Being a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Britain has been both alarming and humbling
I’ll begin with a disclaimer – I’m not a political expert, this is not a political article per se, it’s more a personal observation. There are many people of all shades on the political spectrum who can offer a better analysis of the political landscape facing us for the next five years of government than I can. However, I do feel that the keyword here is ‘personal’, as it’s that lack of understanding of the individual – their rights, freedoms, and uniqueness – that this piece is actually about. It’s actually a simple story, with a simple message. It’s conceivable that some would say it’s overly simplified, but that’s a risk I’ll have to take.
I’m actually a teacher. An EFL teacher to be precise – I teach English as a foreign language to adults at a large language school in Canterbury. I qualified as such in 2011, when after many years living and working in London in a variety of soulless sales and marketing jobs, I decided through a combination of personal issues and a general malaise, to retrain. To this end I took the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Training to Adults). I’d like to say I did so with idealistic motives, or to better myself in some way, but I didn’t, really. While I’d say that I’ve always had an interest in history, travel, and the way people and cultures interact, and I can’t ascribe any particularly altruistic motive to my change of career – I pursued teaching out of boredom more than anything else.
But during my training, and subsequently after taking up my current position (teaching at the school where I initially qualified), I discovered two wonderful things that had seemingly eluded me. Firstly, I was good at my job. I could communicate the nuance of English language in a way that was interesting and exciting to students. I could establish rapport with people. I gained and still gain a huge amount of personal satisfaction from seeing the light of understanding dawn in someone’s eyes. I make no apologies for the sentimental language I may be using here – it was truly a revelation, and did a great deal for my own self-worth and personal development.
The second, and I feel most vital thing I learned was something bittersweet, in the sense that its discovery forced me to face some serious questions with regard to the way both I, and the burgeoning socio–political climate of the UK as a whole, approach the concepts of integration, discrimination, and indeed the ‘hot topic’ buzzword that we’ve heard so much of late – immigration. That second thing was empathy, pure and simple.
Those readers of a certain age may recall a television programme called Mind Your Language – I mention it only in passing as a relic from the politically incorrect years of the 1970s. It was your typical tiresome, cliché-ridden fare, evidently crafted by bored ITV hacks to tick all the ‘comedic’ boxes. The principal character was an English Language teacher; therefore every foreign stereotype was fair game. You had the excessively loud and grandiose Italian, the dour and humourless German, the Japanese student who ended every sentence with “O”, the promiscuous French student, and the staple Indian housewife. All odious stuff, now rightly consigned to the depths of the media ocean.
Or so I thought. Because over the last five years, as I’ve developed my teaching techniques and my understanding of the differing requirements of students from very different cultures, I’ve witnessed a kind of paradigm shift in the political and public consciousness of the UK, thrown into even sharper relief by what I do for a living every day. From a personal standpoint, from being assailed by the constant hot air spewed by the likes of Nigel Farage and his UKIP cronies, or the more insidious dire warnings of terrorism and jihadists in our midst from the Conservative government, to then go into a classroom and teach lively, interested and open-minded students from such disparate places as Saudi Arabia, China, Korea, Libya, the Ukraine and all of the EU nations (as well as numerous other nationalities) presents a juxtaposition between the attitude of the UK and what I actually see on an individual basis in these post-9/11, post-Charlie-Hebdo times. Indeed it would be ironic if it wasn’t so oddly unsettling. It’s very difficult to lump every nation into one homogenised mass of stereotypes and generalisations (à la Mind Your Language) when you deal with their individual needs, aspirations, hopes and dreams every day. When you hear about their families, their children, their heartbreak at the issues within their own countries and their fears for the future.
I despair as I watch the inexorable rise of jingoistic sabre-rattling in the media, (the Daily Mail and its poster girl, Katie Hopkins spring immediately to mind), coupled with the plans afoot to increase powers of surveillance and draft a British Bill of Rights to replace the ECHR. Likewise, the continued existence of, and promotion on social media of, far-right hate groups such as Britain First and their ilk. The prospect of another five years of creeping paranoia and scatter-gun analyses of entire cultures and religions leaves me concerned and unnerved.
But all this is counterbalanced by the feelings I get within my classroom. When you see a room full of people working and interacting together, crossing the bounds of race, religion, and the crushing millstone of history in such a dynamic way, it’s hard not to be moved. If you’ve read this far, let me give you a few examples of what I have experienced – some positive, some negative.
When a Chinese student in his late teens effusively thanks you, and tells you that his future aspiration is to use his new-found skill in English, in time, to enter the Chinese diplomatic corps and attempt in some small way to foster better understanding between our two cultures, one can’t help but feel moved. When a Saudi Arabian woman whose language skills you have nurtured from Elementary to Advanced level over a period of two years brings her children to the school to meet you, who then smilingly introduce themselves first in Arabic and then in perfect English as a result of their mother passing on the language skills you have imparted to her, one cannot help but feel humbled.
Lastly, let me tell you about a quiet, studious Yemeni man. He is an official in the government of a country racked with internecine conflict and wholesale slaughter the like of which we in the UK could never, ever, begin to understand. An intelligent and thoughtful man, his primary concern is the future of his family. Equally however, he fears that the religion to which he is so devoutly committed, together with the precepts of peace and understanding within it, are being twisted and bastardised by the rising tide of Islamophobia in the west and the fanatics who have bloodied and blackened its name. When he tells you that he is harangued publicly in the street on a daily basis by British ‘patriots’ calling him a member of ISIS, one cannot help but feel ashamed.
Well I don’t want to feel ashamed. I want to feel positive about the future. Maybe my classroom is a microcosm, and maybe microcosms don’t translate into the ‘bigger picture’ and I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do know that each and every one of the good people in my classroom are ‘the bigger picture’.
Thank you for listening.
Image from: http://pages.skytv.co.nz/programmes/mind-your-language
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