And there have been many: the intensity of my Trinity Cert TESOL course, that first lesson, teaching beginners/advanced/kids for the first time, getting up to speed with technological possibilities for the classroom, doing an MA, presenting at a conference… the list goes on.
But this year is set to present a whole host of new challenges, and possibly bigger challenges than at any other point in my career to date. Not only have I started a new job at a new school (after working my way through various levels of responsibility over the course of twelve years in my last job), I have also moved to a new city in a new country. And not just any country – I have left behind all I have ever known as a teacher in Ankara, Turkey and headed to Libreville, Gabon. And not just any job – having worked as a teacher and programme coordinator at a Turkish school, I am now working as an EAL teacher at an international school and a language school coordinator for a school that doesn’t exist yet!
So these are the challenges the forthcoming academic year will bring and how I am planning to tackle them:
Challenge #1: Adjusting to life in a new country
This is the first time I have been completely ‘foreign’ for a while. Over the last several years, I have felt very much at home in Turkey having learned the language, being part of a Turkish family of my own, and very much enjoying the culture and lifestyle.
Now, I am not only in a country where I don’t speak the local language but I am also in Central Africa, somewhere completely different to any other place I have lived in before. This time, I have my family with me as well (unlike when I arrived in Turkey with few responsibilities beyond looking after myself). What were everyday items for us just a few weeks ago are now luxuries and the lifestyle, atmosphere, cuisine, and daily routines of the city are all alien to us.
I guess we have little choice but to go with the flow. Of course, we wouldn’t have come here without careful consideration first but we have to remind ourselves at times that this is the developing world and life will not always be easy here. This is very much a welcome and exciting challenge for all of us though. I had forgotten the feeling of excitement a new place can bring and I want to enjoy that as much as possible.
Challenge #2: Teaching EAL
Onto the teaching work I do and I have moved into a new area of language teaching: EAL (English as an Additional Language). This is an international school and a bilingual one (French and English are the two languages of instruction here). However, English tends to dominate as the language of instruction as students prepare to take IGCSE and IB classes and the many of the Francophone students need to develop their level of English for that.
That means what I teach has more of an academic focus and it also needs to be immediately relevant so my students can go to their other subjects and not be falling behind because of a language issue. At the same time, I also have students who are bilingual but until now have always been taught in French, meaning their speaking abilities in English are much more advanced than their abilities to read and write. With older students, this means getting them to focus on academic writing conventions but it creates a unique challenge with the primary schoolers. It’s like having an advanced level class with 8 year-olds!
In these situations, I am glad that I have experimented with the idea of Dogme ELT in the past. That means I comfortable working without a set syllabus, able to react and respond to the input from my students and their individual needs, and I am more inclined to have my students do tasks first and then pick up on the language points that arise from their written work and task responses. That seems to be the best way to help them progress in their weakest areas.
Challenge #3: Taking charge of a large-scale project
But EAL is only one aspect of my work here. My main focus is to open a language school for local adults to improve their language skills. Such schools are very hard to find here and the ones that do operate in Libreville are generally poorly equipped and lacking experienced teaching staff.
And so, I am here to address a need and open a modern language school to cater for the general, business and academic English needs of the local community. In terms of resources, there are plenty. There is classroom space and equipment available on the main school campus for language school use so that won’t be an issue. However, there is much more to be done: I need to define levels and course programmes, create placement tests and design end of course assessments, choose and order resources for use by teachers and students (no easy task when you are in the middle of Africa!), and find suitable experienced staff who will fit in with the school’s philosophy and vision.
Those are tasks I can take on one at a time. I have often wondered about what I would do if I were in charge of a language school and now is the time to put that into practice with a flexible programme of courses not anchored to one particular book or series of grammar points and a productive multi-faceted assessment system that avoids boiling everything down to grammar and vocabulary based questions. Those are challenges I will relish.
However, not everything is in my hands. There is a huge demand here for preparation courses for international exams such as FCE, CAE, IELTS, and TOEFL. Designing courses for those tests is no problem but, at present, it is pointless. Nowhere here offers those exams on a regular basis. We have tentatively reached out to organisations who offer those exams but it is a big task to persuade them to come and establish new testing centres in Gabon. This challenge is going to be a long-term one I think!
Challenge #4: The freedom of possibilities
I have a lot of responsibility in this new stage of my career and I welcome that. I also have a lot of freedom to proceed in (almost) any way I see fit. That opens up all sorts of possibilities and my mind boggles at times with the different ways we can take this language school project forward and the impact it could potentially have on people’s lives in the city I will call home for the next two years. The big challenge here, however, is to stay focused. It would be all to easy to go chasing a myriad of possibilities and end up not really achieving what I have been tasked with. I need to be selective about what my initial targets will be and what can be added to enrich the language school at a later date.
These are exciting times. My life and career hasn’t so much changed as it has been ripped up and moved on to somewhere completely new! But these are also exciting challenges and ones I hope you will continue following through future blog posts.