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Portrait of an ESOL tutor - Geetha Ram

Geetha Ram has been teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for more than 15 years, most recently at Palfrey Junior School teaching Pre-Entry to Entry Level 3 to students from all over the world (South Asia, Africa, Central Asia, China and Europe). Geetha is herself from one of our many and varied migrant communities, having moved here from South Africa over 30 years ago. We caught up with Geetha to talk about her personal journey and that of her learners and why non accredited ESOL provision is so very, very important.

Walsall for All (WfA): Can you tell us how you got involved in ESOL initially?

Geetha Ram (GR): I came to England over 30 years ago, from South Africa, to work in Wolverhampton. I discovered that many of the women in my local church, who were Indian Christians, couldn’t read the Bible for themselves. So I decided to volunteer and set up a class to help them learn to read English. I hadn’t trained at this point I just started classes. More and more women began to approach me asking for help and this made me realise there was an immense need in the community at that time.

Whilst volunteering at the church, I was also working as a Special Educational Needs Assistant in a primary school. I thought: “I am teaching people and I want to learn how to do it better.” So I started a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) course at Birmingham City College. When I completed my qualification I was offered a position teaching English in Palfrey for the Walsall Adult and Community College (WACC). I taught there for 15 years before the Palfrey Community Association closed.

Shortly afterwards, I began teaching there again but with Walsall for All. Whilst I was at Palfrey I did my two years of training at Birmingham City University so I now am qualified at Level 5.

I’ve just really enjoyed every minute of teaching. I’ve loved being with the students, and the women. They’re just such lovely people, hospitable, gentle and wonderful personalities.

WfA: Did the level of demand surprise you?

GR: I was surprised that so many people in England couldn’t speak English even if they had lived here for decades! Most had no experience of schooling and couldn’t even read their own languages, so I had to start with the basics. Many of the learners didn’t even know how to read or how to hold a pen.

It surprised me more having lived through the apartheid system in South Africa and the group areas act, where Indians had to live in Indian areas, Black people in Black areas and so on. In spite of that groups did mix, especially Asians and Black people. It was common to have a Hindi speaking family living next to a Tamil speaking family who would then live near a Telugu speaking family. We also had a Black community living near us so my parents, who didn’t have any schooling, spoke English as that became the language these groups would use to communicate with each other.

WfA: Why do you think that is the case?

GR: I suppose it’s because we were in South Africa much longer. By the 1950s my family were already the 4th generation to be born in the country. Many of the people in my ESOL class are the first generation to live here.

I think one of the problems here is that people stick to their own communities. Sometimes the learners will group themselves into a Bengali table, a Punjabi table and so on, so I always mix them up. Nobody speaks their own language in the class unless they really can't understand what I’m teaching, then it’s a last resort to get another student to explain it to them.

WfA: Are the classes about more than just learning English?

GR: A student once said to an inspector in the class: “Geetha is not just our tutor she is our friend, we can talk to her about anything.” They treat me like a teacher, they know if they don’t do their work I won’t accept it, but they know that if they want to speak to someone about any problems they are facing, they can talk to me.

I’ve had students just break down in class for one reason or another, issues in their family, health problems etc. As a trained counsellor I can sometimes be that comforting arm around the shoulder, a listening ear or someone who can help them get the support they need. If they ever need to talk I sit with them and comfort them, but when it’s time to learn I make it very clear to them so they know the boundaries.

WfA: What impact have your classes had on the lives of your students?

GR: One of my learners, Ambia, couldn’t string two words together when she started, but now she speaks very well. She is currently looking for a part-time job so is volunteering as a teaching assistant in my class.

There are others who have gone on to find jobs and are working and yet they still come to the class because they want to continue to improve their English. I am very impressed by them and their perseverance. The more opportunities they are given the further they will go.

With the older generations, some come to the class because of loneliness and isolation as coming to class gives them a social life.

I also think emotional support is a huge part of teaching. One of my learners, for example, was coming to class looking really upset, so I asked her how she was and discovered that her husband had taken her passport off her so she couldn’t go anywhere. He was trying to throw her out of the house without her child, I had to get my manager and the law involved because the situation was so bad.

This is why the ladies were so sad when the class ended, this class is their outlet. They were learning English, but for them, it was more than that: It was a place of safety, somewhere where they could meet friends, talk about their feelings, not be a wife, a daughter-in-law or a mother, but just be a person.

WfA: What barriers do learners face to integrating and reaching their full potential?

GR: Not speaking English is a massive barrier for them but accessing ESOL courses is a massive barrier in the first place. They have a lot of domestic issues, problems with their husbands and in-laws, domestic violence, financial struggles and an inability to access services, some aren’t allowed to leave the home so they just stay in that abusive domestic situation.

WfA: Why do we need informal community-based ESOL when accredited classes exist in colleges?

GR: I adored teaching in college settings, but managers made it clear that tutors were hired to prepare students to pass examinations. I understand that this is partially because of the way that colleges are funded and I don’t want to knock teaching in colleges. Many learners need accredited certificates to apply for citizenship, jobs or to access further education.

But at times I hated this. I wanted to teach well-rounded lessons, not just things they needed for an exam. In college, students might have a reading exam where they answer questions about a body of text. This type of text, maybe an extract from a novel, is probably something they will never look at again because it has nothing to do with their lives. They most likely won’t apply it in their day to day life and so their functional use of English isn’t improved and their life doesn’t improve either.

I’ve even seen examples where learners from my current class would go to college and progress to Entry Level 3, return to my class with qualifications and an understanding of how to pass exams but they can’t hold a conversation and don’t understand the basics. Some just want to learn English so they can help their children with their homework, go to the doctors on their own, have casual conversations or get on the bus and go from A to B. They want practical, functional English skills.

Someone might ask a certain question and in a college setting and you’d think, “Ah, I can’t answer your question, I need to hit these targets for exams.” Whereas in community-based ESOL there is flexibility, you might say “Okay, I’ll adapt my lesson plan today and answer your questions.” This allows me to meet learners’ needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to knock teaching in college, I just feel like they’re not meeting the all-rounded needs of the students as they are just preparing them for exams. When we are tied to set examinations, our teaching is aligned to getting students to pass them instead of looking at their overall life and ambitions and supporting them to move closer to their goals.

When we do tailor our lessons to students’ lives and give them practical and functional English lessons, they come not because they want to sit an exam and get a piece of paper at the end of it, but because they want to learn and that makes such a huge difference to their engagement and progression both in the class and their lives.

WfA: If you were given £50,000 to start a project in your community what would you do?

GR: Most of these women have very few career skills. Some of them know how to sew, so at Palfrey, we had a sewing class and they had somewhere to go, not just to learn English, but also to socialise and do something they enjoy in a group. I’d like to put something on where they learn career skills but through English.

When I was at Palfrey I taught basic IT using the medium of ESOL, by the end of that class the students, some of whom started ESOL having been illiterate and who had previously never used a keyboard were able to type an email, which I thought was amazing. Some of my learners asked if I could set up an exercise class for them because we had a lesson on healthy living and exercise once.

So, yeah I would set up learning English through exercise, cooking and IT and with career skills.


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