Throughout my 10 years as an ELT educator, I became hyper-aware of the fact that teaching the English language was just one of the things I was teaching. I was doing much more than that. As I became a more experienced educator, I started to unpack everything that my students were unconsciously learning as I was also unconsciously teaching it. It hit me, that I was not just a language educator but also a cultural ambassador to both my country of birth, the United States of America, as well as a representative of “a person of color,” of Puerto Rican/Cuban ancestry.
Suffice to say, I was not the physical profile of the teacher they expected to walk into their classroom. When I did, they were often surprised and curious as to “what” I was. The conversation would ensue and, without ill intention, their perceptions of all the “things” “my people” were, would come out.
Americans are power hungry.
Americans can’t find anything outside their country on a map.
Wow, you’re Latina and you went to college? Wow! All Latinos here clean bathrooms or take care of our elderly.
You must be great at sports because you have African in you.
I can’t tell you how often a variation of these things were said to me. Then came the sexist ones…
You must have moved here for a man!
You came by yourself? And you’re a girl! Hmmm..what could you be looking for?
You can imagine how thrilled I was to hear these constantly. Also, note the problematic nature of that bold language prior to the quotes.
What am I? A person, thanks.
Turning difference into opportunity
Although it may sound it, my classrooms never got hostile. In fact, they all really turned out to involve super interesting discussions that resulted in brilliant vocabulary and sentence structures. I realized that my unique identity was beneficial to their learning process so long as the learning opportunities were curated by me in a comfortable way.
Once I really took this opportunity by the horns, I was able to build these learning caveats into lesson plans. I did this by curating my reading selections, picking a variety of clips that did not just show one kind of person, and by looking at seemingly awkward situations head on. This included racist, sexist and homophobic idioms and expressions – with intention and a discussion-ready attitude.
In my classes, I worked hard to avoid sugar-coating problematic vocabulary and social constructs within the English language. Instead, I tried to discuss why we said that, where it came from historically, and finally how we could say that very thing in a different way (fun, challenging, and useful exercise!)
Language is important! We, as language educators know that more than most! Just because our language (along with several others) is problematic, doesn’t mean we should perpetuate antiquated terms and phrases, nor should we ignore them. Take a look at a few:
- To hit like a girl
- Happy wife, happy life
- To man-up
- An Indian giver
- Gypsy/ To be gypped
And believe me, there are many many more. Not only do we encounter it in the phrases we teach but also in the video clips we show. Friends, for instance, is a classroom favorite but actually quite problematic. There’s blatant sexism, fat shaming and transphobia and it is all laughed off as if those at the core of the joke don’t actually matter. Rewatching some of those episodes for me was actually cringe-worthy. It is undoubtedly a product of its time and the solution isn’t to pretend it never happened, but as I said before, tackle these conversations head on!
Different ads, readings, role-playing you do in your course can follow suit and also perpetuate a variety of microaggressions, toxic masculinity or overtly disrespectful stereotypes of a culture and its people.
Make that into a lesson plan!
Different ads from different decades:
- What are the differences and similarities you find?
- How have they evolved?
- How have they not?
- What was happening in the world at the time of their creation that made this effective?
The possibilities of this class are endless, a great learning opportunity and ultimately really fun and interesting for the student, even if they disagree!
Taking a broader look at education
So, how much is it our job as educators to promote an open mind? I strongly feel that as English language educators, it is imperative that we push English to evolve in order to shift away from racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic language.
English is used internationally for travel, work, pleasure and we need to be aware of how we use it and who suffers when it is poorly used. Language has history, it tells us the climate of the times, but it also shows what we are willing to tolerate.
I like to think that having had me as a teacher was beneficial in other ways than linguistically. I like to think that I challenged preconceived notions and stereotypes fed to them by society and the media, that my careful word choices and careful lesson planning opened the door for the ever-growing population of immigrants arriving in Spain, the children of interracial couples and of little girls who just want to be treated equally without being the punchline to a joke. I have asked many people, including those who attended my session, to check their privilege. We all have privilege and our awareness of it is essential in creating a more equitable and more welcoming space for students and teachers alike.
How else can we do this?
- By addressing multiple cultural identities and identities in general
- By adjusting hiring practices to really represent the English speaking world
- By not shying away or dismissing uncomfortable situations
- By not falling into the tokenism trap
- By admitting that we’re all trying but going to make mistakes and that’s completely okay!
Continuing the discussion all over the world
I look forward to continuing to encourage educators around the world to consider the importance of the social and cultural impact of the languages we use and teach. I also hope you can make time and space for diverse voices within the classroom and also make time for yourself as an educator to have difficult but honest conversations about gender and race.
Note: These experiences in the classroom is where the InnovateELT session entitled “Real Talk: #MeToo & Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the ELT Classroom”, was born. It also stemmed off Jade’s graduate thesis work entitled “Enhancing Cultural Awareness & Sensitivity through Theatre and Language Education”.