Teaching TESOL, modeling inclusivity

Education is larger than subject matter.

As TESOLers, we do the work of language teaching. We help learners develop comprehension strategies. We foster their development of communicative competence and stretch their ZPD’s. We support their achievement of educational and professional goals.

But as we do this, there’s another education we’re participating in, even when we don’t realize it. We’re modeling stances and beliefs. How we frame and engage with topics; what we say when controversial issues come up; the micro-expressions we make in key moments — all of these can reveal a mindset that our students may notice or adopt. For a young person who sees us as a model of international adulthood, our every move can be a lesson.

“Teaching moments” beyond the syllabus

So what do you do when your teenage students jokingly assert that a laughing-along friend “is a gay?” When they blithely announce that a model’s skin is “too dark?” When the children of the nouveau riche use their L1 term for “countryside poor person” to mock a new classmate from the provinces?

Do you preach a mini-sermon shaming the perpetrators? Do you let it go since it’s beyond the scope of the lesson? Do you feign confusion at these remarks, demonstrating that they should be illogical?

And if you do intervene, how do you make the moment teachable but not alienating? What pedagogically strategic moves do you employ to influence while respecting cultural starting places?

Whether you’re a “stick to the book” tiptoeing teacher or an outspoken social activist, you’ve likely encountered similar moral dilemmas. Ask any veteran teacher how they’ve felt in these moments, and you’ll hear a few tales of regret. Missed opportunities because they were unprepared. Unexpressed responses that could have changed a students’ mind — and possibly their future.

Developing your advocacy approach 

How we respond to these situations is individual — an amalgamated output of our professional identities, personal values, pedagogical knowledge and institutional obligations. Writing a teaching philosophy is a great way to reflect on these, and to inform this work, insights into how others approach this may help.

Social-justice advocacy is for many TESOL educators a key part of their professional responsibility. For these advocates, their moral charge isn’t limited to responding to dicey issues that arise; it’s also about engendering classroom discussions that will promote social justice.

H. Douglas Brown, author of the classic TESOL textbook “Teaching by Principles,” is one of these social-justice advocates. His 2004 briefing from the International TESOL Association’s “Symposium on Social Responsibility” in Brazil is a gem of an introduction to critical language pedagogy — a TESOL-specific take on critical pedagogy, the “consciousness-raising” approach typically associated with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

Following a brief, entertaining overview of the critical pedagogy movement and cautionary observations of this movement’s criticisms, Brown poses his core question:

“Can English language teachers help to form classroom communities of learners who critically examine the moral, ethical, and political issues surrounding them, and can language teachers facilitate these communities sensitively, without pushing a subversive agenda?”

Brown’s answer, of course, is that yes, they can, although doing so requires careful consideration. Over the next few pages, he presents “three guidelines for dealing with controversial issues in the classroom,” along with real-life examples of teacher advocacy and dilemmas and “moral imperatives” to draw from in determining how the reader might approach these situations themselves.

This nine-page beauty is a must-read for new TESOLers, and of reflective value no matter your experience in the profession.

New resource for inclusivity advocacy

A related text worth exploring is this blog post on the National Council of Teachers of English website. Dedicated to victims of the June 2016 hate-fueled Orlando nightclub shooting, the post is a collective call by a group of LGBTQ-advocacy groups for educators and administrators to work towards social justice:

“We believe that classrooms and other learning spaces are ideal sites to make sense of our social worlds and to promote democratic participation and understanding while resisting violence and hatred.”

Those striving to better promote inclusivity will likely appreciate the linked repository of resources that supports “challenging educational practices that normalize violence, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of privilege and oppression.”

Go deeper

TESOLers interested in learning more about social-justice advocacy will likely find inspiration in the work of Paulo Freire. The Freire Institute’s website is a great place to start, rich with distillations of his texts and ideas.

TESOLidarity reader Beth W passed along the following resources for addressing these needs in the classroom. Here’s Beth:

“You might be interested in a similar bibliography created by TESOL’s ILGBTF Forum a few years ago.

Also, these sites have a number of references for instructors about how to handle similar situations in the classroom. Although not ELT-specific, the strategies are good. 

Thanks, Beth!

We’d love to have more good resources to share here. What do YOU suggest we add? Please tell us in the comments!

Discussed in this article

Brown, H.D. (2004). “Moral Imperatives and Dilemmas in our Agendas for Social Responsibility.” Proceedings of TESOL Symposium on Social Responsibility. Accessed August 13, 2016 at http://www.tesol.org/docs/default-source/new-resource-library/symposium-on-social-responsibility-4.

CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education programs, the Genders and Sexualities Equality Alliance (GSEA), and the LGBTQ Issues in Academic Studies Advisory Committee. (2016). “A world where all people are safe and valued.” NCTE blog. Accessed August 13, 2016 at http://blogs.ncte.org/index.php/2016/08/all-people-safe-valued.

Have advice on this topic or experiences to share? Help your colleagues by sharing in the comments!