Why is the EAL profession deprofessionalised?

I have recently been making contact with quite a few schools in my area, asking about how they provide for their EAL learners in their schools. They were all secondary schools. Some didn’t even have an EAL member of staff working there, some did, but they were simply given this responsibility by their schools without ever having been trained in EAL, SLA (second language acquisition) or even EFL. One of the staff I’ve contacted was apparently told on the day of their return in September that this would be their newly added responsibility…

Anyone has a problem with this? Let’s draw a parallel here. Say this is not EAL, but Science. Or English. Or ICT. Or PE. Do you want your children to be taught by teachers who are not trained to actually meet their needs? What message do you think this would send to them? Do you think it would motivate them to work harder – in the knowledge that apparently it does not matter to their school that they deserve a good, well-informed (by research and initial teacher training) and structured education? You know, should they be getting an ad-hoc guesswork type of education? I think I know what most people would say to this. Given how much so many parents seem to care to get their children into better-performing schools by moving in as close as they can to the schools’ neighbourhood (those who can afford it, of course), I think we all do hope that our children will be taught by true professionals.

Do you?

But, hold on! EAL is not a subject in the curriculum, so seems easy to cop out of this, doesn’t it? Since it’s not a subject, surely the over 1 million EAL children are not going to care about that sort of thing, will they? I mean, it’s “just EAL” and “they’re all the same” (I’ve heard those two too many times myself in school in both Scotland and England.) The first represents, to me, the belief that languages are not important and the latter is colour blindness, political correctness going too far and denying any difference between pupils so that the status quo can be maintained the way it’s been maintained for many years. Makes me very uncomfortable for the pupils in question.

The EAL teaching force in the UK is deprofessionalised. That is, some schools appear to be under the impression that anyone can do the job. To me, suggesting that anyone can do something suggests a viewpoint that the whole area is unimportant – that language is not important and that you can dump the responsibility on members of staff who had been trained in something different. Now, I can assure you that training to be an effective and knowing-what-I-am-doing EAL teacher takes at the very least a good few years. Being a native speaker of English does not make you a good teacher of English. I am a native speaker of Polish, but I would never actually teach Polish – I am simply not qualified to do so! Norah McWilliam, in the introduction to her very insightful book “What’s in a word?” on vocabulary development in multilingual classrooms, writes (p.x), “It is a romantic and unprofessional notion to expect bilingual teachers, simply by being bilingual, to meet all the needs of pupils whose home language they may share.” We need to be trained to teach language (or anything else, for that matter).

Of course, people on the ground, such as SEN teachers in England or ASN teachers in Scotland, know very well that they don’t have the knowledge and training to do this properly. Not their fault at all – in Scotland, for instance, peripatetic EAL services can be spread thinly in some areas (I worked in Fife a few years back) to support schools on a regular basis, so it’s down to the ASN (which is an umbrella for SEN and EAL) to cater to those needs. Which (unless things have changed dramatically since I left) they can’t do. So why, I ask, why is that some schools believe such complex linguistic needs of their EAL students can be met by whoever teaches them?

Well, one reason is the money. As I have written before in this blog, 0.27% is given to schools in England for EAL. Whilst the schools, of course, can decide what to spend their larger sums of money on (aside from EAL funding), it’s rare that this would benefit EAL learners greatly. I still have to find a school where I would be getting more than £400 per year for EAL students. Of course, if schools hire an EAL teacher, this reflects better on them – clearly, they have to spend money on the EAL teacher, but usually there is very little left for any meaningful resources. However, saving money on hiring a teacher for EAL learners and dumping all of the responsibilities on an inexperienced teacher or TA/HLTA with specialism in something else is shortsighted and, quite frankly, a waste of time. It feels like “holding on to straws”, although, frankly, the phrase’s Polish equivalent “a drowning man holds on to a razor” is a better descriptor of the kind of practice I am describing here – you will get hurt and it doesn’t work.

Money aside, are there other reasons for this kind of treatment of the EAL profession? Well, yes! Leung (2005) says that EAL is considered to be a supra-subject, i.e. it is a general T&L issue, not a specific language learning issue. Have you ever heard or read the officially-stated claim that “all teachers are teachers of EAL”? This appears in advisory or school-policy documents – like on page 3 of this school’s document. Convenient, huh? Leung writes that this then means that the presence of EAL in the mainstream is more about their participation in the curriculum rather than actually integrating their linguistic concerns into the curriculum. Or, to put it extremely bluntly, put them in the mainstream to avoid the scandals of the Calderdale type and to be politically correct, but ignore their linguistic needs whilst within that curriculum.

Now, that does deprofessionalise teachers of EAL. Angela Creese’s (2005) research with some EAL children uncovers the perceptions that some EAL pupils hold of mainstream teachers and EAL teachers. In the introduction to her book “Teacher Collaboration and Talk in Multilingual Classrooms”, she cites a conversation between an EAL pupil and her Geography teacher about the child’s EAL teacher (page 1):

S1: But you’re the proper teacher aren’t you? [my note: this is said to the Geography teacher]

T: Well no. We’re both proper teachers.

S1: She’s like a help.

T: No, that’s not true.

 

The teacher here is perceived by the child as “help”. Now, isn’t another word for help “assistance”? The EAL teacher has just been equated here with a teaching assistant. Therefore, this just might suggest to a school leadership that, actually, what’s the point of spending money on them anyhow if they are just that – TA equivalents? Could this be a reason why some schools do not think it important enough to employ a trained, experienced EAL teacher? Luckily, the one where I teach – does consider my expertise to be important, but so many others do not. And pupils, functioning in such non-EAL-inclusive environments, will consider the situation to be perfectly acceptable and normal and consider EAL teachers to be “help” or “lower category of teachers”.

But we’re not children – we should know better. It is all very well to say that “all teachers are EAL teachers”, but, to be completely honest, it’s either utopian or extremely confrontational. To say that all teachers in this country can teach EAL – is utopian. It’s too happy – whoever writes such statements – have you done a reality check? EAL represents a massive amount of knowledge – into language learning, second language acquisition, bilingualism, all intersecting with race and diversity issues. It’s taken me seven years to get to the point where I am now – and I am only just starting. Please tell me when mainstream teachers, in between their teaching, writing reports, calling parents, going on their own specialised CPD and (oh yes!) having their own families, will actually have the time to even remotely learn all this. And, oh!, any proper initial teacher training into EAL doesn’t seem to be provided to them either.

Or it’s confrontational. There are days, when to people like me, who spent first 8 years teaching English language as a mainstream subject (Poland) and then 7 years teaching EAL here in the UK, it feels like being undermined. To suggest, that all teachers can do what I can after my 15 years of practice in the field – is insulting. Pure and simple. Shall I start suggesting to a teacher of English with 15 years of experience in the field that I can just successfully take over their class?  No, of course not. Many English teachers – at least the ones I’ve spoken to – choose to teach English because of their love of literature. I’ve chosen to teach what I teach because of my undying love of the English language – and whilst the English and the language do obviously intersect, they are not the same. We, EAL teachers, can meet the needs of EAL students far better than other mainstream teachers. Undermining our professionalism by suggesting that everyone can do so is not helpful and it certainly will not help EAL learners get better results.

Recently, I’ve been doing quite a few talks at various types of TeachMeets and sharing practice meetings with mainstream teachers. What is uncovered is a huge need that teachers have for strategies and ways to approach T&L for EAL learners. Mainstream teachers work often in places where EAL teachers are not to be seen or where an EAL Coordinator is not actually a trained EAL teacher! – they are drowning in environments where EAL as a field and EAL teachers are deprofessionalised and stripped of their specialism. Shame – because we really can help each other (as I suggested in my previous post), but we need to be seen as equals, not an optional add-on.

To sum up, we’re fighting a battle right now. EAL children provide a living proof that a great number of British schools are unprepared for catering to their linguistic skills. British education did not, traditionally, place a huge emphasis on linguistic skills, and, thus, mainstream teachers are not even remotely prepared for their role – and yet, quite a few advisory and official documents continue to claim they can “all” do it! EAL children’s rights are acknowledge insofar as their right to the curriculum (mainstreaming) is concerned, but their linguistic needs continue to be optional. Frank Monaghan, in a very recent article for The Conversation, reminds us that an estimate of £2.25 billion is spent on teaching MFL. EAL funding represents less than 10% of that, he says, and, as he writes, it’s no extraordinary sum of money. It’s easy to make a connection here: neither languages (MFL) are seen as a priority in the UK, and EAL is seen as an even less of a priority. Thus, it’s easy to deprofessionalise EAL teachers. Sadly, in so doing, our EAL pupils are disadvantaged and their high expertise teaching is taken away from them. Is it just me or is it a matter of a power-struggle between what I see as the English-native-speaking class and the English as an Additional Language-class?

I do think it’s the powers that be that continue to decide that over 1 million of children do not necessitate an EAL curriculum. Don’t you think having one would professionalise the EAL staff? Before (in my wildest dreams) we actually get a national EAL curriculum, can I simply beg of schools to not disadvantage their EAL students by having untrained staff try and teach EAL to them?

 

References:

Creese, A. (2005) Teacher Collaboration and Talk in Multilingual Classrooms. Multilingual Matters Ltd: Clevedon

Leung, C. (2005) English as an Additional Language Policy: issues of inclusive language access and language learning in the mainstream. Available at: http://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Professional%20Development/Documents/NQ4.3.4.pdf [Accessed 13/12/2014]

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One Reply to “Why is the EAL profession deprofessionalised?”

  1. Can’t help thinking it somewhat inevitable that EAL is neglected. Not all EAL students need special help. Those who do need special help because of being EAL, are not meant to be classified as SEN (the existing category for students who need special help). What does that actually leave? Hoping every school in the country will set up a whole new bureaucracy and hire new specialists was never going to happen.

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