I work as an ESOL tutor. I teach English to students of other languages. I have had the joy of teaching all over the world. I returned to the U.K after many years ,as a temporary stopgap. I was waiting until we comprehended the impact of BREXIT before deciding where to go to next. I could no longer transfer, educate and prepare student nurses for the N.H.S with a clear conscience from Sardinia. I couldn’t give them answers as to whether they might be deported if they earned under £30,000 a year. I stumbled back to the U.K an island of immigrants and emigrants. I can always find work in Britain. I arrived under the grey skies of Winter, unsure if I should pack up my beloved euro- cat and head out to another country. ( My cat is happy as long as he has outdoor hunting space, he speaks fluent mouse in at least three languages.)
ESOL teachers are an odd breed of people. We have often traded possessions for backpacks and have empty pockets and full passports. It appeals to younger people for that very reason, however it is badly paid and the hours are very long and often your wages are performance related. ( Fantastic if you are in a well- funded school of motivated super- geeks, not so much if you have a struggling school crammed with children for whom school -life is a break from the hardship of poverty and the walls are so broken-that stray cats saunter into the lessons, only to be chased out again.) I worked in a school in South Africa that had permanent security guards. I was advised to get a taxi door to door from work. Nobody does it for the money. Lots of people do it for the travel and then there are the older teachers, like me, who have earned our stripes, herding children and adults through dull syllabae and have reached the school’s targets, with a sufficient number of students passing their exams. We are tuned into the ridiculous, hard-wired for hilarity and masters of mime. We can convincingly pretend to be a circus seal with a ball on it’s nose with no props, should the occasion arise. We are hammy actors who over- emphasise everything, there is no room for subtlety in the beginner’s lesson. We talk uncharacteristically with our hands and we normally win at any Christmas game of charades. We can usually do convincing animal sounds ( animal sounds are different in every country, incidentally.) We can make a joke without speaking, laughter is a huge ice breaker and is never at anyone’s expense. We know the nuts and bolts of grammar, we have re-learned the English language to be able to teach people who do not speak English as their first language. We know the science of syntax and are mildly obsessed with phrasal verbs and sub-ordinate clauses. Unless we strike it rich and write a textbook, or run a Business English School, we are unequivocally poor. We don’t do it for the money. We do it for a chain of tiny break- throughs, like the first time a child or adult strings a word together with phonics and has rolled the sounds in their mouth to make a proper word, by themselves. Sometimes, it is as small as someone knowing they have not pronounced a silent letter like in “gnaw” or “knight” of “knife.” Other times, it is when a group of multi- national students battle out a topic in current affairs, explaining their point with all the conviction of youth, using the right register. Everyday we ESOL teachers celebrate small but certain victories.
I have combined paid teaching with voluntary teaching for a long time. It has been a huge lesson and gift to work with refugees and asylum seekers. “A refugee is only a refugee until they have a job,” is a phrase I often turn over in my mind. It is my goal to try and help realise people’s goals. I teach people who are full of undated courage and determination. I am yet to meet a student who wanted to come here. I have travelled the world and for that I am grateful. I have been a student in a seat learning a new language more than once ,in more than one country. I have fought through the registration processes and bureaucracy to be a citizen elsewhere. I have longed for home cooking, the familiar songs and jokes from home; whilst living in countries where I had not yet assimilated. The difference between the refugees and I, is that I could always return home, IF I had enough money.
I have worked with psychologists and written programmes for refugees. We cannot teach English the way we would to any other foreign student who arrives to study English. Many suffer with P.T.S.D, children have separation anxiety and social anxiety. We cannot teach the lesson about the family tree at the beginning, as there are so many crosses over the spaces of relatives who were killed in, or during conflict. Some children arrive unable to speak in their own language, it is not uncommon to meet children who one day stopped speaking, altogether- overwhelmed by trauma. Parents who have battled on, having lost a child and who must still care for their other children, moving from camps to a different country, trying to be resilient. Being aware of cultural difference, sometimes they break down and I cannot touch them to let them know I feel their pain and sometimes they lack the words to articulate their grief. In those moments, there is little that can be done. I am powerless to change their pasts, I have not known the anxiety of night-shelling or the terror of being hidden from soldiers. Many times I have felt the angry mist in the back of my eyes and a knot in my stomach, there is no trite English idiom to heal the pain within.
There are days when I see people overwhelmed, the terror of entering the wrong PIN and having a card swallwoed at the ATM. So much of life is farmed out to call centres, without a good grasp of English, it is difficult to function in a world that presents you with 8 phone options at a time. The people I work with are hit hard by the uncertainty of zero hours contracts and struggle in a sea of people at parent’s evenings, to make sense of what is happening. Asking for directions and getting the all- important internet set up is no cake walk when you don’t speak English. Students for the first time meet people from different countries, with different accents and different belief systems. Yet, in everyone who battles the language, I see a hero, a person undefeated, unbowed and and someone who is trying hard to be unfettered by self – doubt. There is huge acceptance, as they square up to the future, wanting something better. Some of my adult students come in between shifts, others can’t write a C.V, some have dreams of University and others are learning a totally new alphabet.
Working with refugees is a great privilege and has to some extent restored my faith in humanity. Some have been terribly exploited on their journey. It is not just the refugees whose determination and smiles that keep me going. It is the reaction of other people. When I have asked friends or the public for a second- hand bike, an old computer, a bundle of baby clothes I have never been let down. It snowballs, people clear out their cupboards, or recycle old Christmas presents or give a man back his dignity by giving up some nice work shirts.People have donated food processors, or have offered their time. Book shops like Red Lion Books in Colchester, Essex have donated bags of children’s book as prizes. Everyday I am heartened to see people give what little they have to help others. I read most days of borders closing and yet all around me, people’s hearts are open. Thank you to anyone who has been part of the journey that has re- affirmed faith in humanity for me.