left (Guardian & Independent), and occasionally to the better quality end of the right wing broadsheets (the Telegraph) or (nominally) politically neutral sources like the BBC. Certainly the choices I make are texts which reflect my own political stance, which was another question we discussed.
One of these discussions that has stuck with me was around the extent to which we admit our own political views in class. I am usually fairly open about my politics in class, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer, along the lines of: “You are welcome to disagree, but…”. That said, I don’t start with my stance or allow it to dominate, at least not consciously, but students are often curious and will ask. An honest question deserves, I think, an honest answer: I’m not a politician garnering votes. And anyway, I’m open, even didactic in my opinion of less contentious issues than Brexit or General Elections. I once based the text analysis in a reading lesson on the way that the writer referred to the participants in a car accident in a way that dehumanises people in favour of the car (“a pedestrian was hit by a VW Golf” rather than the less deft but more accurate “a person was hit by another person in a car.”) The choice of text and theme was linked very closely to an aspect of personal politics, as it were, as well as being an interesting exercise in textual referencing and critical reading. Certainly I would hope that it would encourage the students to start to read about a more personal context more critically, in the way that migration to the UK is reported.
There was more to the discussion than that, of course – the notion of being an outsider to the whole citizenship question, for example, not just as a student but also from the perspective of a teacher who was born elsewhere. I wonder as well if we are brokers of not only Britishness, but also of belonging – agents not of integration and conformity, but rather brokers of our communities. I know that I sometimes feel “outside” the communities that perhaps my own students work and live within: I have yet to work in the city I live in, for example, which grants a sense of distance from the towns and communities I work in – I rarely, if ever, see my learners outside of the working week, and my knowledge of the social geography of their communities is deeply limited. I build on this distance, with comments like “Platform 8 [where I catch my train home]” is my usual answer to “What is your favourite place in the town?”
Needless to say, of course, the notion of the dreaded British Values was raised, but this really cemented that distinction between the view of citizenship as an officially sanctioned status, rather than the more liberal stance – while few, if any, would criticise the Values, per se, there is always that question of whether they are specifically “British” and whether they supersede any other sets of values you may care to mention, not to mention the key question, really, of whether we are just teachers of a language, or whether we are much more than that. I personally would say that we are much more than just language teachers, but that the Britishness we “teach” should rarely be explicit, if at all. Active, progressive, social interactivity and engagement, yes, but preaching whitewashed, nostalgic and officially sanctioned Britishness? No.