Before starting our ESOL classes for Babel’s Blessing, my co-teacher and I were both terrified. I had only had one previous English teaching job (under very different circumstances) and my co-teacher came from a youth work background, so our interest and experience were very much theoretical and tangential. Training delivered by English For Action went a long way towards allaying my doubts, but in turn brought up new concerns: what to do with a mixed-level group; how to balance planning and critical pedagogy; how on earth would we assess students in the first place, and what would happen if we couldn’t understand each other at all?
The classes are held at Praxis, a community organisation based in Bethnal Green which offers advice and supports to migrants in London. Their staff do their best to make us and our students feel at home, including providing us all with tea and biscuits during our break and reimbursing students’ travel costs. The initial assessment and first class were nonetheless daunting: it is obviously extremely difficult to plan for the unknown. We needn’t have worried too much once we got to know our students.
Our students have come from across the world into London, are of differing ages (including one honorary toddler!) and different walks of life. We are admittedly a rather gender-imbalanced group, with a single male student who somehow manages to hold his own in a class of increasingly strong female voices. They are an extremely friendly and mutually supportive group, which has done wonders to reassure our confidence as teachers. At the beginning of each class we start with a check-in: the most commonly spoken word is ‘happy’, by some distance.
We try and provide an encouraging environment, focusing on functional communication and practical skills. The most important focus is making our lessons genuinely student-centred: they have chosen the topic of each class and we try to let them drive discussion as much as possible. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile a radical approach with their learning goals, but we have come to learn that for them our classes represent somewhat of an escape from often very tough lives, and perhaps that sensitivity is the most important learning curve.
I don’t want to put too much of a gloss on what is still a demanding and difficult job. Lessons almost never go to plan, we still wonder if anyone is actually learning anything, and the night before classes is often filled with anxiety and stress. Not to mention, this week’s class saw the addition of eight new students, which will undoubtedly stretch us to our limit. There are, nevertheless, occasional moments of clarity that can be reassuring to behold: when a shy student sustains a ten-minute conversation, the flash of intercultural understanding two weeks ago when discussing a gay Jewish wedding, the spontaneous laughter during today’s brainstorm about jobs when our toddler piped up with “mum!” while we were listing professions. Seems like I’m learning a lot too.
Maheema, ESOL teacher