“When we put our strategy together three years ago, who knew we’d be helping people get vaccinated in a pandemic? We need to be adaptable and flexible to what’s happening in the world. Often that’s something developing in the home country of a learner, but this is a global story everyone is talking about, so we have to make sure we’re talking about it in classrooms too.” - James McCulloch, Chief Executive, ELPNZ
From mask-making workshops to social distancing, from using the tracer app, to navigating lockdowns and online learning, the pandemic has meant we've needed to discuss complicated issues with our newer Kiwis.
This year, the nationwide vaccination drive changed the conversation again.
The unique challenges of our English language learners make discussions around these issues even more complex. Challenges include low levels of literacy, disinformation within communities, a potential distrust of government, and a lack of understanding of how the New Zealand healthcare system works.
At the same time, our teachers have had to ensure they relay only the facts.
“You’ve got to stay impartial and keep sight of your boundaries. I’m an English teacher, I’m not a medical professional or scientist!” Rachel, ELP teacher, Dunedin
The Ministry of Health (MoH) approached us early on in the vaccination programme, as our past civic participation work with the Electoral Commission around elections and with Stats NZ around census time has demonstrated English Language Partners' (ELP) effectiveness in getting messages out to ‘hard to reach’ groups.
“We’ve been talking about Covid topics since the very beginning," says Rachel, a teacher in Dunedin. "At ELP, we're learner-centred, so we often talk about topics learners bring to the classroom.
"We give our learners the language tools, so they can engage in the conversation. And at the same time, trying to make sure that the right information is getting to people," she says. "Throughout all of this, I’ve tried not to make Covid our central focus. Our learners have other stuff happening in their lives too!”
The MoH provided access to their excellent multilingual resources, as well as support to develop our own, including our ‘Guide to getting your Covid-19 vaccination in New Zealand (for English language teachers and learners)'.
We’ve made this guide freely available through our website to help people with English as a second language navigate the daily outpouring of information they see around vaccination. The response has been extremely positive, and we’re planning to share more resources as and when we can.
Health and the healthcare system are always popular classroom topics. Our approach regarding Covid-19 related matters has been centre-led, because our centres across New Zealand know their communities best.
Paul Naidu, manager at our Dunedin centre, sensed a need for further clarity in our diverse classrooms and organised a visit from the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC).
Kate Marshall, Covid Immunisation Education Facilitator with IMAC, came along to provide independent, factual guidance to help learners make informed decisions.
Kate presented the facts around Covid-19 and how the vaccine offers protection, with Raghad Al-Eswad, an ELP Cultural Language Assistant, helping out by translating to the Arabic learners in the class.
While many of the learners were already vaccinated, the session provided clear information to share with family, friends and wider community. Rachel asked learners how they found the talk. "Most described it as helpful and reassuring,” she says.
Many in our English Language Partners community have become strong advocates for vaccination. Our Porirua centre shared a photo of a class holding up their vaccination cards. They were learning the English for 'I am double vaccinated'.
The sharing of information has worked both ways, as this Porirua class also eased their teacher Brenda's doubts.
“I was surprised by their enthusiasm in getting the vaccine, as I assumed most people would take a ‘wait and see’ approach,'" says Brenda. "Long story short, my husband and I decided to get the jab. Seeing the learners happy and well on Zoom really reassured me."
At our Wellington centre, Arfan, an older Syrian learner, shared his experience to encourage others in his class.
“I told them: 'Take the vaccine. It’s important, you don’t need to pay, and all the professionals say it is safe,'" says Arfan. "They said, 'Oh, we will suffer side effects.'
“But for me, no pain, no need to even take a paracetamol," he says. "No side effects at all, and I’m 76 years old. I joked with them: 'Shame on you!'”
Arfan is upbeat about the Covid-19 response here in New Zealand, and is looking forward to March when he will be eligible for his booster shot.
“New Zealand protects its people. You know, I am a migrant, but everybody is well looked after by this government.”
As Zoom learning was already tried and tested, moving swiftly to back to online teaching in 2021 was logistically easier than 2020.
However, in many ways it has also been harder. Despite the diversity of our learners, our classes reflect something of a snapshot of New Zealand society.
“When we came back to class in 2020 after the first lockdown, there was an increased sense of camaraderie, like, 'We’ve all been through this together.' This year it’s felt different. Just like the rest of the country, there is more of a sense of 'When is this going to end?’” - Rachel, ELP teacher, Dunedin
2022 will see English Language Partners reopen for the year as a fully-vaccinated workplace. At the heart of our approach is the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, volunteers, contractors, learners, and the communities we serve.
This will help English Language Partners operate as safely and effectively as practical within the Government Covid-19 ‘traffic light’ system, and under whatever future measures are implemented nationally.
To ensure no learner is left behind, we will continue to offer online classes to anyone unable or unwilling to be vaccinated. Our revised delivery methods will also mean that as we continue to unite against Covid-19, lessons will continue to be available to those needing to isolate at home or in recovery from illness.
But it is important to be aware there is a cost from a wellbeing point of view, as online teaching can be more difficult and more tiring for our staff and teachers.
“In response to the pandemic, we have really ramped up our wellbeing-first approach for staff, volunteers and learners," says Chief Executive James McCulloch. "The message is to do the best you can in an imperfect situation and whatever you are doing is great. Normal targets and expectations don’t apply.
"We’ve seen our people rise to the challenge, and have seen excellent results in terms of learner numbers and their language progress – all the more remarkable when you consider very few migrants are entering the country.”