Reflections from an ESOL tutor. A guest blog post from Mercedes Richardson.

The role of a teacher during the Covid pandemic

I have been working with young unaccompanied minors for around 10 years in my capacity as an ESOL lecturer on the 16+ programme at the Anniesland campus of Glasgow Clyde College. Since I’ve been involved with this particular group of young learners there have been a lot of changes; both worldwide and closer to home, in terms of world politics, global issues, Brexit, advancements in technology, changing social norms and a shift in the college ethos and management. Despite the changes, a lot has remained the same too, such as the basic role of a teacher: to help, support and educate all the students that present in front of them in the classroom regardless of educational background, aptitude, gender, religion, nationality or personal ideologies. I felt that my role as an ESOL teacher hadn’t changed despite outside influences that is until Covid….. 

16 + Programme 

Originally created to respond to the influx of young unaccompanied migrant learners into a college environment the 16 + programme now has 4 bespoke classes at 3 different levels of learning: beginners, elementary and pre intermediate. These classes total at around 90 students. There are also other young unaccompanied migrant learners in the mainstream ESOL classes across all the college campuses from the Literacies level right up to Upper intermediate level. There are also many former 16 + students attending a wide range of HNC and HND courses within the college campus, in subjects ranging from Engineering to Catering and Child Care. 

Since I have been involved with the 16 + programme the main thing I’ve noticed is the ever-changing demographic of students. The wide range of nationalities of the students that we see every year seems to be an ever-shifting landscape that tends to reflect what is going on around the globe with regards to politics and civil unrest. Over the years we have had students from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Gambia, Congo, Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, China, Vietnam, Greece… 

Who are the unaccompanied minors and what issues do they face? 

The students are mainly boys between 16 – 19 years old and have normally been separated from their families for quite some time. Most students have travelled extensively to get here, making their way through many countries and facing incredible difficulties and hostilities along the way. When they finally do arrive here, a place of safety and refuge and start to rebuild their lives, the struggles unfortunately don’t end. They then find themselves in the process of asylum and adjustment, which can be a frustrating, uncertain and difficult time for the students. The impact on all of this has a profound effect on their education. 

Although nationalities may change and students will come and go the kinds of problems and difficulties they face don’t … this remains a constant background to the profile of our students. They have to cope with a myriad of losses: of homeland and culture, family and friends, of a steady and secure homelife. In addition, they have feelings of instability and insecurities about the future and the difficulties of navigating new systems and customs. And on top of all of these things, our learners face the regular issues that all teenagers have 

to deal with: hormones, changes in mood and growth, irregular sleeping patterns, a growing awareness of the opposite sex, the difficulties in becoming adults and everything that goes with that. 

Our students have faced many challenges and continue to do so whilst we teach them;, however, in amidst this turbulent time in their lives this is where we, their teachers, come in, hoping to help them with their English, support them with their new lives, bridge the gap between their troubled past and their future potential, liaise with guardians, lawyers, social workers, housing officers, support workers, care workers … 

The impact of Covid 

16 + students are full time and would normally come to college every day where they can to see their classmates, their teachers, access support if necessary and begin to develop a steady healthy balance to their lives. Throughout the year the relationships the students develop with each other whilst they are learning in the classroom, or on trips or even in the back of the minibus as we are going on a trip, are as important as the English they learn, in terms of their mental health and social skills. On the 16 + programme, we try to offer them more support than they would normally get in a mainstream ESOL class and to offer a wider range of subjects than just ESOL with an introduction to Scottish citizenship, Geography, History, Maths, Art, Science in the form of projects and trips. 

During Covid none of this was possible – and students were unable to develop normal relationship with their classmates and teachers, establish a trust and a sense of belonging, or even build on their communication skills by making friends and interacting in their day-to-day work. As teachers we were not able to respond to the students’ needs, problems or questions as we normally would. A quick private chat with a student after class to check on their wellbeing became emails and WhatsApp messages, explanations of complex grammar became teacher made Youtube videos … emailed late at night. All issues, from minor questions about an English word or a grammar point to dealing with the ever-horrendous bus pass or bursary forms problems, became a lengthy and complicated volleying of texts, zoom sessions, emails and phone calls. 

The intimacy of the classroom and its many nuanced interactions had to give way to the clumsier and more depersonalised forum of zoom, made more stressful through either the limited technology that the students had at their disposal or their lack of knowledge in how to handle it. Their phones – already accepted as a teenager’s best friend – became their only lifeline to the world. 

The young, hopeful, sometimes cheeky, faces that we were used to seeing five days a week became a sea of blank faceless tiles… as the teacher sat in the black hole of zoom and taught into a void ….reaching out to students through the ether as they sat in their bedsits, student accommodation, children’s homes, hostels, small flats. Sometimes they even stood outside in the rain to get a better signal… and on occasion in a barber’s, a kebab shop, a friend’s car … even once or twice in a different city or country. The teacher’s role became more like that of a lecturer’s or a presenter’s – information was given out in the hope students would grasp it. Teaching 16 + classes was less like the interactive exchange I knew 

it could be and had been. It was difficult to feel that we were really connecting or communicating with the students. 

Technology is great but it can only do so much and when students are disadvantaged by their knowledge and their access to it then it is more of a hindrance than a help. 

However, during the last year, technology was all that was at our disposal to help our students. The social work department and guardians worked hard at getting all students up and running with connectivity and the teachers worked hard at getting students technologically ready and engaged in learning. 

Despite my worries that the isolation that we all suffered at the hands of the pandemic would cause adverse conditions to the students and we would be facing a terrible rise in mental health problems and a drop off in attendance – the students seemed to stay strong and continue to engage, for the most part, in their learning, supporting each other and showing a willingness to learn, which is a testament to their resilience and spirit. 

That is not to say that they have not suffered at the hands of this ghastly virus – of course they have, but I think they understand that so has everyone else, that this was a universal disaster that we are all still reeling from. They seemed to understand that we are all part of this strange, complex and difficult time and there is nothing for it but to try and make the best of it. They have learned to be resourceful, in the face of Covid as we all have … The resilience which they have developed through the course of their difficult young lives has stood them in good stead and carried them through yet another turbulent time. 

It is to their great credit that, in my experience, I found that the students were generally appreciative, receptive and determined. They tried to tune in every day to zoom classes despite their very varied home environments and circumstances …. Whilst we, the teachers were doing everything we could to reach out to them … they in turn were doing what they could to reach back to us. 

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