There (and sort of) back again

Here’s only the second guest post on this particular blog.

This time, it’s a post by a wonderful teacher I’ve been lucky enough to meet via the MA TESOL I work on at University of Westminster. Mumtaz Ayub  has been teaching for the past 13 years and currently spends most of his time teaching ESOL in an FE college in Westminster.  He lives in East London with his wife and two children – and here he is in action!

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This post arose out of a discussion we had a few weeks back and is featured here for two reasons, really. Firstly, I’ve long been interested in teachers’ stories and the narratives that we construct for ourselves to explain how we got from where we once were to where we now find ourselves. Obviously, within any transition, there are a hundred tiny events that impact on us and push on in one direction or another: conversations with colleagues, things we read, stuff that happens in class that we later reflect on through the filters of our current state of mind, conferences we attend, and so on, and out of this slow accretion of experience, we weave a narrative thread that makes sense to ourselves. We condense the multitude of experiences into easy-to-understand signposts along the road. This in itself is always interesting. There’s more, though.

The second thing that drew us together was a shared feeling that we’d moved very consciously away from a grammar-driven approach out of frustration at the fact that it wasn’t rally – or certainly wasn’t DIRECTLY – helping our students achieve the outcomes we felt they most needed to be working towards. In addition to this, i was interested in the fact that Mumtaz works predominantly in the British ESOL sector. In many ways, an artificial wall has been erected between EFL and ESOL, yet what Mumtaz’s story seems to me to illustrate is that teachers on both sides of the great divide are essentially grappling with very similar issues.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long.

Here’s Mumtaz in how own words . .

“I usually tell people I became a teacher by mistake.  I’ve always studied whatever interested me from science and martial arts to Arabic and politics.  When the time came to choose a career, computing seemed a good bet, so I started working as a software engineer, eventually becoming an IT manager for an investment bank.  It was interesting in its way and the pay was good, but I didn’t have time to breathe, let alone live.  Our young daughter was growing up fast and I just wasn’t seeing her enough, so I took drastic action.  I left my job and we moved abroad for a year. Within a few months, I found myself teaching science in one of the better schools in our area.  It was amazing!

With all due respect to my friends in banking, I felt like I had finally found something useful to do for a living.  There’s just something so powerful, meaningful about being a teacher.  In fact, I was so strongly moved by this experience that, on my return to the UK, I decided to retrain as a teacher.  My interest in communication and the relatively painless CELTA lead me to choose ESOL.

I was lucky enough to be trained by an inspirational teacher trainer at my local FE college and was soon working as a full time ESOL teacher at the same institution.  I loved interacting with my students and giving them the language and skills they needed to access our society.  I felt enthused and empowered; life was good!

Over time, however, things started to change.  Ofsted requirements were interpreted as lists of dos and don’ts. Staff would be observed and yet the criteria for assessing them seemed opaque.  I tried to understand what was required of me, but could never quite get to an answer.  Managers and senior lecturers would talk about the elements of good practice but I could never work out exactly what they were talking about.  To me, all they were doing was giving me lists of activities that were deemed appropriate for teaching, but with no explanation as to why.

After several of years of this, I eventually came to the conclusion that it was just too difficult for me to understand.  Over time, this lead to a major change in my psyche and my teaching practice: I essentially began to teach what other people told me would work.  There was almost no creativity or confidence and, instead, my lessons became little more than a series of activities that were roughly on topic and kept the students busy.  I am ashamed to say that I would dust off and teach practically the same set of lessons every time inspectors came.  This was simply because I knew they would be well received.  But I didn’t know why!  My teaching had become ritualistic.  This, I suppose, was my stagnation phase.

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At this point, I had to make a choice: leave teaching, move into management or try again to understand how to teach a good lesson.  I was fortunate enough to be offered a job teaching at a university in Saudi Arabia and I accepted.  Working in Saudi gave me plenty of time to think and it didn’t take long to realise that I needed help and that that help needed to come from outside the world of FE.  I decided to do a Delta at International House, London.  I started with module 2 (the teaching element) and the experience was transformative.  The way I describe it is that I had had a fair amount of knowledge of language teaching, but it wasn’t structured.  As a result, I didn’t know what to use and when and, thus, I began to blindly follow the advice of ‘experts’ on what to do without really knowing why.  My time at IHL changed that completely.  My knowledge now had shape and I was also exposed to a number of ideas that were new to me, ideas which I have continued to research and add to due to a new found desire to read all things ELT.

Materials became tools to allow students to communicate with whatever language they had at their disposal and then to compare that with better versions before trying again.  Task-based approaches appealed a lot to me as did grammaring activities and work with prosody and pragmatic features of language choice.  I would capture learner errors wherever possible and incorporate them throughout my planning and teaching.  As for specifics, I began to survey learners to find out where they use language and based my topics broadly around the results.  I then chose or produced texts as uncontrived as possible, often based on my own recordings, and then analysed them for useful lexis – usually common phrases and fixed/semi-fixed expressions.  I would then produce lexical exercises based on this analysis and use them in class to go through meaning, form and pronunciation as appropriate.  Thus, materials are there simply to facilitate this journey from meaning to form, hoping to produce opportunities for experimentation and thinking about language.  They give just enough to get us going and sometimes they help keep us on track.  But, of course, it’s in the interaction where everything really happens.  It’s a never-ending, flawed and experimental process, but based on principles that I have engaged with and make sense to me.

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I am now more able to immerse myself in student language and try to understand exactly where my learners are on their path to proficiency.  I am again enthusiastic about my work, but this time my engagement is at a deeper level; much more closely linked to each learner’s journey and informed by theory as well my own experience.  In short, my practice has moved from ritualised activities to principle-based teaching.  A recent Ofsted inspection went well, I’ve had some teacher training opportunities and I’m now doing an MA to dig deeper into concepts covered in the Delta.

I feel empowered again.

My journey continues, but now at least I feel I have the tools I need to help steer a course”.

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4 responses

  1. Very interesting and something I can relate to as an ESOL teacher in London. Firstly I completely agree with you Hugh about ‘the artificial wall’ between ESOL and EFL. Of course there are some significant differences, but having taught extensively in both, I would say the similarities are far more striking.

    Also interesting but a little depressing to hear Mumtaz’s experience with Ofsted visits. Churning out the same tried and tested ‘inspection lessons’, because you know they tick the right boxes, is unfortunately a fairly common position for many in the UK public sector. Language learning is challenging. students often struggle to grasp things first time round, and as we all know it takes time for language to sink in, and it needs constant revisiting and recycling. This might be more the case with ESOL learners who have suffered trauma in the past affecting the memory. But in my experience OFSTED inspectors have no interest in seeing learners struggle or make mistakes. They are obsessed with students achieving the outcomes and all demonstrating perfect understanding by the end of the lesson. The result being that for OFSTED inspections we often rush to the lessons which have the fewest potential pitfalls, and the ones that students will accomplish with ease. And of course have all the usual inspector-pleasing tricks, like laminated resources, a bit of e-learning, a nod to equality and diversity etc etc.

    1. Far be it for me to praise Ofsted, but I’ve never really had problems with the inspectors themselves. What’s always troubled me is the intellectual laziness that can develop around what constitutes good practice. And this is something, I think, we can all challenge once we have the tools to do so. The problem for me was that I had to (temporarily) leave FE to get them. I still can’t believe that I taught for so long without even hearing of Thornbury, Willis, Lewis, Hoey, Field et al let alone Vygotsky or Krashen!

      1. Hi Mumtaz

        I’ve just read your piece which I found very inspirational and familiar! Aside from being an ESOL teacher in the first few years of my practice, I’m also the National Coordinator of NATECLA. I’m currently organising our annual weekend conference in Sheffield for the weekend of 27-29 June 2014. Would you be interested in running a workshop at the event? The emphasis would ideally be practical, but this could be discussed in more detail if you are interested. Perhaps you could email me on laura@natecla.org.uk to follow up?

        I hope to hear from you soon.
        All the best
        Laura

    2. Hi Jon –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond so thoughtfully.

      Personally, I think artificial walls are a fairly common curse in the ELT field, and they exist not just between EFL and ESOL, but also very much between EAP and EFL. None of this is helpful and simply serves to obfuscate the fact that the bottom line is that all these areas revolve around defining clear objectives, planning the input students might need to achieve these objectives, working out how best to mediate this input in class and then letting students try things out for themselves. These major similarities seem to me to far outweigh the minor differences.

      I’ve never had to deal with OFSTED, so don’t feel fully qualified to comment on that, but having mentored folk doing DELTAs I’ve sen for myself there how otherwise perfectly competent teachers go to pieces in their attempts to replicate what they feel might be expected of them rather than simply doing the many excellent things they otherwise do daily. And I think you’re spot on with the comment about low-risk approaches being adopted to jump what’s perceived as a hoop.

      The gap and the time-lag between input and intake and then output is enormous and varies wildly for different people, and anyone who expects to see a class that results in full take-up and reproduction of items presented in anything other than an utterly trite incredibly short-term way is delusional.

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