Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections on my TESL Program

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Teaching has always been an endeavor to me and it has confronted me with great many challenges in the past. The experiences, shortcomings, lack of resources that once posed nightmares to me, now stand at a distance flickering to remind me that each and every one of them had the worth and significance to go through and that they all became part of a journal that I can flip through to account for just those glitches in my teaching career. Accordingly, I would be able to say that the learning and teaching matters that took place within the learning environment should never be neglected and there should always be something, like the roll call sheet from those classes, to bring back, at least, just some of those memories; not romantic ones but academic to see how much one has improved through course of time.

It was some years back that I had just gone through TESL classes and I was almost equipped to face the challenges of ESL courses. I must confess that I was quite intimidated by the new things I had to apply to my new teaching experience and at times I remember I would recoil at the thought that a mistake in the class would mean a collapse and demoralization in my part. The fear of doing something wrong kept me on my toes and it made me prepare everything so profoundly with good plans and timing, responding to every instinct of panic in my awareness.

The threshold came when the institute I was teaching at, proposed a class of adult engineers out of site, to be taught twice a week on regular basis for 6 months. The students were part of the staff at XXX Ministry who were well-known to have a good background in ESL and associated academics. My involvement in teaching ESL was good enough to take up the class and go through the challenges it could impose and the picture I had made in my mind was strictly academic one for highly educated people. However, I did not consider one thing that was purely non-academic; the students were very conservative and religious. Since the trend of government and policies are based on socio-religious matters, and most employees have been selected by interviews to certain positions in almost most ministries, the atmosphere of these offices are strictly run by codes of behavior that normally would not fit within the curriculums of teaching, mainly TESL.

To begin with, we have always been imparted as teachers, in many workshops, that part of a learning autonomy is the recognition of the individual in cultural, racial, sexual, and religious levels and that each person’s identity should be taken into account when selecting materials and even teaching style. Moreover, I was not equipped enough to deal with such class of this kind and almost failed to relate to the students to communicate the materials to them. In fact, every part of the curriculum had to be redesigned to adapt it and make it digestible to the norm of the class. I am not sure if anyone could make a malleable course for such sporadic class.

The level of the class, based on the placement tests (OPT) stood at an intermediate level with both sexes, from ages of 34-45. brickwallThe first thing I realized about the students was the they were not there at their own will and that their related departments had obliged them to take this course for their prospective trips to various Gulf or European countries for the purposes of seminars, negotiations etc. Naturally, the students’ attention was not always on the lessons I was giving and most of the time there were many people who did not attend class. They often failed to do their homework and their lack of participation hindered the class to a halt. My own failure as an ESL teacher was, that I had not realized, that I was the one who had to switch to different activities or change the syllabus to divert the class to a livelier, flexible course, to make the student want to attend class and feel excited about the activities. I just kept on my hard headed approach and went along the lesson plan I thought was adequate.

The worst part was when the class coordinator reported the students’ dissatisfaction and criticized me for the deficiency of management in the course and also the negative feedback he had received. This really accosted me to thinking that I should quit the class or find another teacher to fill in my position. I had never experienced such disgrace and denouncement through my teaching career, still thinking that they were to be blamed for their behavior and actions.

globeLater that same month, half way through the course, as there was a religious holiday coming up, I decided to take in a reading task with the subject of “Religious festivals”, to change the mood and tone of the students and give them something diverse for a change. I was desperate to get them to talk and react. I made up the task and also planned many activities with a short clip to teach. As I was handing out the copies, I suddenly realized that the students were strangely starting to read the text and were almost half way to the end which brought a big surprise to me. This was the first time in this class the students were engaged in a unison activity they were not even instructed for. To my amazement, the reading lesson went extremely well and the students were so involved in the lesson that I had not realized that the class was nearing its end. The students would not leave the class and carried on the discussion on the festivals, expressing their personal ideas. I was not sure what had happened.

When the class came to an end and most of the students had left, I sat down reflecting on what grabbed such diverse class to be so attracted to the activities that were just like the other activities we had done and what changed the stubbornness in them. It was very obvious that the subject matter and the way I had treated it-with respect-won me the objective. The students were thrilled to see a teacher who actually communicated with them through their own mode of thought, in this case religious history, and to know the issue well enough to elaborate it and blow it so wide to make a class activity out of it. I had simply overlooked the cultural and socio-economic atmosphere of my class and the bias these people had on western media, which simply brought it to a standstill. My teacher trainer had never brought up the issue of difference in a neutral way; the trend was that the Eurocentric notion of teaching and its subject matter was always the norm and the purpose of the course is creating a learning environment. This was the pitfall I fell into: “Eurocentrism”.

Further, classes may have many biases and principles that are outright for their own culture and traditions where the Eurocentric trend of thought would not be suitable and so when approaching such classes, their ethnicity and their background should never be ignored. That is the reason why publishers of many text books today take into account the hijab or Islamic hair cover in their books, not for mere respect, but for making the text more palatable to the students. There are also many other instances as such in ESL course books, specifically for Gulf region countries, that avoid blatant boy and girl relationships, women without a scarf, and food and drinks that average Muslims refrain from eating as their faith restricts them.

As an ESL instructor, I was heavily diluted by common stereotype misconceptions and fell prey to common western models in choosing the right material. When teaching such class, I should have remembered that I was neither a policy maker nor an authority. I cannot generalize the fact that every and each class is subject to some kind of idiosyncrasy that abides by certain cultural rules and codes. What might be an appropriate material, might turn out to be horrendous to the next class. Where customs and religion is dominant, democratic attitudes are not necessarily civilized or precise.

Besides the consideration above, this is part of the implicit curricula that needs to be addressed by ESL trainers who are certified teacher educators. It is true that most materials that TESL trainers use are based on most of the research universities in their countries, which are located mostly in Europe and it is ostensible that they do have materials that denote cultural differences to teacher students. What was ignored by my teacher educator, was that the students should always remain obedient to the teacher’s instructions and materials as it would not make a great deal of difference what is taught compared to what quality it is delivered at. I practiced what I learned from my educators and never realized that somethings were not left to me to determine or manipulate. The “Religious Festival” text was my savior then and I came to realize my failure very randomly by chance. I could have walked out of that class for good and never to return as a teacher, as I was completely demoralized by what was happening.

One day my educator would hopefully read this and realize that when we teach, we do not merely deliver the subject matter, but also we deliver respect, harmony and love that is the most essential part of any communication.

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