When I first started teaching an English as an Additional Language (EAL) class, I was impatient to use all my previous ‘knowledge’ of teaching EAL in a new context, a high school in Shepparton, Victoria. Little I knew about the context and what it includes: complexity, complexity and complexity.
I was, to begin with, surprised and a bit offended (!) why a year 10 EAL class of 15 students did not adore “Twelfth Night” as much as I did, and not gawking at the thousands of Shakespearean words I threw at them, wrapped in a fancy PowerPoint with colour-coded vocabulary, grammar and syntax. ‘How dare they not love that I’m educating them?’ I thought. But this was only term 1 of my first year of TFA, where I was still observing my context, without being able to analyse it much.
I owe most of my teaching to yard duties. Shout out to Teach for Australia for observing my classes and all, but I seriously found yard duties the best slap in the face to make me come back down to Earth from my little Shakespearean world. This is when I engaged with students in a ‘real-life’ context, listened to their stories, aspirations and dreams, or just played soccer with them which they thought was ‘cool’. Yard duties did not just build relationships between us, as humans, but also proved that I needed more than my background and enthusiasm in literature: I needed context. The more I learned about students, the less I cared about if they are able to write a 2000-word essay analysing texts I was passionate about. I researched, surveyed and chatted to them about the texts they have read, want to read or the ones which inspire them. I brought different and relevant, local and international fiction and non-fiction texts to my classes and allowed students to have more freedom of choice in reading and learning the texts that mattered to them.
This was particularly important for EAL students, whom have come to Australia from many Asian, South East Asian, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds to our school, mostly have never studied English formally before, and have found themselves lost and sometimes disengaged in an Australian educational framework. This reminded me of myself, a decade earlier, when I had sleepless nights teaching myself English with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: in no other context I would have had the passion of learning a new language, let alone wanting to pursue it at university.
Understanding this – the aha(!) moment during yard duty, was the most humbling experience of my first year of teaching. Knowing your students, their values, their fears and strengths is the backbone of all the fancy PowerPoints and lesson plans.
“Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night