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You’re not from round here, are you?

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I was out with friends having a perfectly fine Sunday somewhere down near the Thames in Berkshire. We were joined by a couple and the first thing that was said to me was, “You’re from South Africa.” Now ordinarily, I’d have said, “Yes. Gosh is my accent still so obvious?” But suddenly and without warning, I was deeply offended. “No,” I said, “I’m not,” and left it there, hanging in the air not knowing where to land.

Because I’m not from South Africa – not really. I was born there, but I am very obviously not an African. Feelings of guilt and shame and not being welcome any more – if my kind ever were – sent me scuttling out of Africa in the late ‘nineties and I came ‘home’ to Blighty. I had never lived here and most of the family had done what mine did and found pastures new, so in a very real way, I was alone and a stranger.

But I was ‘home’ – or so I thought. I speak English  – with an accent, but it’s my mother tongue. I have a degree in English Literature, the Beatles are the soundtrack to my youth, I understand cricket, I love Marmite and I can pronounce Featherstone-Haugh. But as the years have gone by, I have felt less and less at home. Too many people point out that I am ‘not from round here’, my accent singles me out as ‘other’ and as the ‘immigrant’ issue hots up, I am often asked why I don’t go home.

But where is that? I am clearly not from Africa where I was born and because I wasn’t born in the UK, I’m not from here either. I think needing to feel like one belongs, like one is ‘home’ is a deep-down, visceral need. Not sure where it is on Maslow, but way down the bottom somewhere. And I have this ghastly feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.

Or maybe I belong everywhere? But that isn’t really the same thing at all, is it?

Innovation and Crap Detection

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I was talking to a student of mine and could hear myself sounding more and more South African as I was waxing all passionate about how marvellous language is, especially English, because once you have control of it – mostly – you can do such a lot with it and make it do stuff for you and like that.

I stopped to draw breath and saw on his face a look of almost nervous startlement. (Is that a word? Too bad – it is now.) He put his hand up, like you do in primary school.
“What?” I asked.

Now I could take this anywhere. You aren’t going to know what he said and I could use this as a lovely frame for some treatise on what I believe about language and English in particular – yadda yadda. But, what he actually said was, “I just don’t want to sound ridiculous. Can you help me not to sound ridiculous when I speak English.”

Boom – there it is. Now, you can take that anywhere you like. Today, I’m going to try and stop my German client from saying, “agenda” with a hard ‘g’: it irritates people and makes him sound ridiculous.

Into the Void.

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I’ve done a number of MOOCs – one on the English country house which was grand, one on Shakespeare which was equally grand and one on Writing Fiction. (I have always wanted to be a writer.) I didn’t finish the writing fiction course and started questioning my motivation to be a writer. “Can’t be that keen if you can’t even finish an 8-week course doing what you supposedly love,” I heard my mother saying in my head as I admonished myself severely for ‘not finishing what I had started.’ But, in my kinder moments, I asked myself why my enthusiasm had fizzled out so thoroughly halfway through the course and the very clear and unequivocal reason was lack of feedback. I never once got any kind of feedback from anyone on any of the pieces I wrote and posted duly and diligently. The paragraphs and sketches, descriptions and characterisations wrung painfully from wherever it is writing comes from, fell into a void – a dark, limitless void – never to be heard from or of again. It made me think…….

There is probably nothing in the learning arena that is more soul-destroying and disheartening than not being given some sort of feedback on your efforts: What went right? What went wrong? What should I do next time? What should I stop doing? Did you like it? Why? How do I now move forward?

I failed my DELTA assessed lesson first time round. Why? I don’t know. This made preparing and delivering the lesson for the second attempt doubly stressful. Was I doing it all wrong? Was I going to go through the humiliation and tears yet again because I had no idea how to avoid them? I passed the next time. Why? I don’t know. What did I learn? Nothing. Was it a useful exercise for my ongoing development as a teacher? No. 

I lie. I learnt one thing: without feedback, everything we attempt remains a profound and sometimes frightening mystery. Therefore, as a teacher, the most valuable thing I can give my students is honest, clear, timely feedback. It is the reward every student deserves for making the effort to produce anything – be it a simple exercise, a detailed piece of writing, a formal presentation or the writing of an exam. Most things a student produces are at our behest and as teachers and educators we are beholden to provide feedback on how well – or not – they have fulfilled the brief. Not to do so is not only rude and dismissive, it makes our role as educators extremely dubious, to say the least.

Working For Myself

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I was always told that working for myself was a far better option than working to make money for someone else. And I am now working for myself. It is tough – much tougher than working for someone else because nothing happens unless I make it. 

And, although I am not working to fuel the greed of ‘big business’ or fund someone’s personal delusions of grandeur, I do still work for someone else – my students. And most of them still work to feed the insatiable demands of ‘big business’ or someone’s personal delusions of grandeur. This makes my working day most varied and passing strange.

I go from university canteens or cavernous common rooms to the hallowed offices of the managing director; from cold meeting rooms in glass-fronted subsidiaries on soulless industrial estates to the lounge in a shared flat – “just until I find a house.” I teach people at 6am and at 8pm; I battle traffic on the M6 at rush hour, or I drift down country lanes, burgeoning magically in the spring. I’m paid hourly in screwed up grubby notes hauled out of back pockets, weekly IOUs and monthly electronic transfers. I teach from dog-eared manuals and crisp new exam guides; I teach and coach, mentor and listen. I sit with lonely people needing to talk, people desperate for help to pass exams, people frightened of being in an unfamiliar country and people using their hour as a refuge, ‘me’ time. I am become ‘many things’ to a lot of people.

Practically, I won’t be able to retire early; I may eat beans on toast, drink cheap wine on special at Lidl and have deferred my many dreams, but as far as life experiences go, I have found ‘Eldorado.”

Two Hundred and Fifty Two

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I am working with a researcher at Coventry University at the moment. 

His work concerns the legacy of the London Olympics and Paralympics.

In the five London boroughs that played host to the Olympic Park, there are no fewer that 252 languages or dialects.

I though that was something we should all know.

Why I loathe testing.

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For a while, I was never really involved in testing and assessing students’ language use. I taught Business English at a centre where the students’ performance was more important than an IELTS score. They were engaged in real life – taking their place as a part of building real solutions to real issues, part of the ongoing questioning and very necessary collaboration with fellow citizens, contributing in and to an increasingly demanding and complicated global enterprise, not pratting about trying to achieve 6.5 on their IELTS Writing Test.

But the wheel turns inexorably and I now find myself face to face with this anathema. I liken it to trying to decide whether to walk barefoot over a path of broken glass, or brave the quicksands next to the path. Fear? FEAR? Are you kidding me? I have PhD students who have done years of research, left home and hearth and suffered significant emotional and financial depletion to get their place at some British University. And now it’s all been for naught because they didn’t score that magical 7 or 7.5 on some deeply arbitrary and arcane scale. And I don’t know how to help them…..Both they and I are terrified they won’t make it next time.

Here’s the first puzzlement: Oxford wants 8, Coventry University wants 7, University of Northumbria wants 6.5 on the aforementioned arcane scale. (8 what? 7.5 what? Points, I know, but points of what? According to whom?) Now seriously, what MEANS this teacher? Northumbria is more accommodating as far as language ability goes? Oxford only wants near-native speakers? Is it more sinister? Northumbria needs the money… Oxford can be pickier?… It’s a puzzle, isn’t it?

Second puzzlement. The most useful way to help someone improve is to GIVE THEM FEEDBACK. IELTS doesn’t provide ANY feedback AT ALL. At IATEFL, I asked a testing guru why this was so. Stupid question really – I knew the answer. Too expensive and a logistical nightmare. I note it’s not too expensive to employ the researchers, test setters, materials writers, examiners and markers and neither is it a logistical nightmare to run the tests. I wonder why?

Like an IELTS essay, here comes the other argument. I totally understand that if someone is going to come to an English speaking country and do potentially very useful, meaningful research, they need to be able to manage a lot of stuff in the language. Besides the actual research and writing up academic papers while working in University departments, they also need to learn to live in the country – deal with landlords, open bank accounts, get broadband sorted, find their way about, make friends and have some sort of life. And although I do understand the need in this situation to have fairly solid control over the language and maybe even to a specified degree, why is that degree different at different universities and surely in the vast – and dare I say it – MASSIVELY WEALTHY behemoth that is IELTS, they can provide some sort of useful, meaningful feedback to these people who are funding them so generously?

That brings me neatly to the dosh. Students also need to spend a goodly sum – I think it’s £120 or something – to sit the IELTS and many of them do this until they get the elusive whatever it is. They are now also paying me to ‘help’ them. In order to ‘help’, I have had to buy – at some cost – a few books showing me how to ‘teach to the test’ (oh woe, oh woe, oh woe) as I had not a clue what IELTS even was. I thought I might look for the latest guide when at IATEFL last week, but when I approached the bookstands, my mind slammed shut so fast I could hardly read the titles. I bought nothing. Firstly because I couldn’t choose which one would be most useful to my particular students and secondly, there’s that little Che Guevara spark in me still that said, “NO! Do NOT feed this monster.”

We’ll see what happens next Saturday when my student takes himself off gamely to write his IELTS again. Well, I won’t see will I, because I’m not there and I won’t have a clue what he says or writes, so I won’t be able to guide him when the inevitable result comes in.

Testing? Nuts to it.

Don’t do it.

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This was going to be another fulminating rant about the status quo in EFL, but honestly, I’m too damn tired to summon up the energy. That’s not to say I won’t have wound myself up to a fine pitch by the end, but here at the beginning, the tone is one of profound weariness. I have worked for some 14 years in EFL and it has to be the most soul-destroying, thankless task ever. The actual teaching and the students are not what I’m on about here – although they too can be a royal pain in the nethers. It’s the whole sorry industry – and for all my 14 years in the business, it has taken just 6 months for me to come to that depressing conclusion. Because you see, during the first 13 years, I worked on a full-time permanent contract with all the things that comes with – all the things that normal everyday working people are entitled to like holidays, and sick leave and access to resources and a decent space to work in and a regular salary commensurate with my contributions. Oh my, how very fortunate I was back then, and how I loved what I did. Suddenly, I was catapulted on to the sharp end of this so-called business by that by now tired old excuse: “We don’t think you fit the profile of this company. (What? It’s a language school company. I have all the qualifications required, I have all the experience and a superbly nurtured and loyal team of teachers staunchly willing to teach whoever comes their way with skill and expertise- what do you mean “I don’t fit the profile”? What are you TALKING about?) Oh, I get it, I’m too expensive. And thus was I thrust into the cold hard world that many many people like me battle with every single day. Since pounding the streets and flogging my wares for 6 months, the most I have been offered for my services is £25 a hour and the least? Wait for it – €10 an hour. I kid you not. I have taught students in my home; I have taught in libraries and other people’s lounges; back rooms in pubs and community centres, outside in public gardens – thank God for the good weather – and all for not enough money to make the mortgage every month. Why on earth do we do this? It is a ridiculous profession to be in if you work for yourself and working for others is equally soul-destroying. Unless you have a permanent contract with a company that actually values you as a professional and an asset (chance would be a fine thing!) DO NOT DO THIS. Please, find yourself another job, do something that is recognised as worthy and stop thinking it will ever get better – it won’t. You have been warned.


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