Teaching English


This essay was written while I was teaching Workplace English in Lower Hutt three or four years ago. I thought it suited a post Easter blog. I’m including photos of food I made over Easter.

I trained to be an ESOL teacher. It wasn’t even a firm commitment. It was an action taken to avoid having to seriously consider working again. I did a course that is very expensive, very pressured if you’ve never taught before, and I almost abandoned it mid-way through. Thankfully, with the support of my classmates, I hung in there. With my CELTA qualification, I have entered another world of words. The translation of one set of words from one language to another – not that I’m translating, but I’m working with adult students who are managing to bridge their thoughts from the language of their hearts and home, to a new language which will help them settle in a new home. Here is a way to be cloaked in a new golden coat. It is unwarranted, and unexpected. Simply because I can speak English, I can influence, impact and touch on other lives with words, in ways that a novel never could. This experience is entirely two-way. Each day I learn something new from my students as they do from me. We’re not on social media or tweeting, we are in the classroom, sharing words, precious, interesting, mercurial, evasive, inclusive, endangered, evocative, difficult… words, from one language to another. In both the classes I teach, there can be up to 15 different languages we straddle in a day, pulling all these threads together, weaving words and meaning. I teach, therefore I am.

On Mondays, after a long weekend, we have the two-minute circle.  I am by nature a gregarious person. I knew as a teacher, this would be my weak point. Especially, if I am trying to elicit language from others. I heard about the silent teacher at a professional development course one mid term break. I loved the idea of each student being given two minutes to talk without interruption. Time to gather their thoughts from their own language and reframe them into their version (frequently limited version) of English. We sit in a friendly circle, so we are informal, relaxed and we listen, all of us intently to one person talking about their weekend. Some are natural born storytellers and regale us with long and interesting digressions – it’s amazing how long two minutes can be.  Others, struggle to find the words and long silences ensue, which I have learned not to fill. Too, some students repeat, with confidence, word for word, almost the same tale they told last Monday. But it will be, the first time, since Friday, they have spoken English. It’s an amazing achievement, and I marvel at it, as I am more, or less mono-lingual.  In a bar, with enough champagne, I can fake fluent Norwegian for at least a sentence or two. I lived in Norway in the seventies, three winters and one summer at a ski resort and sadly spoke far too much English with my Danish friends and work colleagues.  I regret, and indeed, I rue the fact that I wasn’t taught Te Reo at school in the 50’s. 

What I have learned as an ESOL teacher is that no matter race, religion, ethnicity or age, family is the essence of identity. Connection to or estrangement from family, is the impetus for our art, and shapes our identity.

Every two-minute circle I have borne witness to, is a story, retold of food, and family. The food is the window dressing to the tale of family. Over and over, I’ve heard of routines, of school drop offs and pickups, of visits to A and E, or grandmothers setting fire to backyards and front yards, of burnt pots and floods in housing New Zealand accommodation, of drunken neighbours, the police, bikes being stolen, school uniforms vanishing from clotheslines, driving lessons, driving without the right license, ending up on the road to the Wairarapa while trying to find Wellington, opening your small housing NZ flat to ten visitors from Auckland (and I no longer enquire where they sleep), fishing off the Petone wharf, buying Chinese cabbage front the Riverbank market. Food and Family and then God comes up a lot too. God in all his or her guises.  Recently, a student left class at 11.45, drove to Hamilton to pick up a Pastor from his church, returned to Lower Hutt at 3.00 am and arrived in class to help me set up the desks at 8.45. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in this devotion.

For a child of the 50’s raised Catholic and working as a shorthand typist for the post office, it is a strange and wondrous thing to find myself in my late 60’s in a classroom with up to 13 students at any one time, almost all from different countries, discussing for example Easter.  Standing trying to convey the resurrection (I try to reconcile the devout young girl I was who knelt for three hours or more on a Good Friday, enduring the pageantry of the Stations of the Cross)… and now if not flippantly, and trying not to be irreverent, explaining to people who have no idea, just what happened over Easter in the Christian story. When it comes to the resurrection, I struggle to find the words. Metaphors are tricky things to convey in simple English. Although conversely, many of my students convey meaning through beautiful metaphors. There are times when it is impossible to correct a piece of written work, and sometimes glaring grammatical errors, for to do so, would be to ruin a magical metaphor, the delight that comes when two languages intersect.

What I’ve learned listening to stilted, unformed, halting and careful English, is that stories are how we become who we are, and in the moment, when we tell our story, no matter how small, sad or funny, trivial or important, grave or wildly funny, it is the words that connect us.

Greek Walnut Cake