Don’t get lost in translation

EFL teachers are often undervalued, but they can play a vital role in the life of any independent school. Ted Underwood explains why

I will be upfront with everyone, this one is personal. As someone who taught the English language in many different guises for over 10 years, to deny that this article doesn’t have a note of autobiography to it would be to deceive you. So let me start at the beginning.

In my early twenties, I found myself back in the UK after teaching in Italy and took a post as an EFL teacher in a rather well-known boarding school for a year. The salary wasn’t brilliant, but accommodation was thrown in so it didn’t seem like such a bad deal.

The experience was, to say the least, bizarre. I had been accustomed to being addressed as Signor Underwood whilst teaching in a dirty basement somewhere south of Naples and exchanging polite nods of the head and handshakes with my students when we met in the street. Here, I was thrust into an environment where, on my first day, I was introduced as “Mr Ed” to my students. When I asked my head of department why I couldn’t be Mr Underwood I was firmly told that surnames were reserved for the “The academics”. “The academics”, I soon learned was the collective noun for any member of staff who did not teach EFL and, to a man and woman, considered themselves quite a cut above our humble department. I have never discovered a swifter way to create a two-tier system in a staff room than this and I hope I never will.

When I left at the end of the year to take up a place on a PGCE, I was still unable to fathom why more respect had been awarded to me when I was a jobbing business English teacher than when I was at an independent boarding school. Tales swapped over dinner parties and pub tables with other TEFLers who have made it back to Blighty have taught me that I was certainly not alone in my experience. Mercifully, from what I hear, things have moved on since then.

Of course the counter argument is that EFL teaching is often the chosen profession of rag tag, nomadic rogues with little in the way of qualifications or character to recommend them. Since many of them are young, somewhat casual in their appearance and rarely stay anywhere more than a couple of years, it is hard to give them the same kudos as we would the maths teacher whose coffee mug has hung over the staff room sink for twenty years. The senior manager in me still winces with recollections of trying to explain to whole EFL departments why dark-coloured jeans were still, in fact, jeans and, furthermore, why jeans with a shirt and tie just makes you look like a used van salesman (I’ve been one of those too).

Now, in my current line of work, I go round a lot of schools and, obviously with my students’ interests at heart, I always ask a few probing questions regarding English language support for non-native speakers. I have never encountered a school which doesn’t announce that they have excellent EFL teachers and resources, but I see only a few examples where an EFL centre is anything more than a solitary room with a few faded posters and some dusty books on a shelf. Most registrars like to rush me along at this point.

George, that’s not his real name just so you know, works at a leading independent school in Somerset and loves it. He loves working with bright, eager students, the facilities the school affords and the lovely long holidays, but most of all George loves how he is left alone. In his two years teaching there, he has never been observed nor is ever missed from the weekly staff briefings which he chooses not to attend. This is because, George tells me, he is an EFL teacher. In fact, he is the EFL department, based in a pre-fab at the far end of the grounds.

As I said, George likes it there. It’s a pleasant change from the harum scarum of working in a busy international school or FE colleges like he has done previously. That particular school also happens to be lucky that George is an excellent teacher who can actually be left alone to get on with the job, but I cannot, in all good faith, send a student to that school knowing that is the way they meet the needs of their international student cohort. Shame, it’s a good school too.

Put this in contrast with my friend James, and that’s his real name, who works at a thriving international boarding school. In his school, every student has contact, to a greater or lesser degree, with the EFL department. It is quite literally the heart of the school. More than that, James tells me, it acts as a frontline outpost of the welfare department. Indeed, from my experience, those students who often struggle to communicate are often the most vulnerable members of the school community; whilst these individuals might sometimes be wary of raising an issue with a member of their boarding team or their tutor, an EFL teacher who is used to filling in the gaps between silences and translating simple words into complex meanings can often coax and encourage students to talk when they might otherwise be unwilling to do so.

If independent boarding schools are happy to accept international students then surely the next step must logically be to value the staff who are most engaged with this group? In my years as a teacher in an international boarding school, I was fortunate enough to be linked to a very active EFL department who provided regular, high-quality CPD for the whole school, observed colleagues in other departments in order to develop their teaching practice and worked alongside department heads to develop international student-friendly resources.

Whilst this model is, of course, for anywhere other than an international school, a distorted example it does stand to prove a point. EFL teachers have a great deal to contribute to independent schools in terms of staff development and helping international students integrate fully. They are often quite a good-natured bunch too, as it happens, and game for most things. It may be worth your while taking a second look at your “English support” team, they might even stick around!

Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: www.oaktree-international.com/ E: underwood@oaktree-international.com T: @TSUnderwood

 

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