I qualified as an EAL teacher nearly ten years ago, as a fantastically naive eighteen year old school leaver with a promise of a job for six months, and no prior work experience save for three months as a shopgirl at M&S. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing beyond teaching for a bit to fill in the rest of my “gap year”, which was otherwise filled with retaking my chemistry exam and trying desperately to get into vet school. I thought that I would teach for six months, at the school down the road from my mum’s house in Tripoli (she lived and worked in Libya at the time), then return to the UK for vet school and never teach again. I trained from a position of privilege – I didn’t need to be a good teacher, and I didn’t pay for the training course myself (my grandparents did). I was also, as this post at Media Diversified points out, more or less guaranteed work because of my status as a white “native” English speaker.
I was hugely wrong.
I did need to be a good teacher. And while I did get into vet school, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, I didn’t stay there. So I went back to teaching in 2007 after discovering that: a) the bank of mummy, daddy, and grandparents was only willing/able to help so much (and they helped a lot, for which I am extremely grateful); b) student loans only covered so much, but April to October is a long time; c) working in a call centre really, really sucked. I’ve taught on-and-off since then, more on than off since 2010.
It turns out I actually love teaching, in a way that I only had a glimmer of in Tripoli. I love my students(even the ones I bitch about in the staffroom) I take every bit of feedback personally, and while I maintain that I don’t need my students to like me, I want them to walk out of my classroom having learnt something that they think will be interesting, useful,or both. I not only need to be a good teacher, but I want to be a better one.
We shall now pause to sing while bunnies skip and birds hang out my laundry.
English language teaching is, despite any pretences otherwise, an industry. An industry built on exploiting and maintaining English as the main language for business, science,and academia, a legacy built on colonialism. It is, to put it baldly, soft colonialism wrapped in a shiny packaging of phrasal verbs and phonetics. Welcome to learning English, pull up a chair, sit down, and learn some values. But pay first.
Teaching English is often promoted as a way to “see the world” – you pay a fee and you go out to a country in the Global South and teach impoverished kids the difference between “I went swimming” and “I have been swimming”. No qualifications needed beyond being a (white) native speaker and the money to volunteer for a few months. My route was the second – get a qualification, apply for a contract in somewhere warmer than the UK, rinse and repeat. For many of us, teaching is a way of earning money while doing something “worthwhile” – travelling, making music, art, photography, literature. It’s the false promise of neoliberalism in a nutshell – a job that isn’t too stressful (ha), that pays well enough to live on (ha), while giving you enough time to do the things you love (oh, the lols). And you’re doing something good – you’re teaching all those Other People how to Speak English, which will surely make their lives better, because English is the language of neoliberalism.
But along with the language comes the values. The bland, insipid values of the textbooks packaged to take learners from Elementary to Advanced, textbooks that take little notice of the myriad of cultures they’ll be used in, beyond occasional repackaging of soft “news” articles (“Brazilians the friendliest, says tourism industry”; “have you ever eaten insects?”) – and using respect for cultural differences as the reason for every character presented in the books being heterosexual, able-bodied, slim, gender-conforming and photogenic. And mostly white, with token “definitely not white, but smiling and Speaking English”. Characters have “English” names, nice, middle-class ones, like Tom or Claire (never Chardonnay, or Jayson). Occasional non-English names crop up, but only when attached to accented voices, usually asking for help or talking about “in my country”.
Gender differences are respected. While we learn “businesswoman”, and “Sarah is a scientist”, we never learn that “James is a stay at home dad”, or that “Richard is wearing a pink shirt”. We have wife, husband, son, daughter, but never stepmother or half-brother or “James is Richard’s husband”. Sam might use a wheelchair, but Sam is not a recurring character, he is nobody’s husband or boyfriend, and he probably does something inspiring, like raise money following a natural disaster by doing a marathon, or smiling a lot.
What I’m saying is that teaching English is problematic. It is more so if you are a POC, or a disabled person, or queer person; the system invalidates you even as you teach, and it does not give you the tools to challenge racism, sexism, dis/ableism, homophobia, and any other aggressions, micro or otherwise. Sexism while teaching in the middle east is a given. Racism in China and South Korea is par for the course. Students who assume your classes are at a lower level because you have a non-RP accent (as happened to one of my colleagues recently) are just something you have to deal with. Get over it. Deal with it. What did you expect?
What’s the solution? Well, as some have suggested, don’t take part in the system. Don’t teach abroad. (I really recommend reaching BiA’s blog, he’s got a lot to say that makes a lot of sense). But I do, very respectfully, disagree with this, but only in part. In part because soft colonialism doesn’t just happen in other countries; we practice it at “home” through the EAL industry here in the UK (and in the US and Canada). And we can challenge the industry from within as well as from without. And for teachers like me, for whom I can
First up, if you’re going to teach abroad, read Black in Asia’s 10+ Recommendations for Westerners abroad to (try and) not be completely awful. The next step, no matter where you’re teaching, is to view teaching as a learning experience – think critically about what you’re teaching, and how. Textbook doesn’t include step-parents and LGBTQ relationships? Put them in there. Make the half-sister you’ve put in that family tree a lesbian, give the uncle a husband and two kids. You could have a class full of straight people. Some of them might not be out. Present the words as part of the vocabulary – as something they may find useful.
Make your classroom a safe space. Challenge hurtful language from your students (I find this difficult, I’ll admit, especially at lower levels and with teenage learners). Encourage discussion of why that language is not ok, and encourage your students to ask questions. I had a student, a young man from South Korea, ask me (out of the blue) what the difference was between transgender and transvestite. Some of the other students laughed. I explained it, and he stood and nodded, and made notes, and one of the other students asked “what’s a drag queen?”. We had a good discussion – mostly about language, a little bit about gender and rights, and a bit about respect. Then the lesson carried on.
Use supplementary material, critically. Breaking News English has some pieces that can promote critical discussion, Film English is an excellent resource as well. I love a book called Taboos and Issues (a “mature” version of Instant Discussions), and while it needs updating, it is pretty much the only book that presents issues like racism, homophobia, and other demanding topics in a format that fits into a classroom and encourages discussion. The Headway Academic series present topics such as globalisation and environmental destruction in ways that can lead to discussion. Subversive 52 looks fantastic, and the blog is great. These are just starters – critical pedagogy isn’t a new idea, even in EAL, and there are plenty of things to read around the Dogme approach, even if there aren’t a lot of free lesson plans.
Listen to your students. Respect their opinions (even when they don’t respect yours), give them room to think. You’re not going to produce classes of critical thinkers and social justice campaigners; that’s just another form of cultural imperialism when we expect social justice to be the same in every place, and move at the same speed. Instead, you want a class who are willing and able to discuss issues, respect others, and are learning to think critically about values and ideas in English culture as well as their own. Hopefully, they might even feel confident expressing those views in English.