TeachInFE’s Talking to Teachers: Mark, ESOL Teacher


Have you ever wondered what ESOL is and what it is like to teach it? TeachInFE spoke to Mark, an ESOL teacher at Salford City College, about what teaching ESOL involves, how he started teaching in Further Education and shares his advice for teachers thinking of joining the sector.

Recently, TeachInFE has been talking to teachers from across the Further Education sector to learn what teaching their subject involves, why they started teaching in Further Education, what their favourite aspects are and how they overcome any challenges when teaching. This week, we spoke to Mark, an ESOL teacher at Salford and City College. He kindly explains what ESOL is, why he chose to teach it and what his top tips are for other ESOL teachers.

Could you explain what ESOL means and involves for people who may be unaware?
My standard reply to this question is usually: what do YOU think it means? Which is a very teacherly way of replying to a question and works fine with students, but is probably quite annoying when someone at a party has just asked me what I do for a living. Most people can usually work out that the E is for English and that the L is for Language, then it's just a case of guessing at the S and the O. Basically it's English for Speakers of Other Languages – so the correct acronym should probably be EFSOOL, but I guess that doesn't scan quite so well.

The next question I'll be asked is: "So, it's a bit like ESL is it? Or EFL? What's the difference?" Again, I'll probably ask the increasingly annoyed partygoer what they think the letters stand for.

As a teacher, I try to minimize 'chalk & talk' (lecturing at the students) and maximise students' active and discovery learning - where the students do the work and I facilitate and guide their learning. If they can't work out the answers between them I can always turn it into a competitive web quest and get them to look it up on their phones. In 2017 students are always very happy to have an excuse to get their phones out!

EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language; and ESL is English as a Second Language. EFL is what they call it when you're teaching English in somewhere like Japan (where English is a foreign language). The difference there is that students are using English in their everyday lives. ESOL, as we teach it at Salford City College, is very embedded in the experience of living and working in Britain. If we're teaching family words, we'll probably be using the Royal Family as the example (or perhaps Katie Price's family if you want to get into some more interesting and confusing vocabulary).

What made you choose to teach ESOL?
A lot of the ESOL teachers in my department started out teaching English somewhere enviably exotic: China, Colombia, the Central African Republic – I started off in Rochdale. It was never my goal or intention to be an ESOL teacher. I have had a lot of different jobs: washer-upper, pizza chef, project manager, writer and IT trainer. It was the last job that made me think that maybe I could be a teacher. Originally my plan was to teach A Level English, and I did for my first year of teacher training, but It was when I didn't have a college placement for the second year of my course that my uni lecturer asked me if I'd be willing to give ESOL a try. To which I replied: what's ESOL?

How did you start teaching ESOL to Further Education students?
I did a two-year part-time Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at Edge Hill University and started getting work as an hourly paid agency teacher in FE in the September after I qualified. My key aim then was to get as much experience – and money - as I could so I ended up teaching odd hours here and there at about 10 different colleges in and around Manchester. In addition to ESOL I taught Functional English to Teaching Assistants; Study Skills to Health & Social Care students and I even filled in as a History teacher in an academy school. At the same time, I was going to evening classes to get my additional Level 5 subject specialist qualification in English and ESOL. Eventually, as a result of saying yes to every temp teaching post I was offered, I managed to get myself a part-time fixed-term post teaching ESOL in Rochdale. In my experience that seems to be the way things work: start off as an agency teacher, get a fixed-term post, then impress enough somewhere that they'll take you on as a permanent member of staff.    

What does a typical ESOL lesson involve?
We have pretty detailed Schemes of Work and all our classes are ultimately exam-based so we know where we're going and where we're supposed to be going on our 'learning journey', but at the same time there's lots of leeway to take the scenic route provided you get as many students as possible ready to pass their exams and progress to the next level. The most important thing for me is to get the students into the room. If they're happy in class and get on well with everyone, they're probably more likely to be on time and be keen to work.  If they're bored and don't have any friends, they're much more likely to call in sick or be sitting at the back yawning and checking their WhatsApp messages. So that's my first objective: get the students in the class and keep them awake. Everything after that is a bonus!

Generally, I'll start off with a 'Snappy Warmer' which can be anything fun or engaging that is easy to understand and doesn't take much explaining. That way if anyone arrives late it's easy for them to join in – and if they're really late – they miss out on some fun – so hopefully they'll try and be on time next time. The warmer might be a quiz about something we were doing in the previous lesson or something that starts to introduce the topic of today's lesson. Alternatively, it could be something completely different that introduces something relevant to what's happening in the world: so, anything from 'What is a Hung Parliament?'; to something about Black History Month or St. Georges' Day depending on the time of year. After that we get into the meat of the lesson usually with some topic vocabulary and grammar objectives, concentrating on listening, speaking, reading or writing depending on what the students need to work on at the time. Ideally, for variety, we'll do lots of different activities to make the time fly by and keep everyone engaged and learning until the end of the session where we'll have a plenary and check that learning has taken place.

Are there any challenges to teaching ESOL and how do you overcome them?
There are challenges for every class and you never know quite how things are going to turn out. The best laid plans etc. Hopefully, the more experienced you get as a teacher, the more adept you are at coming up with a Plan B. The fun part is that you never know exactly how things are going to go. You design a lesson that goes fantastically well with one class one day, but needs a lot more explaining or adapting to work well with another group.

Have you got any tips that you could share with other ESOL teachers?
I think if you work as part of a good team you're basically sharing good practice all the time. If you're having difficulty with something or need some inspiration there's always someone in our ESOL team at Salford City College who's happy to give you some ideas. Otherwise there are professional organisations like NATECLA and plenty of dedicated ESOL websites like ESOLNexus which are full of excellent ideas and advice.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of teaching Further Education?
I mentor FE teaching trainees, and it's definitely true that the challenges of teaching adults and 16-18 year olds can be difficult for some people at first, but there are great rewards and exciting challenges. At Salford City College, we are increasingly working with new technology like our virtual learning environment, Canvas, as well as scores of different online learning websites and apps, but ultimately teaching is about developing relationships with students and helping them to learn and improve their lives. There's something very inspiring about that. I used to work on a faults helpdesk at a telecom with people telling about their faulty broadband all day long. Hour after hour of managing unhappy people. It did wear you out, and it did wear you down. In FE, we're teaching people new things, trying out new ideas, and meeting new students every term. I'm happy to say that this is the best job I've ever had.

If you have enjoyed reading Mark’s interview and want to explore the latest ESOL teaching jobs in Further Education, then please explore the latest jobs here

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