Who Have I Taught and What Have I Learned?

I drew inspiration for this from a post Rachel Tsateri published last week. Writing this has been an interesting reflection on my career so far, where it has led me and what it has made me realise.

When I started teaching in Birmingham (England), I was working in a school where 28% of the pupils were learning with English as an Additional Language (EAL). I taught one small group that consisted entirely of pupils who did not speak English at home. In our first lesson together, I managed to determine that, excluding English, the pupils spoke an average of 1.6 languages each. Some had migrated as a result of their parents’ work and others had arrived as refugees. Their countries of birth included: Afghanistan, South Korea, India, China, Lithuania, Albania, Syrian Kurdistan, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Somalia and Poland. In addition, at that school I taught students from Russia, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Hungary, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Georgia, Zimbabwe and Brazil. It sounds obvious, but valuing and showing interest in a student’s home language, country and culture made a huge difference for me in building relationships between the students as well as between them and me. I live abroad and whilst my way of earning an income is teaching my first language; I get so excited when someone shows obvious, genuine interest in Wales and the Welsh language and culture! My whole relationship with one student changed when I managed to get him talking about Kurdistan. I knew very little about the region, so he was able to educate me and saw that I was interested in knowing more about this important aspect to his cultural background.

I worked in another high school in England and two in Wales where most of the students spoke English at home, but I did teach a handful of other students whose home language was Polish, one who was from Thailand and another whose background was Sri Lankan. The challenge in these contexts was providing sufficient support for the sole pupil who was learning with EAL without slowing the pace for the others. Looking back, I’m sure I could have done this better, but I did my best at the time. I wonder how I would approach this situation now.

I remember that I did my first CELTA assignment, which focused on a specific learner, about a Syrian dentist. It was very sobering to think about how frustrating it must be unable to practise your chosen profession, for which you trained and qualified (for who knows how long and at what cost) and then be reduced to learning to exchange greetings in a foreign language, in a foreign culture, having fled from conflict.

When I came to ELT, my first job was teaching French teens and juniors at a summer camp. Many things were different to my previous teaching experiences (much smaller class sizes being one of the most immediately noticeable ones). The biggest challenge in teaching monolingual ELT classes is that the students all share a language that the teacher might not understand. In this case, my two years of high school French had been thoroughly forgotten over a decade before and so my students literally had a secret language with which they could exclude me. The same was true of the other students I taught at the summer camp who were in monolingual groups from China. I remember learning how counting on hands is done differently in China, and that moment of realisation that even basic hand signals don’t necessarily cross borders easily.

Since moving to Spain, all of my students have been speakers of Spanish (although a few have had different home languages, notably Polish and Chinese). When I first arrived, my knowledge of the language was extremely elementary and I faced the same difficulties as I had had with the French and Chinese kids a few years earlier. Over time, my proficiency has improved and, on more than one occasion, I’ve had to remind teenage students that one of the reasons I prefer that they don’t use Spanish in my classroom is precisely because I can understand them; a reminder that on those occasions has caused a few red faces as they realise that I understood what had just been said!

The most interesting aspect of my work these days is the age range of my students and what that means for their motivations. I trained as a high school teacher, and for the first five years of my career, I worked mostly with 11-16 year olds. My ELT qualification – the CELTA – is designed to train teachers to work with adults. Now I work with students who range widely:

  • eight year olds who come to English on Tuesdays and Thursdays before going to football (and who swim on Mondays and Wednesdays) and for whom English academy is an extra-curricular activity
  • teens whose parents are determined that they will obtain their B2 before the age of 16 and who may or may not share they parents’ enthusiasm
  • teens who are interested in English-language culture, or whose niche interests are better served in the English language and thus who want to have better access to online communities who share their interests
  • young adults who simply want a piece of paper that will allow them to graduate or apply for certain jobs and opportunities (I’ve had students tell me plainly ‘I don’t care about speaking English; I just need to pass’)
  • adults who use English daily at work and want to feel more confident in their international exchanges
  • I taught one adult who actively disliked English, but needed it for work and focussed entirely on the language required for those few exchanges in which he would use it
  • adults who just have a passion for the language, have no interest in preparing exams, but want to come and talk in English, read texts (literary and non-fiction), give presentations etc.

I’ve come to value the variety of being on the floor with flashcards at 4pm and then discussing the possible meanings of a line of poetry at 9pm, of teaching Business English in a one-to-one online lesson after doing a lesson of Cambridge exam preparation.

My students come to me to learn, and that is always my focus. However, I love that along the way, I learn too: about them as individuals, aspects of language or culture (sometimes book recommendations or recipes!), and about teaching.

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