Broaching #metoo in the ESOL classroom

Is #metoo an appropriate discussion topic for the ESOL classroom?

In her recent essay in International Higher Education, Joanna Regulska of UC Davis argues that international educators should use the #metoo movement as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue about this critical cultural moment.

Yet broaching topics of sexual harassment, violence and discrimination can be challenging work. Student perspectives may be mixed or diverge from that of the teacher, and our own emotions about the topic can complexify how we approach it.

Regulska encourages international educators to engage students in these discussions and listen with an open mind, recognizing the cultural nuances that shape their experiences (p. 6):

“Diversity remains a weak point of #MeToo, but also of international education. Too often, we speak in categories— of immigrants, international students, first-generation students, transfer students—and we do so without reflecting on what these categories tell us about those students’ identities, their experiences, and their lives. Too often, the appeal of these large-scale categories leads us to a lack of a nuanced understanding that harassment or rape have different meanings in different cultural and national contexts; what for some is a criminal act is for others just a daily incident.”

“Too often, we focus only on students, while faculty and staff members seem to be left aside. We need to recognize that many men, because of their skin color, their sexual orientation, their trans status, or/and their class, do experience violence. As international educators, it is our responsibility to work with others, on our campuses, to foster a climate where inclusivity matters to everybody.”

Regulska is writing about international education broadly; in TESOL contexts, this dialogue can be even more challenging, depending on students’ language levels and the culture of the institution. Our advice:

1. Broach topics like these organically, building on student comments. Monitor students’ comfort levels and progress only if everyone is willing.

2. Share your views and champion global ideals, but do so with respect. Model polite, empathetic dialogue, and advocate for inclusion. As Regulska says, we have the responsibility to “create a sense of [classroom] belonging regardless of diverse assumptions, beliefs, and practices.”

4. Be ready with resources. Know the contact info for your campus’s wellness center, diversity groups and local support networks. Normalize the act of reaching out for help.

For many of us, conversations like these will be among the most important classroom moments we ever have. Here’s wishing us all the strength and skill to delve into this work with grace.

Have you spoken to your students about #metoo? Have any tips to share? Let us know at TESOLidarity@gmail.com.