We need to talk about Caitlyn – Breaking down a deep-seated cultural taboo

Last June the world met the woman formerly know as Bruce Jenner. A star was born in a white bustier corset.

caitlyn-jenner-vanity-fair

Caitlyn Jenner
Vanity Fair

Later on, the docu-series I am Cait premiered on E! at the end of July. Journalists and commentators say that we have reached a tipping point due to the recent rise in transgender awareness. While this may be true to some extent in the States, Brazil, the country that I live in, accounts for 51% of trans and gender diverse murders in Central and South America, with 689 reported killings since 2008. It is believed that this number is in fact much higher than official figures show.

After the Diane Sawyer interview Jenner was back to the spotlight. As I watched her interview, I wondered the pain she must have endured all those years. We all have, at some point in our lives, felt uncomfortable with our bodies. Maybe it was our skin, hair or even those love handles that no matter how hard you work out at the gym, never seem to go away. However, hair can be cut, for extra fat there is exercise and if you’re too skinny, dieting can help with that too. For extreme cases of discomfort, there is plastic surgery. How do you cope with looking in the mirror and feeling that the way you look does not match the way you see yourself? On top of that, because it is not just about looks, you feel are not the gender people say you are. Even though I can’t relate to Caitlyn completely because I don’t have problems with the gender that was assigned to me at birth, I can relate, to some extent, to the struggle. And as they say, the struggle is real.

You may be wondering in what ways this is related to English language teaching.

I remember being an English learner and the homework was a composition about marriage. That was it, the word ‘marriage’ at the top of the page and lines to write about, well, marriage. Not very communicative, I know. I decided that I would write about gay marriage and why I thought it should be allowed in Brazil. Needless to say it was illegal back in the day. I felt frustrated when I received my text back with nothing but language feedback. Partly because I’d decided to write about gay marriage because I wanted to provoke, but I also wanted to talk to an adult (in that case, my teacher) about that topic. My experience as a learner helped shape me into the teacher I am today. I often ask myself what I can provide my students with that I wish I’d had when I was a student.

It was natural that Jenner would become a topic in my lessons. She’s a celebrity on the cover of Vanity Fair, a trailblazer for trans issues and the talk of the town. On one of these occasions, at the end of a lesson a student said she was happy we had talked about Caitlyn and that it was something she’d never had the opportunity to talk about in a class. It got me thinking about what we usually talk about in an English class: vacations, health, occupations…

Rinvolucri (1999) talks about an EFLese sub-culture that dictates EFL coursebook content. According to him, EFL topic choices avoid the ‘shadow side of life’, ignore feelings such as rage, jealousy and greed, cater to the riches and middle classes of the Metropolitan World and avoid ideological statements. It is a comfortable world with no room for controversy.

Thornbury (1999) calls attention to the fact that gays and lesbians are invisible in coursebooks. Not much has changed in the past 16 years. I remember an LGBT flag in one of the Framework series I used 10 years ago, don’t know if they’ve kept it in the new editions. I can’t think of the word gay in any of the coursebooks I currently use. While I imagine (and hope) gay issues pop up in ELT materials here and there, I suspect finding a coursebook that deliberately tackles transgender issues would be rather difficult, not to say impossible.

Many may think that our job is to teach language and we shouldn’t be concerned with controversial topics in our classrooms. It is important to highlight that language does not happen in a vacuum outside context. If we use trivial topics such as fashion, entertainment and vacations and somehow manage to engage students, imagine what can be achieved with current issues that arouse interest.

The EFL/ESL classroom is composed of individuals from different backgrounds and identities. It is an objective of language education to develop the learner’s sense of identity in response to the experience of otherness (Council of Europe, 2001). Therefore, we should provide learners with opportunities to broaden their horizons with diversified experiences of otherness.

Although students’ identities sometimes remain hidden (a transgender student who hasn’t transitioned or come out yet, for instance), they play a major role in the learning process. In EFL/ESL classes, students are often asked to share a great deal of personal information in order to make tasks more meaningful. As Menard-Warnick (2005:262) points out, ‘Language learners can only be successful to the extent that it is congruent with the learners’ sense of their gender roles, societal positions, class backgrounds, and ethnic histories.’ How can learning take place if the environment is not accepting enough to even acknowledge the fact that, for some people, there is a mismatch between the gender they were assigned and the gender they feel they are?

If mainstream ELT materials make no reference to transgender people, what can we do, as teachers? We show people exist, that’s the first step. Fortunately there are some transgender spokespeople out there, such as the previously mentioned Cailtyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox and many others.

The big question is: how can I do that? I don’t feel there is a simple answer. There are many factors that should be taken into consideration. Dealing with sensitive topics is definitely not as easy as showing photos of mountains and beaches and asking students which their preferred location is. While we cannot always foresee areas of conflict, we must come prepared. You can only show what you are comfortable with. It is imperative that we educate ourselves first so we can educate others.

We should be careful not to create situations that would make students pass judgment. Discussing trans issues in class should not be about questioning and debating people’s life choices, but creating a move loving, accepting and safer environment.

I would love to know your take on this. Have you ever dealt with this topic in class? If not, how do you think you could start? Let me know in the comments.

References:

Council of Europe. (2001). Common European framework of reference for the teaching of languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2005). Both a fiction and an existential fact: theorizing identity in second language acquisition and literacy studies. Linguistics and Education, 16, 253–274.

Rinvolucri, M. (1999). The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect. Folio. Vol. 5/2 : 12-14

Thornbury, S. (1999). Window-dressing vc. Cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. Folio Vol. 5/2: 15-17.

Teaching online with Jack Askew

‘Not everybody can be an entrepreneur’, you probably heard this before way too many times. It’s almost like entrepreneurs are a special, genetically-modified type of race.

Not everybody can be an entrepreneur because not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur (and that’s ok).

If you want to start a business, expand a business or simply supplement your income, today’s interview is for you. I talked to Jack Askew from Teaching ESL Online and I am sure you are going to learn a lot about online teaching.

I’d love to know a bit more about you. Are you somehow involved with online teaching and, if so, how?

Thank for watching!

T.

What to do if you are dismissed

I can’t remember exactly how old I was, 19, maybe 20. I’d been working there for about a year and it was my first registered job, which means that I was a trainee teacher before. This was a place that I really liked to work at. The atmosphere was great, I got along well with my co-workers, my coordinator (to whom I am so grateful for) and even the secretaries.

It was summer, most teachers were on vacation. I was teaching one-to-one and was also responsible for placement tests. My coordinator and I stayed in touch and she supported me from a distance.

One day this student came looking for a one-to-one program. She needed a teacher to help her with the test she was going to take in a few months. As the program would be created from scratch, my coordinator and I agreed that payment should not be the same. I had to talk to the school owner and negotiate with him.

I had a meeting with the school owner and we didn’t come to an agreement. The discussion was civil, he didn’t seem upset. I was not teaching that student. What I didn’t know is that I wasn’t teaching anyone else anymore at that school.

The following day or a few hours later, I can’t recall, the accountant calls me to go to his office and give him some documents because I had been dismissed. I talked to my coordinator on the phone and she advised me to go there and try to talk to the school owner. It was useless. He barely looked at me and said ‘I don’t want to talk to you, teacher’. Yes, he used to address all teachers not by the name, but calling them ‘teachers’.

Some months before the infamous talk with my boss, I had started working at another language school. The pay was better and there were benefits. I was very happy to be working for those two institutions.

It was probably a good thing. If I hadn’t been dismissed, I’d have kept working at the school that paid less and offered no benefits and for one simple reason: because I liked it there.

Rejection hurts.

In today’s episode, I will talk to a teacher who doesn’t even understand why she was fired. You will also see a fun new segment. I hope you have as much fun watching as I had making this episode.

I would love you to help her. Any tips for her new job?

T.

My experience attending TOSCON – The TESL Toronto Spring Conference

Last week I was in Toronto for TOSCON15. I decided that I should attend more conferences this year and this was the perfect one for a number of reasons that I explain later in more detail.

I also gave a talk about one-to-one teaching, the first I give away from home.

Why TOSCON15?

In 2013 I had to travel to the USA for business and visiting Canada seemed to be a good idea for a short vacation. I may have been influenced by a friend who had lived in Toronto and by the TV series Being Erica (I was obsessed with that show). My chosen destination was Vancouver, though. Needless to say, I fell in love with the city and the country. There is something about Canada that I don’t think I can translate into words, as cheesy as that may sound. People are so helpful and welcoming. It’s the kind of place where strangers call you a cab if you ask for directions on how to find one. Canadians are the kind of people who will come to you and ask if you need help when you are holding a map, puzzled trying to figure out your way. All this may be ordinary to you, my fellow Canadian who’s reading this, but it isn’t to me and I want you to know that I do not take these acts of kindness for granted and really appreciate them.

Back to 2013, when I came back after a great time in Vancouver I was curious to connect with other teachers from Canada. I searched for teaching associations in Vancouver, but couldn’t find any in the quick search I made on Google. Then I found Tyson Seburn, which is odd, because he’s based in Toronto. I saw his blog on Facebook and noticed two people from my PLN had ‘liked’ the page. Interesting, I thought.

Tyson is the president of TESL Toronto and last year I saw some posts about TOSCON14 and I felt like going. A seed had been planted.

The conference

I was really impressed with the quality of this conference. Having been to many and once involved in the organization of a small conference when I was in university, I can only imagine how hard the TESL Toronto Board had to work to put everything together.

Food is not a reason why people go to conferences, but the gala dinner on day 1 and lunch on day 2 were superb. Many opportunities to network. It was the first time I’ve been to a conference that I didn’t know anyone. The first five minutes are bit uncomfortable, but Canadians are so warm it doesn’t take much to strike up a conversation.

The speakers

I attended some great talks and a workshop. My initial idea was to take some notes to write summaries, but I got quickly involved with the talks and didn’t take detailed notes. Besides, you will be able to see the slides from the presentations you are interest in as they become available. Stay tuned on their Facebook page.

Fortunately, I managed to talk to two great speakers:  Kate Finegan and Russell Mayne. I know the camera can be a little intimidating, thank you so much Kate and Russell for the interviews.

If you are curious about the sessions, you can see the full program here.

I hope you enjoy the interviews and that this post encourages you to go to the conference next year.

How to promote student autonomy

I remember this student I had, Claudia. She was a woman in her early fifties, elementary level, the kind of student who passed with flying colors, except she passed the same level over and over. As strange as it may sound, Claudia always and only took the beginner course. She’d always have an excuse why she had to stop studying and an even better excuse why she should start again from the very beginning. She was a legend at the English Institute I worked at. She did not seem to have any cognitive issues that would affect her learning.

It was the middle of the semester when there was this torrential rain. All students were absent but Claudia. I was ready to (try to) go home, as this would be my last class that day, when Claudia arrived soaking wet. I was not happy to see her.

She was a nice student, don’t get me wrong, but the idea of taking two more hours to get home on a rainy day was definitely not a good one. I was quick to put a smile back on my face to make sure she didn’t notice my dissatisfaction.

It was revision day, so I decided to go over her notes and see what she had problems with. Not that I expected any, after all, she was taking that course for the 100th time. ‘Well, Claudia, you don’t have any questions, so let’s do some exercises that revise units 1-4.’ ‘It’s not necessary, I have the exercises from the teacher from last year.’ I explained to her that the exercises were not the same, as I had prepared them based on the mistakes the group had made in the last quiz.

After 10 minutes, Claudia had finished the exercises and, no surprise, it was all correct. ‘Why are you here?’. There, I said it. I never meant to sound deliberately rude, so I rephrased my question, with nicer words, emphasizing how great she was.

We spent the rest of the lesson talking about her issues. Claudia had always been very insecure and she did not think she was ready to move on to the next level, despite having good exam results and positive feedback from previous teachers. I managed to convince Claudia that, if she had good results, she should take the next course. That’s what she did.

Claudia is one of those students who lack confidence and need the teacher’s attention 100% of the time. During that term, Claudia managed to be a bit more autonomous.

In today’s episode, I share some tips for you to give your students some autonomy and hopefully they will not turn into a Claudia.

Now I am curious to hear from you: have you ever had a student (or students) that were too dependent on you? If so, what did you do?

 

Teachers and social networks

The other day I got involved in a heated debate on LinkedIn. I was promoting the interview I did with Marek Kiczkowiak and there was this person was way too aggressive. I decided not to reply anymore given the nature of the arguments, but some great people were willing to take a stand against discrimination and decided to take part in the discussion. Nathan Hall even wrote an article about it! Thank you all for your contributions, you have raised the level of that discussion.

Unfortunately, that was not the first (and probably not the last) time there is a backlash against people who want to advocate for equal rights. Recently Nicola Prentis and Russ Mayne gave a talk at this year’s IATEFL called ‘Where are the women in ELT?’. Two speakers, a man and a woman. Can you guess who had to deal with nasty comments?

I wonder why some people don’t filter out inappropriate comments or actions in social settings these days. This has always been a problem, but in today’s world, this can get you fired.

 Social networks are here to stay and they encourage people to live lives online and it may be difficult to know what to share and what to keep private. How much should we share with students, co-workers and bosses?

In today’s episode I give some ideas about how to juggle your personal and virtual life.

I hope you found it entertaining and informative. What about you? How do you manage your online presence? I’d love to know!

T.

Equity in ELT

I am proud to announce today’s episode, our very first interview here on ELT TV.

Marek Kiczkowiak has been my number one choice since I decided to start a monthly interview segment and I was very happy when he said he’d give me an interview.

He embodies some characteristics that every teacher should have, especially non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs): persistence and selflessness.

We NNESTs often complain, most of the time with fellow NNESTs, about how unfair our industry is at times, but how many of us actually do something about it? Not many.

Marek is the living proof that everyone can make a difference. After being denied a job because he was not a native speaker of English, he created a great movement that advocates in favour of NNESTs, the rest is history.

The truth is we have to try harder. NNESTs are not given the same opportunities. If you don’t think there is prejudice against NNESTs, I invite you to have a look at recent job ads and draw your conclusions from there.

Once a person told me that I was playing the victim when I said NNESTs have fewer opportunities. What I said to this person was that I wasn’t a victim, I was a voice. Speaking out against the injustices of the world doesn’t make anyone a victim. Unfortunately, some people seem to have little understanding of the concept of privilege.

As you may have realized by now, I am into challenges and this may be a good opportunity to start one. Here it goes: write about why you think native and non-native English speaker teachers should have equal employment opportunities. It can be a blog, a Facebook post or even a tweet. Speak your mind! Use the hashtag #PassportsShouldNotMatter for us to keep track. If you are feeling adventurous, grab a smartphone and make a video. Be one of the voices that will change our industry!

Having said that, I would like to challenge someone who I know is proud to be a Brazilian, Higor Cavalcante. Higor has been in ELT for nearly 17 years, and is a freelance teacher, teacher educator and writer. His main interests in ELT are language development for teachers, extensive reading and phonology. Higor recently gave a great talk on NESTs and NNESTs at the IATEFL Conference. Don’t forget to check his blog. He also regularly blogs at RichmondShare.

I hope you found this interview informative. Please, share it with your friends (native and non-native English speakers).

Thank you so much for watching, see you next time!

T.