One Year On: Making the Switch to EAL in an International School

In November of last year Paul Barry, EAL Specialist at Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok, Thailand wrote a post for exploring questions that a teacher considering working in the international sector might want to ask abut the role. You can read that post here. A year down the line, he looks back at what transitioning from working in language schools to supporting EAL learners and mainstream teachers in an international school was like, offering useful insights for anyone interested in following in his footsteps.

Paul Barry

Paul Barry

After almost 15 years of working in language schools, I decided to seek a fresh challenge. I had been working as the Director of Studies at a private language centre and the opportunity to move to an international school as an EAL specialist presented itself and I decided I would give it a try. I have just finished my first year and I would like to share my reflections with anyone considering a similar switch.

What Went Well

Improving as a teacher

Let’s start with the positives. First of all, I am happy to admit that after a year I feel like I am a better teacher. I have been fortunate enough to work with some very talented and conscientious teachers who, perhaps free of the pressures of working in the UK, have time to discuss their approaches and are open to sharing ideas. Since I began working here, I have been involved with assessment, developing schemes of work, levelling, safeguarding and other pastoral responsibilities one might be involved with in a British school. Consequently, I believe I have a more fully-developed understanding of education than one gets in a language centre.

A meaningful role with an immediate impact

I do believe that the EAL specialist role is an important, if undervalued (and often misunderstood) one. I have seen very knowledgeable and experienced teachers struggle to make the transition from a school in the UK to one in a very different cultural or linguistic environment. Understandably, it takes time for them to adjust. In my experience, there is often a gap in understanding of the challenges faced by students who are learning content and a new language at the same time. This is noticeable in some approaches used by teachers whose experience comes primarily from monolingual classes. This is where the EAL specialist should be able to step in and advise. I have found most teachers welcome this, especially if it helps them make their lessons more accessible to students and helps them to avoid the deathly silences that greet many of them in the first few weeks of term. Many mainstream colleagues also feel uncomfortable when it comes to talking about language and are usually grateful for the opportunity to pass this area on to a specialist colleague.

As far as the actual teaching goes, it is pleasing to see the impact of one’s work with students being applied in a practical sense in class over the course of a school year. At the beginning of my first year here we had many students who had joined our school and who were really struggling. As an EAL specialist in an international school, one sees language being used at the coalface. This is very different to the contrived situations set up in a language school context, when one never knows if or when the language or skills one is teaching will be used. It is also quite challenging creatively. You have to identify the language used in specific genres, identify specific areas for improvement in students working at different levels of English proficiency, and working out strategies to help them develop. One interesting challenge I faced when adapting texts for EAL learners was finding a balance between making the text accessible while maintaining its ‘integrity’ or artistic value. Finding a happy medium with your co-teacher is one of the more interesting parts of the job.

Even Better If…

School EAL Priorities and the co-teaching balancing act

It seems to me that there are two key things that underpin or undermine the effectiveness of language support in an international school setting. Firstly, you have to consider the extent to which a school supports the EAL department and secondly, the ability of co-teachers to build relationships and utilise each other’s skill sets effectively. I don’t think it is controversial to say that the former impacts on the latter in a big way. If the school has a clear, well-defined, whole-school approach to EAL support, then it makes it easier for people to work together. I mentioned earlier that teachers can take some time to appreciate the difficulties faced by students learning content and language at the same time. This can also happen at an institutional level, especially when it is big school with many layers of management across many different departments. Things can become muddied over time. Without the well-defined and vocal support of the school regarding its approach to EAL support, the task at hand becomes much more difficult.

Assuming that the level of school support provided falls somewhere between fantastic to non-existent, your ability to develop effective working relationships with your co-teachers will play a huge part in how much influence you have in the classroom and how well your ideas are received. I have found the process of co-teaching to be one of building relationships, establishing credibility (or trying to) and occasionally having to push your ego to one side. I am aware that not everyone is naturally predisposed to doing this, especially if you are used to doing things your own way or if you like to be in full control in the classroom. Of course, this also applies to the mainstream teacher who may be in need of some convincing. My role has become a question of helping them change their perspective and understanding two things. Firstly, that the students in second language classes face different challenges from students whose first language is English. There are layers of interference making access to the content more challenging for these students. Some of these are language related and some are cultural. Addressing these challenges is not necessarily spoon-feeding, nor should it detract from ‘the art’ of teaching. Secondly, all students in an environment like this are EAL students, not just those who are in need of additional support. Needing extra support is not necessarily an indication that a student is less capable than others, especially if they have trouble accessing the content or expressing their ideas. Your ability to convey this to your colleagues may determine how productive your time as an EAL specialist is.

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