Responding to shocking comments from students

I guess maybe I waited too long to write this up but I also think I wasn’t really ready to write it just after it happened. Recent blogposts from and conversations with others gave me just the nudge I needed.

The Scene:

Spring 2012.

Discussion focused class for graduate students majoring in international studies.

6 students.

Mixed group of nationalities (3 Korean students and 3 international students).

Levels ranging from low intermediate to high intermediate.

Of the 6 students there are 2 students in particular that play  a key role in this story:

  1. One female student, who is very high level, is from Europe and is extremely worldly and open minded.
  2. One male student, who is at the lower end of the low intermediate scale, is also extremely religious (Christian) and would not likely be considered open minded or worldly.

Background: 

I had selected “Gay Rights” as the topic for the three hour class. I usually choose about half the topics and have the students pick the other half. This was my 3rd time teaching the course and I had chosen some of the same topics as previous semesters. Gay rights was one such topic.  The reasoning behind choosing it is because I think it is very much a global issue. In Korea, gay rights is not really something that is talked about very often. Foreign teachers often joke about Korean people saying and perhaps believing that, “There are no gays in Korea.” I have personally heard this a lot. This is to say that it is a bit taboo to talk about such things. I realized that but I also felt that it was something that Korean students might need/want experience discussing in an international setting. After all, this is something that is frequently discussed in the states and is surely a hot topic.

What happened: 

I didn’t want to just jump into the topic and say, “Gay rights. Discuss.” I wanted to sort of ease into the topic and give lots of speaking practice whilst doing so. I had a list of different words that collocate with rights. Things like gay, minority, human, workers’, women’s, children’s, animal, and prisoner.  I asked students to think and talk to their partner about the meaning of these different types of rights.
(This page from Breakingnewsenglish was helpful in constructing the list)

Some of the concepts were a bit unfamiliar so the students helped each other and shared their guesses and thoughts about the meaning of these types of rights. It seemed that there were some new concepts and that it was a nice push for the students to explain things to each other. I was pleased. After I clarified a few points and answered a few questions it was time for the next task. This time, with a new partner, students were asked to rank the types of rights from most important to least important. I thought this would be a nice chance for me to hear that they followed the different types of rights as well as a  nice lead-in to the larger discussion about gay rights.

I assigned new partners and set them on their task. As luck and foreshadowing  would have it, the two students profiled above were partners. Things seemed be going swimmingly with a some of negotiation, clarification requests as well as expressing opinions.

And then he said it.

“I hate gays.”

I was pretty shocked. My temperature rose. Here it was. Hate speech in my class. What was I going to do?

My first feeling was something between shock and rage I suppose. “How dare he say such a thing?”

“How dare he say such a thing in my class?” was the next question that followed.

I managed to calm down a bit as I realized it was not really about me.
(Apparently there are many things in the world that are not about me–which is nice to realize).

Realizing that arguing or showing anger is not generally a good strategy I took a deep breath. I tried to think about where he was coming from.

I remembered that he is deeply religious and often goes to church in the morning before class. I remembered that he is Korean and that such issues are not really talked about. I remembered that I was, in fact, the person that chose this topic.

I thought to myself that if I really wanted students to be comfortable and express their opinions then I would have deal with such opinions as they came and not just pick and choose and expect everyone to agree with me and to be a shiny happy family with no disagreements.

While these thoughts were racing through my head things got a bit heated with the aforementioned partners. She was asking him what he would say if she said that she hated Christians. She was digging in and trying to see how he could justify his opinion. While I found myself agreeing with her reaction I didn’t really want an explosion to occur in class.

I decided that it might be a nice time for a teacher intervention (mostly just to calm things down a bit) and instead of sharing my opinion or agreeing or disagreeing I just said something like, “Maybe hate is a strong word.” I said “I think maybe you mean something like ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘don’t feel comfortable around gay people.'” He nodded in agreement and perhaps the tension was reduced a bit. I decided to step away and, happily, a calm and informative discussion occurred after I backed away. She calmly stated that she wanted to understand where he was coming from and that she might not agree with him but that she wanted to try to understand his position without judging him so she asked him a series of questions to sort of get to the bottom of it. I was thrilled  and impressed as well as relieved.

Analysis: 

During and after this incident I wondered if my reasons for choosing the topic were solid. Did I choose it for the students? Did I choose it for these particular students? Did I take this group’s personal characteristics and opinions into consideration when choosing it? Did I just choose something that worked well in the past without thinking how it would work with this particular group? Did I choose the topic because it is something that I am interested in? Did I choose the topic because I wanted to help students open their minds a bit? “Maybe” was the answer that came to mind for many of these questions.

Next time:

Well, this semester, I have the same topic coming up! I will be sure to consider the specific people in the room when planning the lesson but I remain convinced of the importance and usefulness of the topic.

When shocked by statements from students I will resist the temptation to “correct their wrong thinking” and will try not to give my opinion unless I am asked.

When I find myself flustered and shocked I will step back and take a breath and think about what really bothers me about what has been said. I will try to see where the person is coming from.

I will keep in mind the potential risks involved in tackling such topics and remember that the topics were chosen for a reason.

I guess the other obvious thing is to keep working hard to create a comfortable and save environment where students feel free to express their opinions no matter what they are.

Lingering questions: 

  • Am I right in thinking that my job is to “just” teach English?
  • How far (if at all)  is it appropriate for teachers to share their own views and positions?
  • How far (if at all) is it appropriate for teachers to try to persuade students to think differently?
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52 comments

  1. Ava Fruin

    Michael, An excellent post and such an important issue. I actually dealt with a very similar situation in my classroom a few months ago. Students were presenting “opinion” pieces and a student from South Korea presented on why he was against gay marriage. I had an incredibly strong reaction to his presentation and some of the ideas which he expressed…just as the topic is not commonly addressed in Korea, it is very common here in Berkeley, and it was nearly impossible for me to remove my personal bias before responding. I had to remind myself that I am here to teach language, not politics (but trying to evaluate his language objectively proved incredibly difficult!) I like that you took this observation a step further to examine your own motivation in chooseing the topic. I’ll try to remember that next time I am in a similar situation. Thanks for another insightful and thought-provoking post! Ava

    • mikecorea

      Hey Ava,

      It feels like I was just chatting with you on Twitter. Oh wait…I was.
      Thanks so much for the comments!

      As with all the comments and this whole issue (actually I should say issues as there are many) there is a lot to think about in your comments! It can surely be tough to separate what is said and how it is said no matter how professional we try to be!

      In some weird way I sort of appreciate your student for voicing an unpopular opinion.

      Your response also got me thinking about the frequency for topics to be discussed. This was a big part of the reason I chose the topic, because it is commonly discussed in the West and I figured talking about it in a safe space in my classroom for the first time would be much better than doing so with strangers “in the wild.”

      You mentioned how I analyzed my motivation for choosing the topic…I just mentioned part of it here.
      During class I sort of convinced myself that I opened the door for such comments by choosing the topic and sort of calmed myself down a bit with the realization that a series of choices that I’d made helped bring us to this point. This is to say that thinking about the root of the decisions helped me be more accepting to the message that I found distasteful. Thanks again for the comments. I appreciate you sharing your experience and giving me a chance to re-think mine!

  2. Rachael Roberts

    Yet another meaty and thought provoking post! This is a really big question. When I was a Director of Studies in a country which had better remain nameless, there was a furore over a not dissimilar incident in class. The teacher was using a coursebook with an article about a well known black Briton. Some of the students responded by making monkey noises and similar comments. The teacher was shocked and told them off (they were teenagers). Subsequently the students complained and the teacher was reprimanded by the owner of the school ( a local), who told us all, in no uncertain terms, that it was not our job to try and ‘teach’ anything other than English.
    I, together with all the teachers, thought that, especially with younger learners that it was our job to do more than teach English, and that we shouldn’t be expected to let it pass. But, it is a difficult one, as I can also see that we were expecting to be able to impose our values.
    I don’t think there is an easy answer to this type of conundrum. However, I think your gentle suggestion of a less aggressive way to express his opinion is a good start. And perhaps the teacher in my story might have taken the opportunity to encourage the students to examine their reaction to this black person, rather than switching straight into telling off mode?

    • EnglishCentral

      Michael,

      I think you handled it excellently. However, on the other hand, I’d really caution about handling these kinds of issues without the support of a qualified professional.

      I’m not a big one of “bureaucratizing” education but in regards to sexuality/gender issues and religion – you really need professionals who can deal with these things as support. If you don’t have this in your back pocket, you are looking for trouble. For example, what if there had been (unknown by you) a student who was LGBT? It might have some dire ramifications outside of class, set in motion by the small teacher driven idea of “awareness”. It really is much more serious than we usually think and especially in Korea.

      I don’t think teachers should have to go through so many sensitivity sessions and trainings as we do here in teacher training in the west. But on the other hand, I take at face value the need to really let this stuff be handled by professionals.

      I just read my own teaching evaluations this week. (yes, a little late and from last year but that’s life). I had one student teacher tell me that she was shocked I talked about a guy I went to teachers college with at the same university I teach at. – that this had severe ramifications for him (I’ll note, he was thrown out of the profession in Canada for having a consensual relationship with a student or trying to have one) – this feedback made me really think I should have been more cautious however well meaning I was.

      My perspective anyway and I try to tell teachers to pick their battles carefully ( and not personally).

      David

      • mikecorea

        Hi David,

        Thanks for the thoughtful comments. 🙂

        I think you make some interesting points and I also think that the cation that you urge is wise. erring on the side of caution seems like the best policy. I like the advice to “pick battles carefully and not personally” and think this is surely useful. Teaching is hard enough at times and there are a variety of problems that can arise so perhaps it’s not so helpful to put ourselves in such situations by our own decisions.

        You wrote that for “sexuality/gender issues and religion you really need professionals who can deal with these things as support.” As you can imagine, this is not a common thing on a college campus in Korea. My thought at the moment is that I guess really everything could be a religious issue if a student choose to make it so. This is to say that there are lots of behaviors that one student could do that might be deemed evil by other students.

        In another comment you shared your thoughts on the importance of neutrality and the aspect of teachers being careful not to play judge. I think there is a lot to say for this. This is something I will keep in mind.

        Thanks again for the thoughtful comments and for sharing your insights and experiences.

        Cheers,
        Mike

        ps- At the risk of sounding defensive I should say that “awareness” (which can certainly be valuable) was not exactly the main reason for choosing this topic…it was simply because it is something is that frequently talked about in the west and decidedly not talked about in Korea. I felt that having the experience talking about this in class would be preparation/practice/a starting point for when/if the topic comes up in their post grad school lives. I am not sure if this makes much of a difference but I felt compelled to share it.

    • Chiew

      Surely, if our job is “to teach English”, they mean is as “English language” and language means using the right expressions at the right time? It follows, therefore, that teaching someone how to express dislikes, how to express them in diplomatic ways falls within linguistic boundaries? Certainly, “I hate gays/Muslims/blacks/Asians/etc.”, I would think, isn’t something that ought to be said in open discussions. Or am I wrong?
      Chiew

      • mikecorea

        Good point, well made Chiew.
        I think your question really cuts to the core of things! I mean, what do we see as our jobs and what do we see as “not our jobs.” I think your point about using the “right expressions at the right time” is spot on. My thought (at this very moment) is that my role does include helping students say things in diplomatic ways so as to be best seen in the way they’d like to be seen. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Rachael!

      I think the story that you detail is a very interesting one and sounds like stories that I have heard in Korea as well. I fully agree with you that this is a conundrum without an easy answer. I wonder what “just teaching English” without any cultural element or potential disagreement would look like. Wow this is really complicated! Ha. I can see where the owner of the school is coming from! I mean, he doesn’t want all his clients to run away because they are being chastised for their beliefs and behaviors. Of course I can see where the teachers are coming from too.

      I am really fascinated by the different ways in which teachers envision their roles and how their beliefs affect this. As teachers it seems that we often categorize when our role is more towards “just teaching English” and more the other way.

      Back to the story that you mentioned (with all the applicable caveats of not having been there and not knowing now long it was going on or the students’ behavior that day or any number of things)
      It seems to me that telling off mode is unlikely to be the best mode (especially with teenagers) to foster a comfortable place to examine such values. Speaking of values, you wrote, “as I can also see that we were expecting to be able to impose our values.” I find myself wondering if this is/was a reasonable expectation on the part of the teachers. As above I appreciate the owner’s viewpoint and wishes but I can also see where the teachers are coming from As I mentioned in my comment to Laura sometimes perhaps the business relationship is not meant to be if the employer and employee have very different views on the roles of the teacher, what the teacher is really there for and how to handle such situations. Thanks so much for the comments. I apologize if this doesn’t make a lot of sense..it somehow does to me! 🙂

  3. Willy C Cardoso

    This is brilliant, Mike! This is one of my favorite kinds of blog post, one which what emerges from classroom participation and its challenges become much more important for the teacher and his/her reflection than what the actual task/activity/material were. I mean, I would be much less interested in reading a lesson plan on gay rights than an account of what really happened in a lesson. That said, I think you would relate to this post I wrote over a year ago, in which I had a similar problem with a homophobic students, my reaction was rather different from yours, but what made me happy were the comments I got from other bloggers (since the lesson itself was a disaster and I had not ‘a lesson to teach’ from it). http://authenticteaching.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/silence-and-control-part-ii/

    Re: you lingering questions.
    – Am I right in thinking that my job is to “just” teach English?
    My immediate response would be to say: NO! But on a second thought, I would say there’s no right or wrong, there’s your context, your motivation, your institutional constraints and support, etc. I would really like if all teachers of English thought that their jobs were part of what we call Education, but I kind of understand when they limit themselves to Language, in its simplified form. Nevertheless, my take is that any teaching is language teaching. And that if one really stops to think about it, they’ll see that ‘everything’ is language; it’s not just grammar and vocabulary and the four skills, as coursebooks and initial training would like us to think.

    – How far (if at all) is it appropriate for teachers to share their own views and positions?
    This is very personal. I always do, but also always trying to pay attention to power relations and how they can pan out. And I’m well aware that this is easier for me, due to the places I’ve taught (Brazil and UK), than it is for teachers elsewhere.

    – How far (if at all) is it appropriate for teachers to try to persuade students to think differently?
    I wouldn’t say persuade. I think it’s okay (maybe even advisable) for teachers to show students different perspectives and to raise their awareness of how their behavior/attitude/prejudice/bias/etc can have different responses in different places, and how language will play a major role in getting them into and out of trouble.

    Wow, thanks for this thought-provoking post and questions. I haven’t written in weeks and this really motivated me to.

    All the best
    Willy

    • mikecorea

      Hey Willy,

      Thanks so much for the comments! I really appreciate the support, thoughts and sharing of your experience.
      I am also very happy to help motivate you to write because I really love your blog!

      Thanks for sharing your blog post. What a great post! I love the honesty. There is a lot to think about there for sure. The comments were amazing. Anyone who is not Willy and is reading this should head immediately to http://authenticteaching.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/silence-and-control-part-ii/
      and have a look at the comments.

      I also thank you for your personal and thoughtful answers to my questions. It seems like “persuade” was a bit strong but I am with you in thinking that it can be ok/advisable for teacher to show students “different perspectives and to raise their awareness of how their behavior/attitude/prejudice/bias/etc can have different responses in different places, and how language will play a major role in getting them into and out of trouble.” I really like this idea of language potentially getting us into and out of trouble.

      Your point about the role of power relationships as related to teachers sharing their views is also one to keep in mind.

      Once again thanks for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Barbi Bujtas

    This is something you can’t avoid, human beings can’t avoid polishing each other, maybe a new window opened there 🙂

  5. @kevchanwow

    Michael,

    David has a point that without proper back-up and a little bit of care, teachers can find (place?) themselves in a dangerous situation when dealing with sensitive issues. But I wonder if it isn’t a bit over-cautious. Is it really necessary to avoid sensitive topics if we see a communicative act as a chance to teach English, first and foremost? Do the students know what their words mean? Is their intended message and the way a message is likely to be received and interpreted different? The phrase, “I hate gays,” can be taken apart and explained. It can be tied to other expressions which can result in pain and emotional injury. Each word can be placed within a wider context (exactly what is ‘gays’ in a plural form. Are gay people a homogenous group? What level of antipathy is meant by the word hate? Is it a word that is used in public spheres to describe personal feelings about a group of people? Is it appropriate in academia?). I think everything, even hate speech like this, can be brought back to the language that is being used and can be taught as language. Even the simple act of rephrasing a condemnation (“I hate ~”) as a positive expression of belief (“I was always taught that ~ is the right/positive…”). And if the a teacher pivots from a target, such as L/G/B/TG in this case, and connects it to a wider discussion of personal beliefs and how to engage in a community dialogue about such issues, the student who has thrown out the “hate bomb” and the students who might be within the target community can be made to feel safer.

    Is it our job to change our students or convince our students that the ideas or beliefs they hold are wrong? No. But it is our job to ensure that students use English in a way that will not deny them access to the communities they wish/need to join by studying English. “I hate —–,” expressed about any group in general, is a door closer, not a door opener. And letting a student know that isn’t a personal thing, it’s just one part of the job of a language teacher.

    Kevin

    p.s. All of that being said, I do think that a run down of what constitutes respectful expressions of opinion is a good way to open a class with sensitive topics. There’s a part of me that feels that all students should be able to explore a language in a classroom which is hate speech free.

    p.p.s I realize this comment sounds super high-horsy and all. But I’m gonna leave it as is. I realize that there are teachers out there that could lose their jobs by challenging a student about these kinds of issues, even if they kept the focus on the language used. But I’m just feeling like students throwing hate-bombs shouldn’t have the power to determine how those bombs are disposed of.

    • mikecorea

      Sir,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. Great, great comments. This makes blogging all the more worthwhile.
      I appreciate you leaving what you called “high horsey” comments (I didn’t see them like that by the way…just read as honest and thoughtful to me).

      I like your questions about examining the “hate sentence” in different ways. I imagine this is something that most people would agree would be within the realm of duties/responsibilities/rights/whatevers of an English teacher.

      I think that examining sentences like this for their appropriateness in different situations is also part of the job of an English teacher.

      You wrote, “I think everything, even hate speech like this, can be brought back to the language that is being used and can be taught as language” and I think this is a great idea to keep in mind.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Very helpful!

      ps-I like your thoughts on thinking first about what constitutes respectful expressions of opinions. I guess in this particular case I was sort of blindsided by the directness of the response. I am trying to imagine that particular class doing a primer on respectful language and wondering if it might have been seemed obvious to most people. Live and learn, I suppose.

      pps-Randomly, as I re-read your comments I couldn’t help but think of coursebooks (somehow) and why they are often so… plastic and boring. Great efforts have been made to eliminate the possibility for situations like I had to occur. I guess my thought for now is that I am happy to trade some moments of discomfort for all the positive learning opportunities that come from working with such topics.

      • Rachael Roberts

        I’ve already commented elsewhere, but, you know, the mention of plastic and boring coursebooks has galvanised me into another comment 🙂
        I don’t think that CBs avoid these topics because the writers (or even the publishers) want to eliminate the possibility of such situations occurring, but because it should be in the hands of the teacher (and the class) to judge how and whether they want to discuss such things.

      • mikecorea

        (Thanks for coming back!) Good point, well made. Fair enough. I would also say that there is something about economics in there too but perhaps that is a topic for another day. 🙂

        I think I was somehow “defending” coursebooks in a backwards way. Hahah.

      • Rachael Roberts

        Oh, definitely something about economics..publishers (and authors) want their book to be saleable in a wide variety of contexts. But I do also think that the teacher is the best person to make those tricky decisions. And fascinating discussions can come out of quite bland material- like the lesson I once taught on extreme sports where a student started to tell us all about his personal experience of russian roulette.
        And I’m not offended- just piqued enough to jump back in 😉

  6. @tamaslorincz

    Thanks Mike for this fantastic post.
    Confronting students with the baggage they bring from home is a very difficult challenge. Is there a right way of dealing with it? I don’t think so. Is it good to do so? I absolutely believe so.
    When I taught in the UAE (a country where coursebooks have to be censored by teachers with black felt pens to hide “inappropriate” exposure of knees and arms) I did not even dare to go anywhere near issues like this.
    When I went back to Budapest and taught in a secondary school in the heart of this European metropolis I thought yes, this is the place where you can have intelligent conversations with intelligent youngsters. Was I ever so mistaken!? I let loose tirades of gay-bashing, antisemitisim, gypsy-hatred and misogyny. Did I just want to leave the classroom in tears? Oh yes, many times. (To name two of the most memorable occasions: On Holocaust Memorial Day one of my 18-year-old students – now studying to be a layer (!)- said: I wish there was one day that wasn’t Holocaust Memorial Day. My last lesson with my brightest groups turned into a 17-to-1 stand off-about the “gypsy question”.)
    I still believe, however, that our students have the right (even if they don’t want to exercise it) to be exposed to ideas they don’t feel comfortable with. Yes, they have a right to their opinion – however appalling it is to me or your classmates BUT they must learn to formulate it in order to take part in intelligent conversation.
    Yes, I believe it is part of our remit as teachers to present students with ideas they may not like. You don’t preach or tell them what to think or do (parents and the media have already done that) you help them see the other side, you expose them to a different interpretation of facts. If in the meantime your point is revealed, that just adds to the conversation and teaches your students tolerance. (I don’t think you are the kind of teachers who tells students that there is only one truth – yours.)
    I applaud your determination to stick with the topic this semester and to make students think and argue about a topic they might be uncomfortable with. It makes them better speakers, deeper thinkers, and even, perhaps, better human beings.
    Like Willy, I thank you for making me think and write so much…..

    • mikecorea

      Hi Tamas,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts.
      (By the way it was great to see you on teachmeet the other day!)

      I think your experiences offer a lot to think about. One thing that comes to mind is how easy it is to think about other places as being backward or different but people in our own backyard might have views that we find appalling as well.

      Thank you also for your clear articulation of your beliefs about the roles of teachers.
      (I especially liked the idea and reasons for not preaching!)

      Finally thanks for the kind words and support for my decision to stick with the topic. I will see how it goes.
      I think discomfort in manageable amounts can be helpful. The point I keep coming back to is that it is ultimately worth it to confront controversial topics and help students express their opinions (whatever they might be) in intelligent ways.

      Thanks again for the comments and for helping me see things in a different light.

  7. EnglishCentral

    Barbi,

    I once thought that I never needed training to raise and discuss serious issues in my classroom. I don’t think so anymore.

    What I mean by “professionals” is teachers who have gone through workshops and training on how to handle these issues/topics in the classroom. It isn’t as easy as it appears. There are right ways to phrase things, a lot of things to not do, there is information that students should be given and a teacher should know – also takes a lot of practice to not be on auto pilot and respond in a manner that doesn’t cause problems. In TESOL there is also the additional problem of cultural misunderstanding that is a huge minefield. I’m also of the opinion (which I’ve arrived at over the years) that a teacher has no place being a “judge” and should not take a stand on an issue within the school / class. They should be neutral, no matter how seemingly horrid other students opinions may be. Not doing this, leaves the teacher in a position of having no impact on student learning and being a “moral and intellectual bully”.

    David

    Sorry for responding with this account – disqus won’t allow me any other path!

    • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

      I used to agree, thanks to TESOL training, with the thought that teachers are to be neutral. However, when you are teaching in a context (i.e. Canada) where there is an accepted attitude towards certain issues (e.g. LGBTQ and their rights), I no longer feel we are meant to allow a perpetuance of outdated, bigoted views in the classroom, especially since those opinions will not be met with a neutral response out in the “real world”. I don’t believe it is our place to overreact and condemn students for opinions they bring with them culturally in this regard, but it is our place to make them aware that their cultural baggage is not going to do them any justice in their new homelands. http://fourc.ca/considerations-of-the-lgbtq-in-elt-materials/

  8. EnglishCentral

    I’ll also add – if the aim/objective of the lesson is to get students critically thinking about “x” sensitive issue – I think it very unfair to do so in a second language unless students are of a very high level of fluency. Automatically, invisibly, if English is used, the teacher becomes a force of power and dominance in the classroom. Discussions should be in the L1 of the student if the goal is really “more than language”.

  9. Ben Naismith

    Hi Mike, great post.

    I think you handled it really well, but I’m curious: what would you have done if he hadn’t nodded in agreement to your rephrasing and instead had stuck to his homophobic guns? Trickier situation still. Sorry I have no answers, just more questions.

    On a side note, I don’t believe in teaching critical thinking to adults unless it’s something the students want to do or it’s academic English (evaluating sources, etc.). On the other hand, with YL’s I do think that incorporating other non-English lifeskills is part of the package, trying as hard as possible to not impose my values and to sticking to universally non-offensive skills like cooperation, fine motor skills, etc.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments and thoughts Ben!

      I love your question. More questions are always appreciated. I like to think that if he’d stuck to his guns I would have left it at that….and maybe even said something like “You are free to say and think what you’d like but my sense is that saying it like this will not really give a good impression most of the time…but again, feel free to say and think what you’d like.” I like to think that I wouldn’t have gotten to upset or tried to change his beliefs on the spot. I just really can’t see this being effective or helpful in any way.

      As for critical thinking…this is something I have been thinking about a lot lately (and would probably even blog about if I had more to say). I really think it is fascinating how teachers what is their role and what is not their role. I feel like I have heard lots of teachers assume that critical thinking skills are part of their remit even if the institution (and just as importantly the Ss) don’t feel that it is. My thought right now is that this thinking about the role is very important and then we can handle the thousands of decisions we have to make with that in mind.

      Thanks for reading and for pushing the conversation further.

  10. Philippe Renard

    You know, that is why in the US and anywhere else in the world, politicians make meetings with their followers and not with their opponents: I would not see a feminist woman in the middle of hardworker factory men claiming the right of a woman to work. A gay using the power of a teacher to bring gay rights in class is called is a demagogue. It is not forbidden to hate someone, is it? When a woman says “I hate you” to her partner, nobody says anything. But as soon as it is against a “recognised minority” (foreigners, homosexuals) it is already an issue.
    The world still considers smoking or drinking alcohol as “normal”, breaking traffic laws as “usual” and largely accepted as harmful for oneself and others, but still, the world continues to go the same way, not changing much. These things are already, by themselves, revolting for some part of the population mostly by those believers, but not only. Homosexuality had been condemned for the since Abraham, but existed before, still, it is only lately that it has been accepted as “normal” behaviour, but you can’t expect someone who obeys God’s law to follow you. Men’s law are breakable and changeable, why would you believe that every one agrees with you, just because you are what you are and that you are a teacher and that the law stipulates you can’t have hate speech accepted. And you are talking about it all over the internet, just for what? Attracting attention on you being a victim or accusing the poor chaps, or just for information on what to do or not do as a teacher? I really don’t get your point. The thing I get is that you are wrong. Full stop.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments. It is nice to read and think about different opinions.
      There is a lot to respond to and think about in your comments but I will try to leave the religious aspects out of it as much as possible.

      So, starting from the bottom.

      You say that I am wrong. I am not sure exactly what this means. What exactly am I wrong about?

      Moving backwards, you asked why I wrote this. This puts me in the unusual position of explaining the purpose of a blog post on my own blog. Simply, I thought that by sharing my experience I could help other teachers who might be faced with similar situations, situations in which students say something very surprising when talking about a controversial topic. I thought that by sharing my experience and thoughts I could also help myself for next time. I have been thrilled with the responses and insights that I have received from all around the world which to my mind (not that it is needed really) justifies my decision to write this post.
      I most certainly wasn’t writing out of victimhood or to accuse/criticize my student. My purpose was trying to learn from the experience.

      I never thought or assumed that everyone would believe with me…and fully accept this will not be the case. I don’t believe that I was trying to change anyone’s opinion. I simply said that maybe “I hate gays” is a bit stronger than what he might want to say.

      Perhaps my writing was not clear but I can tell you that I didn’t try to change anyone’s opinion. I simply chose a topic that is frequently talked about and students to talk about it through various tasks.

      I am still not certain that this was a great choice but I believe that by thinking about (and sharing) such decisions as a teacher we can help to make better decisions next time.

      My sincere question then is then, “Do you think it is fully acceptable in a classroom setting for a student to say, ‘I hate ____ (insert group here)'” without any intervention from the teacher? (Again I am not fully sure and I am genuinely curious about what others think.)

      You mentioned alcohol as well and I think that is a very interesting topic. Now this is something that some of my students surely enjoy while others might frown upon. I wonder if this is, in your view, a topic that should be avoided in class as well?

      Thanks again for stopping by. I suppose I will stop myself here because I am not convinced that you are interested in a reasoned discussion without judgments.

  11. pterolaur

    Brilliant post and fascinating comments. I think you handled the situation exactly right by focusing on the language, and whilst I’d like to tell myself I’d react like that too, in reality when my views have been strongly challenged by students I was much less calm. (Female sex workers, rather than the men who use them, should take the blame for the spread of HIV/AIDS, for example. Say what?) For me the question is: in the classroom, are we teachers first and human beings second? Is my obligation (as a teacher) to let it slide, or (as a human being) to question it? In any other context I *would* question it. I believe that the world is made worse by people ‘hating’ – or just not understanding – each other on the basis of arbitrary characteristics, whether for religious reasons (as the commenter above mentions) or just a lack of education and/or exposure, and staying quiet in the face of prejudice, wherever I am, makes me complicit.

    I’m finding it quite difficult even to comment without getting cross, which probably means (in my intolerance of intolerance) I’m the worst kind of hypocritical, hand-wringing, muesli-knitting liberal there is. But anyway: thank you for writing this. I think it’s REALLY important.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Laura,

      Thanks so much for the comments. You know what? Your comments led me to what I think is an incredibly important realization (more on that below).

      Thanks also for the kind words. This post was on my mind for ages and I am happy that I finally took the time to write it up.

      I also really appreciate they way in which your comments shares your beliefs about the world and possible roles as a teacher/human in class. I also think it is interesting that you mentioned “other contexts” outside of class as well because I think it something to consider, especially when teachers often talk about authenticity.

      There are many things that I am still thinking about but one of them is something like, “What sort of potential benefits are there in actually confronting a student who has beliefs that are very different from our own?” At this point I don’t see a whole lot. I am quite sure that the student in my example was not just going to see my perspective in 20 minutes.

      This is of course not to begrudge and teacher humans that might confront in that case…just something I am thinking about…as I wonder about the possible upsides. Lots to think about and thanks for coming along and adding your thoughts.

      Thanks again and take care,
      Mike

      ps***without further ado. My big realization is this. I don’t think I want to work in a place that doesn’t want me to be a human. If I can’t be real human as I imagine myself being then probably it is not going to work out for me and that organization. Now, I really (as in truly and very much) love my job but if I suddenly had to not be myself or not be a human then I think I would have to find another job and I think that it would be for the best for all parties involved. And if nobody wanted to hire me as a teacher because of being human, well that is also fine too there are other jobs out there. I am not saying that I am suddenly going to be a revolutionary but I am feeling more comfortable in my decisions to be a human. (So thanks for that!!)

      pps lol “muesli-knitting!”

  12. Kevin Giddens

    Hey Mike,
    What a thought-provoking post! Yesterday during a workshop on teaching civics to immigrants and refugees (in the US), my colleague Radmila Popovic introduced a new acronym (for me anyways) PARSNIP (Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Nudity, Israel and Pork). I learned that it’s a term course book writers and publishers use to remind themselves of things to avoid in their books. As you know, I’ve always avoided discussing gay issues in class because I don’t feel that I could mediate the debate without getting too emotionally involved. That said, it seems that if we’re going to breach any of these issues our own beliefs are bound to surface – and what’s wrong with that? I’ve been playing with this idea a lot lately – in particular around the idea of what socio-political implications lie beneath basic TESOL practices. The idea of “only teaching language” implies that we can somehow separate our beliefs from our language and our teaching. We don’t need to discuss PARSNIP issues to bring politics into our classroom. Simply the way we talk (using our own and our Ss first names, sharing our point of views with our elders, etc…) and the way we teach (pair work, debates, promoting learner autonomy…) embody a democratic worldview that may not be shared by our learners. Perhaps it’s time that we dissolve the illusion of neutrality and instead be explicit that the way we speak and teach English is rooted in a worldview that believes all learners have an equal voice and a fair chance at succeeding despite where they come from; that different points of view are valid and protected; and that respect is earned.
    Kevin

  13. Candy

    Hi Mike
    Great post and something that seems to be engendering more and more discussion: critical thinking and its cousins have almost become de rigeur in the English language classroom. We cannot assume. patronisingly, that because we don’t “go there”, our lovely students are never going to have to deal with such sensitive issues or have to be in such uncomfortable situations. We do need to tackle these things and I cannot imagine a better way of handling it than you did. I feel, as a language teachers, there are three situations in which we are honour-bound to intervene and/or correct – namey, if it is the target language, if students would be humiliated by something they were trying to say and probably most importantly, if they would cause offence by what they are saying.
    As a South African, I am hyper-sensitive to anything at all that may be deemed racist and this has primed me for almost all and every other area where bigotry and intolerance thrive. I have learnt through bitter experience that changing minds is not going to happen, so arguing or getting heated just doesn’t pay. If, however, we are in the business of language teaching, I feel it behoves us to point out, exactly as you did, that “hate” speak is offensive and should be tempered when in mixed race/cultural/sex and anything else company.
    Thanks again.
    Candy

    • mikecorea

      Hello Candy,

      Thanks for the comments Much appreciated. I liked how you shared your criteria for intervention. I will keep these in mind for sure. I think that having a clear map of when and why we might intervene will be very helpful the next time I am shocked by a statement from a student. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experiences I found them very helpful. I am very happy I chose to blog about this because I have seen so many great comments, including yours.

      Cheers,
      Mike

  14. Scott Thornbury

    Great post, Mike … not a lot I can add that hasn’t already been said except to pick up on a point made earlier: “Men’s law are breakable and changeable, why would you believe that every one agrees with you…?”

    It’s precisely because there are multiple perspectives on all issues, and because these perspectives are usually debated, negotiated, reconciled (or not) by language, that we owe it to our learners to engage with them. Cynthia Nelson, in her 2009 book ‘Sexual Identities in English Language Education: Classroom Conversations (2009) puts it better than I can: “in discussing lesbian/gay themes in the intercultural arenas of language classes, moments of conflict, disagreement, or discomfort are perhaps to be expected. This is especially the case given the vast changes that are rapidly taking place worldwide with regards to the visibility and legitimacy of historically subjugated sexual identities and communities…. Sexual diversity discourses are being transformed in significant ways, which is exactly why language learners may find it useful to unpack them. As I have argued elsewhere, ‘It is precisely those aspects of culture that are in flux, and are being contested, that are most likely to confuse students. How to negotiate competing discourses may be exactly what language students need to learn. In ESL contexts, the fact that discussing lesbian and queer themes can be complex culturally is precisely why doing so can be productive pedagogically. Not productive in the sense of furthering a gay agenda or a campaign for gay rights — but in terms of enhancing the ability to understand, participate in, and negotiate discursive practices’.”

    • mikecorea

      Great quote, Scott!
      That is perfect and exactly what I was thinking. I really like the emphasis on “negotiating competing discourses” and I believe that such negotiation is helpful for not only this topic at hand but also other hot topics. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing.

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  16. Rima

    Hi,
    Sorry to barge in like this but your post and other teachers’ comments urged me to participate.
    Your post reminds me of a student I had last year in my class. During the first meeting session with the students, I asked them of their opinion about the importance of learning languages most notably English; while most of the class endeavoured to provide persuasive arguments backing the worthiness of studying English given the status and position it gained globally, one student bluntly retorted “I hate English!” Noticing I was quite taken aback by her statement she added “ I prefer German, I’d rather study German.” Her second statement relieved me; at least I could get a hint where she was coming from and what pushed her to have such a negative stance towards learning English. I responded “ you are absolutely free to like or dislike any language you fancy. I wish I could be able to teach you German but I’m a teacher of English. I also wish that one day it would be humanly and logistically possible for schools to teach languages students CHOOSE to study rather than the other way around; it’ll be great! But I still hope to see you again in my class.” She was the most regular student turning up into my class for the whole school year. She explained to me later that English was her favourite subject and did her uttermost to have excellent grades in the baccalaureate but was very disappointed to get average marks.
    I know that my student’s statement and reaction are totally different from your Korean student’s but I’d be a liar to tell you that when the girl exclaimed “I hate English!” I didn’t feel chills down my spine. I had a flashback to a period in my country -Algeria- in the mid 90s when a similar statement could be followed by death threat made to your face or written in huge characters on the blackboard or even stones thrown in your direction for teaching the language of the kafer. I taught during this dark and atrocious period in the history of my country that lasted more than 15 years; I’ve experienced what I’ve just mentioned above and known misled and brainwashed kids unfortunately sullying the image of what has always been the land of moderate and tolerant Muslims; the land of great soufists and religious mystics preaching love, peace, cohabitation and coexistence of religions and races. It’s been also the land of great humanistic Christian theologians of Amazigh descent like Saint Augustine of Hippo.
    Luckily, things have greatly improved since then but back to your question “ does a teacher teach more than language?” I’d say yes, yes and yes! I teach tolerance and peace to my students; I don’t claim to be some mystic though!
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Take care
    Rima

    • mikecorea

      Hello Rima,

      Thanks so much for the comments.
      You were not barging in at all. Very much appreciated.
      (Your comments came at a very busy time and I somehow managed to convince myself that I had already responded but realized recently that I hadn’t….much to my shame because I really enjoyed and appreciated your thoughtful comments.)

      I am so glad you chose to participate!

      I loved your detailed description of the event (not the event itself!) and think you captured the event with your student very nicely. I think it is a nice reminder that there is always a background story.

      Thank you also for sharing aspects of your country’s history. This really made me think! You wrote, “I teach tolerance and peace to my students” and I think this is great to read. I was greatly touched that my post could be considered thought provoking by someone who wrote such thought provoking comments.

      Thanks again for stopping by and I hope to see you again (anytime!) for another “conversation.”

      All the best,
      Mike

      • gikar

        Hi,
        I was afraid you might have thought I quite diverted from your original topic to refer to an extreme case of intolerance. In a sense I needed to get that out of my chest and I’m glad you understood and made this space available to me. Speaking about a traumatic decade that most of the people in my country wish could forget about and move on with their lives isn’t an easy task neither for me nor for any Algerian who was in the country during the civil war. I’m quite surprised after reading my comment again to find out it carries optimistic undertones when deep down I don’t really know where my country is heading to. The battle against terrorism was indeed won but unfortunately not that against the dreadful virus of fundamentalism: that’s a relentless and ruthless struggle on a daily basis. How long will it last? I have no idea when my country will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel again.
        I needed to add this.

        Thanks again Michael.

        Best wishes

        Rima

  17. Benjamin Stewart (@bnleez)

    “Am I right in thinking that my job is to “just” teach English?”

    I’ve never considered my responsibility as a teacher in terms of teaching English to others. Instead, my responsibility is to create an educative environment that allows my students to improve their English knowledge, skills, and habits of mind. In the process of learning English as an additional language, students invariably learn something about themselves, so I see my job as guiding students towards this new identity – one that is in a constant state of flux.

    But forming a new identity has little to do with my personal beliefs as their teacher. Granted, teachers are seldom completely objective when standing in front of a class, but I do make a concerted effort to separate my personal views with those of my students. When discussions hit a brick wall, or the learning process seems to halt, I do offer opinions (which are made explicit) in order to keep things moving. But in the case of social issues where the objective is to express opinions or perspectives, the goal is typically whether students can communicate an idea with someone else or not. With hot-topic issues, I ask students to share perspective instead of opinions so that they too have a chance to separate their own opinions from how others may feel.

    One thing I completely refrain from doing is sharing my opinions about social issues, politics, religion, etc. with my students. Students learn best (IMHO) when they begin appreciating diversity of opinions among their peers. I don’t equate this with trying to persuade everyone to think the same way, but rather that students acknowledge and respect the different perspectives others may have (although they may disagree). The opinions that I do share pertain to learning tactics, strategies, content, tips, etc. that directly relate to the learning process, and I share these (subjective) opinions with my students on a daily basis.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Benjamin,

      Thanks so much for the comments. I am terribly sorry for the long delay in responding. Your insightful and thoughtful comments came at a crazy time for me and I somehow thought I had already responded. I am just now realizing that I didn’t! Once again, thanks and sorry.

      I think you helped me make some sense of what I think is necessarily a complicated issue. I like your point about Ss finding and forming new identities and the teacher’s role in that.
      I also really like the idea of being explicit when offering opinions and also refraining from sharing opinions on social issues.

      One thing that I am finding in some of my classes is that sometimes my views on the world (identity) also influence how I might say things and what words I might choose. I think this is very interesting and seems to me to be a push for being as authentic as possible.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
      Much appreciated. I think it is quite fascinating to see how different teachers view their roles.

  18. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    I’m not sure what conclusions exactly you think we have come to differently, Mike. Maybe this one?

    “When shocked by statements from students I will resist the temptation to “correct their wrong thinking” and will try not to give my opinion unless I am asked.”

    I don’t necessarily disagree on some levels, but I do think that it is our responsibility to create a safe environment for our students, some of whom are LGBTQ, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not. We ARE a model for behaviour and attitude, so shutting down bigoted opinions and aiming to change them isn’t wrong for us. In other topics, i.e. politics or religions, to each their own, I suppose. I guess it’s somewhat of a fine line.

    Having taught in Korea myself, I can see the urge to have a dedicated topical day to “gay rights”. I did it myself many times, to much frustration. Maybe a different way to tackle it is just to go about other topics by inclusively using gay couples as an example, matter-of-factly, instead of making them the focus of the lesson. What do you think?

    • mikecorea

      Hello Tyson!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      I guess my take away from your post was that I *should be abandoning a topic solely on gay rights.
      I can certainly see the reasons for this, but as I (finally managed to) express somewhere here in the comments I think that this is a topic that Korean/international students would benefit from some exposure to and I think the negotiation of complicated ideas is just the thing that students (at higher levels at least) need to keep improving.

      You wrote that it is a fine line with a lot of these hot issues and I fully agree with you. You mentioned that for religion/politics it might be a case of “to each their own.” I am mostly with you on this but I can also see (have actually seen) how religion can be a big influence on issues related to LGBTQ.

      I also thank you for sharing your thoughts on the role of the teacher for shutting down bigoted opinions. I suppose this is something I am still thinking about and is not quite a role I am ready to fully embrace.
      Which is interesting because I am still keen on choosing difficult topics. 🙂

      I really like your idea of matter of factly introducing gay couples and this is something I could/will surely try out.

      Thanks again and also thanks for writing such an insightful and important post.

      cheers,
      Mike

      Ps-It is interesting to note that our contexts are probably similar in that I am in a graduate school of International Studies where the (roughly 50% Korean) students use English all day for lectures and assignments and interacting with their classmates.

      PPS Non-Tyson people, please check out his blog post on a similar topic: http://t.co/yxlshLGX
      I mentioned on twitter that we came to different conclusions….thus the references to “coming to different conclusions.” Check out his post to see what I meant.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

        I lived in Seoul before, during and after Hong came out. I hung out with him quite a few times (well, we were at the same table, not alone as friends); he had a bar in Itaewon for a while. It was a big thing then. Then there was the Ha Ri Su hot issue… Seriously now though, there are so many obviously gay male entertainers appearing everywhere.

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