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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue B ::: November 2004

Balancing the Agendas of Management, Student, and Teacher in Workplace ESOL

by Anthony Moss
I teach English to immigrant workers at their job site during paid work-time. My philosophy of teaching English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) goes beyond the mechanics of language instruction. I see myself as a coach, an instigator, a confidant, and a cultural bridge to English-speaking America. For the last two years, I have been working for a for-profit education company, which I will call Worksite Trainers. We provide customized ESOL programs for medium- to large-sized businesses, which I'll refer to as clients. To do so, we receive government grants in the name of the client to cover the costs of the managing the grants, designing the curriculum, and delivering the instruction.

My client is a prominent janitorial company in the San Francisco Bay area. The ESOL class evolved, after nine months, from an unpaid, lunch-time class to a class held on paid work-time for another nine months. The 22 students are unionized, day-time janitors. They have direct contact with the English-speaking tenants of the office park they clean and they have a need to speak with them. By and large, they are economic refugees from Mexico. They speak Spanish and tend to live in Spanish-speaking communities, essentially recreating the feeling of Mexico here in California. Nearly all of my students have husbands, wives, American-born children, pets. They make house payments, and, according to informal discussions we have had before class, they plan to stay in this country and dream of watching their English-speaking children go to college and eventually take care of them. The students in my class have been in the states for an average of six to eight years. As a group, they have a wide range of work experience in fast food, factories, farm labor, grocery stores, car washes, painting, restaurants, and residential cleaning. I even teach a trumpet- playing Mariachi musician. More than half of the jobs my students have held are frontline jobs with exposure to English-speaking customers.

In general, my course materials contain dialogues that we create, popular songs like "Put Your Head on my Shoulder," workplace stories that we create and that more advanced students in past sessions have created, workplace forms directly from the company handbook, and worksheets with good graphics. Worksite Trainers requires that about 70 percent of the curriculum address employer-required language, such as: "Can you vacuum Building Five?" "Did you punch in?" "Clean the bathroom, please." Approximately 20 percent consists of employee and union issues, such as filling out leave of absence forms and accident reports. Around 10 percent is devoted to daily-life language outside of work: "Where do you shop?" "Where is the post office?" "What is your daughter's name?"

Inherent Tensions
Two specific issues make teaching this class challenging. The first is literacy. Two of my students are functionally illiterate in Spanish. The second challenge is the inherent tension between providing our client company's staff with instruction that does not do too much to empower their employees and my desire to make my teaching relevant to my students' lives. I didn't expect the harsh reality of company politics within the context of learning in the classroom. I often found that even seemingly innocuous topics of discussion could present political minefields. Although the majority of my company contacts were diligent leaders and principled people, a handful of human resource and line managers horrified me. Some managers kept their workers from attending class, badmouthed the class, or downplayed the importance of their employees learning English at all.

In addition to the company-centric approach of Worksite Trainers and the agendas of many managers to limit the scope of our instruction to the minimum necessary for workers to perform menial tasks, the students, too, had their own agenda. This was made clear to me with one incident in particular. I had been training this particular section of janitors for over a year, when one day I was sitting in the classroom before class, wishing the students would hurry up. "They're late, they're late," I muttered to myself. Then I heard them beginning to arrive.

"If we don't do it, they'll send us home without pay!"

"I won't do it, I don't care!"

"It's discrimination!"

"It's harassment!"

"It's not even in our contracts!"

By this time all of the students had arrived. It was eight minutes past starting time, and I had to make a decision. Would we continue with weather and other small talk, as I had planned, or, would we dive into the issue they were discussing?

My pragmatic step-by-step realist voice said: This outburst is just an excuse for the students not to follow the program. Frankly, it's irresponsible and undisciplined of you, the teacher, to continually switch topics. It interrupts the learning process and undermines the lesson plan.

Wait a minute, another part of me said. Forget about your ordinary, oh-so-forgettable weather vocabulary and grab this emotional, lightning rod issue. Finally, a bottom-up issue that is obviously engaging to the students. Why don't you just direct their ire and allow them to take charge?

So I said, "Ya empieza la clase: What is all the commotion about?"

Someone responded, "It's a new rule about our uniforms, look at it!"

In Spanish, I said to the students, "Ok, let's make a deal right now. I will use the entire class today to discuss and explain the whole uniform issue, but as I have explained to all of you before, I want to be a neutral party. That means I will be happy to listen, to explain, and to interpret the whys and hows of the new rule. I will not, however, speak to the management or the union on your behalf." I hesitated a moment to consider whether their discussion of the subject could be detrimental to them. Deciding that only discussing the issue with management or a union representative should be inconsequential, I added: "I urge you to, though."

I was entering unscripted territory, and this is the tricky part: taking the energy from the issue and channeling it into a language lesson. I can teach what to say, followed up by how to answer. I can even teach variations of the question and answer. Not only can I, but I do. However, on a completely different level, as cultural translator, I wanted to convey the why.

From Why to Participation
In this particular case, part of the why of the new rule is rooted in our culture. Beyond today, and beyond this situation, I want the students to look for the why in other situations. Getting students to question is a step in the process towards getting them to participate — whether in English or, if necessary, in Spanish. When the students understand the motivation behind a regulation, they are equipped with the information that empowers them to make a decision: to follow it, request a modification of it, or present a logical argument against it for something that is better.

In this case, the students came up with their own reasons of why the rule was unfair, and I shaped the language lesson around their critique. (See the flipchart above for their ideas.) I modeled questions, they answered. They broke into pairs and asked questions and answered. They broke into groups and wrote questions. We returned to the group, and I asked questions and they answered more forcefully and knowledgeably. The students focused during this lesson more intensely because the subject matter was relevant to them.

No one from management had ever explained why tucking in their shirts is so important to the management, but I gave them a short anecdote to which many who grew up in the United States can relate. I said: "Ever since I was old enough to dress myself my parents told me, 'Don't be a schlump, tuck in your shirt!' What that means is tucked in equals professional; untucked means bum. All of the super visors and managers have parents who spread the same message. The tenants have parents who said that, too."

That simple explanation put what otherwise appeared to be an illogical rule into context. It did not solve the problem, but it did give them the information they needed to understand why a tucked-in shirt is important to Americans in this situation. They could understand management's thinking on this issue, and make decisions based on this knowledge.

The Students' Side
I understood the issue more deeply as we went through the lesson and as the students volunteered more background information. The women workers wore uniforms designed for men. As they said, they didn't feel good about themselves while wearing the uniform. They were embarrassed when the shirts came out of their pants while they were cleaning and even more embarrassed when their zippers came down, which apparently happened frequently.

The supervisor had warned the workers about the strict enforcement of the dress code and advised women to order women's pants if that is what they wanted. He didn't understand why they would complain instead of just ordering the new pants. I asked the women students if this was true, and they said that it was. Then I asked why they didn't just order the women's pants. It was simple: the janitorial company was notorious for not getting supplies to the workers on time. The pattern was that an employee would order work shirts. A senior manager would see the employee weeks after the order was placed and write him up for not having a company shirt. The company wouldn't get employees what they needed in a reasonable amount of time. By the time the manager advised people to order other pair of pants, most of them figured, "Why should I? I'll never get them, anyway."

Everyone Learns
We became colearners. I taught the workers about the cultural issue and they taught me about how the company works. In a sense, I'm teaching them theoretical cultural observations while they are teaching me about a new industry and specific company policies. My teaching philosophy evolved. I'd started by adopting an approach that I thought was decidedly neutral, not exploring or utilizing workplace issues as material. Now I encourage the students to bring workplace issues to my attention so I can use them as topics in class.

For me, it comes down to impact. How are my three hours per week going to engage people? How can those three hours be the most effective possible? Although every group that I deal with has different language needs, all groups need clear lines of communication between the teacher and the student. When there is solid communication the worker can bring up relevant issues and the instructor can weave them into the class, making the experience richer and the learning deeper.

Balancing agendas is very challenging in workplace education. Each player has a distinct agenda: Workplace Trainers values language instruction and political neutrality, the janitorial client values mops and bucket language without politics, the workers value daily language and the ability to talk about workers' issues. I, too, have an agenda. My agenda is to connect with the workers in order to create a level of trust so that we can learn English. If anything, because we are together day after day, I err slightly on the workers' side. And so I constantly need to remind myself who the stakeholders are, and I have to be honest about my biases.

I have to admit, I dislike constantly having to balance agendas. It's true that I've had to and continue to make trade-offs. These compromises affect the areas of focus for the language instruction and often compel me to steer away from "hot" topics. On occasion, I've even been a mouthpiece for the management's views. However, my dislike is insignificant compared to the overall enjoyment I get from teaching. I just have to close my eyes and imagine what it'd be like for my students, who are my primary clients, if they didn't get English lessons at all. I then feel assured that my efforts, as imperfect as they may be, are worth it.

About the Author
Anthony Moss has taught Spanish and English for speakers of other languages at Colorado Mountain College and currently trains workers and management in the San Francisco Bay area in ESOL and cross-cultural communication.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL