(Sort of) published!

I have (sort of) been published. It is not something I can really say is journal-level, though I do think journals, especially the exclusive, pay-walled kind, are outdated in a lot of ways. But in terms of being reviewed and approved by my peers, this is the first time my writing has been through others and then been released. My first official-official publication is pending (you will surely hear about it if it occurs), but this is cool. And those who have read it seem to find it resonant.

The article is here, though the formatting is awful on their site, so I would advise you to download the newsletter. I’m on page 7.

I won’t recap the whole thing, but the gist of the article is a debate I have with myself as to whether the racial discrimination in ELT should be referred to as racism, systemic racism, or white supremacy, and why. The conclusion I come to is that all of them are accurate, but that racism and white supremacy might cause far too much white fragility to be productive, and also using “systemic” is precise in that it forces people to stop thinking racism is the province of Bad Individuals. The fact that it seems to really resonate is genuinely special to me, and I want to remember this feeling.

The best thing about it, though, is that the theme of the issue is “diversity,” and that’s a dumb theme, and I made a point of saying so, and, surprisingly, they left it in. The pull quote is,

The use of the term diversity obscures the deeper issues at play, and is often diluted into a call for diversity of thought that contributes to ongoing racial erasure, leaving us precisely where we began.

And yes, I could indeed tag that as (Gerald, 2019). 🙂

 

A Dream Coming Into Focus

The class I’m enjoying the most this fall is a research seminar where we basically get time to deeply consider the direction of our work and pursuits. We’ve only had 2 sessions (vs 4 of the other classes) and will only have two more, but in just these two times, I’ve gone from basically being completely uncertain about where to go with my research to pretty well set.

Leaving aside the particulars of quant/qual and the actual work I hope to publish, let me tell you about a dream I have.

These days, most English Language Teachers are, as I’ve said before, Teachers of Standardized English, even if they don’t refer to themselves that way. They’re mostly white, like any group of educators, and there is, in my view, a not-great undercurrent of savior syndrome in the field. It’s not bad for a job to be fulfilling, but too many of us see our job as some sort of charity, and unless we’re volunteering (which some ELT folks are, but still), it’s still a job with professional standards and expectations. I want this image to die.

What I want to do isn’t to make English stop being taught. That’s silly, because, for all the railing I could do about colonialism and racism, people still move to places where the language is spoken and want to acquire it. But imagine this, if you will: An adult moves to New York and, like their relatives before them, is absorbed into a community of their home language. They want to go to school and/or work, so they decide they need to acquire more English. They don’t have the money to pay for a private language academy, and they hear about a nonprofit or another organization that offers free or low-cost classes. So they go and sign up and return for the first day of class. If this was happening now (and it is probably happening literally today), they get to their first class and it’s a smiling white woman, and the student has about a 50/50 chance of leaving before the session ends. But imagine they get to class and there’s a teacher from their own community at the front of the room. Imagine someone who knows their experience existing in a world that oppresses them racially and culturally. The person doesn’t necessarily have to speak their language – in NYC, you can’t be expecting everyone to speak every language, after all – but just that sharead experience would go a long way. I remain convinced – and there’s research backing me up, though not in the same context – that part of the reason my classes were so well-attended at my last job was the shared experience of being something of an outsider, even though it wasn’t always voiced.

I don’t mean to say we should kick out the good teachers we have. No. But there are always new Standardized English teachers being developed, and especially since it’s often a second career type of thing, we have the opporunity – and, I’d argue, the obligation – to change the new faces we place in these spaces.

How do we get there? The work I hope to do would catalogue how often race and other forms of oppression are part of new Standardized English teachers’ syllabi and/or lessons, and then I would speak to professors who emphasize these issues to have them share why these topics are so important for new teachers to learn. From there, if I can publish on these things, I can find work promoting these ideas, and maybe the industry can grow and change in some small way. Maybe.

For now, it’s just a dream, but at the very least, it’s never been clearer and more tangible than it is now.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

This story. If you don’t want to click through, a white female news anchor watches a cute gorilla make faces at a camera and then tells her black male co-anchor that he “kinda looks like” him.

That’s bad enough, and she was internet-dragged for it (and made a tearful apology the next day, which he verbally accepted, and she will never think about it again).

But what I want to focus on is his response. He laughed, and said, “he kinda does.”

Now, I don’t need to teach you the history of black people being compared to various ape-like creatures. This man doesn’t need that explained to him in any way (although that lady surely does). Those stereotypical images are so ingrained in our national psyche that this person probably didn’t even think before she made the association (which just makes it a different kind of bad, to be clear).

I am focusing on this because, not to get too deep, but I think about my own experiences in various educational institutions, where classmates or teachers have done some really messed up things, and my response was usually just to laugh.

The sad thing is, though I remember a lot of these, how many occurred that I just blocked out of my mind because it was easier to go along to get along?

The time my history teacher, for no particular reason, made a point of describing how, during his time in the Army, black solders walked “with a hippity-hop,” and, far worse, how everyone turned to look at me to see what I thought, but no one said anything. What could I have really done? He was beloved. And frankly, I liked him – I still do, I saw him briefly last year. It’s easier just to laugh.

There are a few studies on racial microaggressions, cataloguing experiences, but the laughter, I think is an interesting subject. As I bat around ideas to fully focus on when it becomes dissertation time, the exploration of laughter as both protection for the marginalized and weapons for the majoritized is a topic I feel deserves further scrutiny.

We’ll see if there’s something I can do with this.

American History S

I hear, and have been hearing, a lot about how we should model ourselves after the lessons found in Scandinavian countries, or sometimes East Asia. I even read an entire book, The Smartest Kids In The World, about these and other similar places and their educational outcomes, which compare favorably to ours. And it’s true, certainly, that our system is rife with injustice from the moment a child is born to a family outside of the dominant groups.

I once admired that book, and even tried to contact the author after I read it (really, I did). But in growing more comfortable expressing the true beliefs you’ve seen me write about here recently, I now understand that there is no way to import the system of other countries without reckoning with the uniquely brutal history of our nation.

I imagine us, with a different administration, deciding to model a new public school system off of that in Finland or the Netherlands or Denmark or Japan. And I imagine how spectacularly it would fail. Similarly, as much as I agree with and support a move towards a more socialist economic system, replacing our current practices with those of another country without a true reckoning of what America is will just lead to disappointment. (We should still do it, though.)

You see, lots of other countries have violence in their pasts (and present). We are hardly the only country guilty of imperialism or predatory capitalism.

But it’s really only us, only the United States, that founded itself on not just the backs of slaves, but upon the lie that Americans could achieve equality without considering the humans we refused to recognize as such. Genocide is not an American concept, nor is slavery, but we are a country that wouldn’t exist without the way we came to be, and any changes we attempt to make that refuse to confront our deep moral failings will be half-measures that won’t lead to anything truly transformative.

To put a pin on it, we can’t become a better country without seriously grappling with the white supremacy in our blood, and we can’t reform our schools without dismantling the white supremacy that they depend on.

For educators, there is no neutral. It’s not fair, I know, to ask us to do more than the hard work we already do, but you don’t go into education to be treated fairly or paid well. (Well, you shouldn’t.) Any educator who isn’t actively fighting inequity – my focus is racial but there are many other forms of marginalization – is just supporting the status quo. And the status quo is a deeply American form of marginalization.

We can’t absolve ourselves of something we can’t admit we did in the first place. I understand that it’s probably painful to grapple with the enormity of what has been visited upon people of color in this country, so, even as many of us stand in front of students who are living through this reality, we would rather pretend it doesn’t exist, or pretend that each incident of racism is just the behavior of a Big Bad Person rather than the result of a system that values one group over all others.

Guilt doesn’t really help us, though; it’s paralyzing. Yes, we’re guilty, to some extent, but what’s more important is that we’re responsible, and have been since we chose to become educators. Because of the way our country was built, because of how it has always been run, it is our responsibility as educators to confront our history with honesty and humility. Our students deserve this. Our country deserves this. And, in the end, we deserve this.

The 4 Groups of Teachers for Learners of Color

Reading more of the handful of responses to my survey on race in English Language Teaching (you can take it if you are an ELT, let me know if you want to…), I’m getting the strong impression that there are basically four groups of teachers with respect to how they treat learners of color. I am investigating this with respect to ELT, of course, and more specifically with adult educators, but I wouldn’t expect this to be any different for K-12 environments or outside of language teaching.

I’m going to work on this and add to it, but this is my initial sketch of the four types of teachers for students of color. I will need to do research to come back and fill this in with data, and some of that research will be my own.

These groups will go from worst to best.

A quick note: this isn’t really about teaching ability per se, since I’m not sure that’s fully quantifiable. That said, if you’re in the first or second group, it’s unlikely you’re all that effective an educator for the students who might just need the most support, and it’s their experience I am most focused on.

Group 1: The Susans

That would be Susan as in Susan Smith. Apologies to kind people out there named Susan.

These teachers are actively antagonistic to the progress of students of color. They may or may not have voted for the current president, but at the very least they think he might have some points about “sh*thole countries” and Puerto Rico.

A student of color who excels is a fluke, a student of color who is deeply engaged in the classroom is disruptive, and every other standard stereotype you can think of.

I am enough of an optimist to believe that these teachers are few and far between in most educational institutions, although I am and many other students of color have encountered them. They are the foot soldiers of racism rather than the mere beneficiaries.

What do they need?

To leave the profession and go someplace where they don’t have to interact with people of color. So, Vermont, maybe. Or Finland. But those places are probably too “socialist” for them, so maybe they can go to Wyoming.

Group 2: The Beckies and Brads

I actually believe, though I will have to do considerable work to prove it, that this is the largest group of teachers in this country, and even in racially-mixed cities like the one I call home.

These are the teachers who are both “colorblind” and “colormute,” who, in an ELT context, talk about culture but never color, and, crucially, consider their decision to teacher students of color to be somewhere between inherently altruistic and heroic.

Whereas the Susans are most likely white, these teachers could be people of color themselves, as neither internalized racism nor a desire to avoid conflict are exclusive to Caucasians.

These teachers will say they treat all of their students the same, which may or may not be true, but considering that all students are different, this hereby erases students’ full humanity, be it racism, sexism, or what have you (though I’m focusing on the first of these).

Because these teachers feel they’re owed thanks from their students by virtue of their presence, this group is probably the hardest to change and the most resistant. The Susans wouldn’t even bother to read this article (or whatever I do with my opinions within it), and are sort of a lost cause. The Beckies and Brads give the Susans cover when the Susans wear blackface to the Halloween party, because it’s not that bad if they’re dressing up as someone they admire.

The Beckies and Brads are honestly why I decided to write this. They are aware of racism and will condemn a Charlottesville, and they might nominally agree that some institutional educational policies are unfair, but will find it difficult to ever acknowledge their role and complicity in the system and its outcomes.

They are the people who, when they learned I was merely asking about race (not even racism) in ELT, told me that discussing race was, itself, the cause of ongoing prejudice, or the otherwise “smart” people I’ve spoken to who think their own discomfort with race is reason enough to avoid the topic entirely.

I could go on and on about the Beckies and Brads forever (and I might, some day). They are the biggest problem, in my view. They are Dr. King’s “white moderate” (even if they’re not actually white or politically moderate), yet they are never going to admit to their membership in this group. And they’re tragic, to me, because many of them could be good teachers for learners of color, if only they engaged in some deep introspection.

What do they need?

They need their defenses broken down. Of all the groups here, this is the largest and perhaps more intractable change that must be sought, and the main roadblock for true racial equity in education. I have a few pet theories on how this can be achieved (Transformative Education, for example), but denial is a hell of a drug, and I can’t say I really know the cure.

Group 3: The Nkechi Amare Diallos

Who is Nkechi Amare Diallo? That surely sounds like an authentic African name. And although I said it was entirely possible to be a Becky or Brad as a person of color, surely someone suffused in an African culture couldn’t be anywhere other than the final and best group, right?

Well, google the name (or click this link) and tell me who she is.

(waits)

Yeah, exactly.

So, back when she was Rachel, the thing about her is that, until she decided to act a fool very publicly (and one suspects there’s some serious mental and emotional stuff going on there), she was genuinely trying to do good work for the community. I don’t know how good her work actually was with her… unique mindset, but she wasn’t just talking. She was employed leading a local chapter of the NAACP from day to day. She seems to genuinely love black culture. It’s just that it’s not a really healthy kind of love.

Leaving her aside for a minute, the teachers in this group are people who have probably read some research and theory on deficit mindset and other such concepts, and they are Not Going To Let You Forget It, like any evangelist recently converted to the church of Scientology, LDS, or Crossfit.

They know their facts to an encyclopedic level and they take their work seriously, telling everyone in the Susans, Beckies, and Brads about how they could be doing better, and making at least the Beckies and Brads very uncomfortable.

But there’s something missing.

Ultimately, these teachers are on the right track, so as much as I am teasing them, I would only criticize them gently, since they’re a lot better than the previous groups.

The fact is, though, that there is often a humility missing, especially when these teachers aren’t members of racialized groups themselves (or even when they are).

Doing education work correctly requires a certain amount of pride. If you have no confidence in yourself in the classroom or while you’re researching or writing it will be readily evident to a student or observer. Yet, in my opinion, the people in this group need to take a step or two back and assess whether or not they’re positioning students and educators of color for leadership. In other words, are they centering the marginalized or centering themselves?

I freely admit I was this person in my early days of teaching, walking into my classrooms in South Korea being treated like a celebrity (I was the first black person they’d ever seen). I thought I could really help them in my own naive way. I’ve grown out of this mindset, but I really did care about the students and wanted to treat them with love and kindness. This group, while often incorrect, is not acting out of malice, and even the best of us (which I am not claiming to be) slip into this from time to time.

Think about it, though. If a performatively woke teacher takes the lead, it’s a better situation than being led by someone who out and out ignores the reality in front of them or being led by one that revels in the status quo.

And hey, careers in education are tough – I’m not saying turn down a promotion or a publication. But being an ally isn’t really about leading so much as it’s about supporting, or, more precisely, it’s about using your own privilege and platform to help others lift themselves.

What do they need?

Just some guidance, really. They’re trying, and most of them aren’t truly fetishizing other races or coming back wearing cornrows after vacation (although some of them are…).

I feel as though group 3 needs to take the reins of educating group 2 (who probably comprise most of their relatives), since that work usually falls to group 4 and group 4 has enough work to do.

Group 3 is doing good work, but just needs to ask themselves if they’re really listening to the marginalized or speaking on their behalf.

Group 4: The Taranas and Bayards

The people in this group don’t really have cute nicknames, though I chose names for the sake of symmetry. If there’s an example from another field, it might be someone like Tarana Burke, or a Bayard Rustin, people whom you probably need to Google, which is sort of the point.

Look, teaching, if you’re in front of the room, is a performance to some extent. You can’t really do it well if you don’t command attention. I certainly feel most at ease in front of a class or else I wouldn’t do it. And maybe the examples I cited here really wanted to be stars and it didn’t work out that way, though I doubt it.

The Taranas and Bayards are authentic and committed, and most likely the only group that leads to seismic change. You can be of any color and become a member of this group, but you have more (and different) work to do to join if you’re white.

These are the people that group 2 thinks they are, the actual heroes of the profession. And we need them.

What do they need?

More support, more money, and more group members if our education is ever to truly become equitable for students of color.

****

I plan to come back to this and flesh it out with some numbers and anecdotes. But this is my preliminary assessment of the groups of teachers out there with respect to how they teach learners of color. I expect to analyze how to move people from group 2 and 3 to group 4 in the future, and how group 1 can possibly be rooted out of the profession altogether. But for now, I’m happy to have offered my opinion on the state of things.

 

On “Studying” Race

What does it mean to study something?

I mean, if something is mentioned in passing, does that mean it’s been studied in a class?

If something is not the direct topic of a paper or an assignment but is implied, does that count? Is that better than nothing?

I ask because I’m in the process of collecting data from a survey on race in ELT, and one of the questions I’m asking is whether or not race was covered as a topic during the participants’ training.

Now, not all of these participants are people I know (which is probably good), but most of them are fellow alumni of my MA program. Some at different years than I was there, but still, many of us overlapped.

And I wonder, what does it mean to someone to have “studied” race? Because in my current program, even if the class isn’t about race (none have been), race comes up as a specific topic in every class, as well it must in education. We dig into it and chew it over.

Yet I wonder if the implication of race is enough for some to consider a topic studied, handled, examined. I think people’s general discomfort with race means any hint of it feels significant, but for someone like me who wants to really research the topic, the majority of discussions that could be considered racial were really about “culture” and rarely about the lived experiences of racialized people.

Do I blame them for this? Not really. I don’t even really blame the programs. I just think my data analysis is going to have to account for this, and that further studies may inquire as to what, exactly, is studied about race in TESOL preparation programs.

In Their Feelings

Oh boy.

So I am currently running a survey (which you can take if you’re an English Language Teacher, but I’m not putting the link here so that I don’t influence the data). The survey asks, in a few different ways, whether or not ELTs incorporate race into their lesson planning and instruction. It’s entirely okay for someone to answer “no,” because it would give me something to write about in my analysis. In fact, I’m expecting most respondents to say “no.”

But people are in their feelings.

I get it. Despite the things going on in the news, most people do not harbor deep-seated ill will towards members of other racial groups. I do believe that.

At the same time, almost everyone who is a part of a large institution is, by defintion, furthering institutional racism (and sexism and classism and so on, but race is my focus). That’s what “institutional racism” means. That’s what the modifier is for.

And this is hardly just a white/black problem, especially when it comes to adult ELT, where the student population is comprised of many different races. I just read a study from Hawaii where the “old school” ESL students – who were Asian – discriminated against the Micronesian students. But the problem in that study wasn’t so much the students treating each other poorly, which is just sort of what teenagers do. It was that the school did nothing to address the issue.

Look. Hate crimes are a huge problem, but they always have been. We know enough now to know that race is a factor in human lives and outcomes. You can call it a social construct – it is! – or something that shouldn’t matter – it shouldn’t! – but the fact is, to get intensely personal, if a cop wants to talk to me, it really doesn’t matter how many degrees I have, does it? I look the way I look. And I’m one of the luckiest ones.

King spoke of his issues with the “white moderate,” but I don’t think this is really about them, no matter what CNN would like us to believe about the Obama-Trump voters.

No, this isn’t really about white people per se. Because the insidious thing about institutional racism (and sexism and classism and so on) is that you don’t necessarily have to be a member of the majoritized group to perpetuate the system in place. Trump wouldn’t have won if several million women hadn’t excused his awful treatment of their gender, and you could replace him with other politicans and policies when it comes to race or class or other things.

So if it’s not the “white moderate,” then who is it?

It’s the “woke ally.”

I’m not calling being “woke” bad. Nor is allyship a problem, obviously. It’s the people who want to claim this status without doing the work to interrogate themselves and their own role that need to be challenged. And it’s a shame, because generally these are the people who can help, and who want to help, and whom we need to help.

I have no hope for the followers of Steve Bannon. I’m sure there are a few of them teaching, but mostly not so. And there are a lot of educators out there fighting the good fight, even despite their own discomfort with issues of race (for which extra training and support is needed).

But the woke ally needs to actually be woke enough to pause and look in the mirror if they want to really be an ally instead of just a performer on the public stage.

The System

Of course we need to change the education system. I don’t think anyone who pursues a degree beyond undergrad in the field thinks it needs to remain exactly the same.

But for a moment, let’s think about how many things need to change. Let’s start from the very top.

Ultimately, all the prestige and pomp and circumstance is about power, right?

Schools want to be able to say they helped create wealthy people (who then donate to the schools), and wealthy people are powerful, either literally because of their money or because they have prominent roles (in politics, say).

So, at the very top, we need to change who is allowed to get lucrative jobs, change the fact that people hire (and vote for) people who resemble them, change what jobs earn the money in our society. I offer no solution to this, but if this part doesn’t change, nothing else will, because it all leads to this.

But IF we change who gets to have the power – that “if” is doing a lot of work – then we might be able to change post-graduate education.

Not every powerful person has extra degrees, but many of them do, and the fact is that, even though many are pushing for free or affordable undergrad tuition at public schools, graduate school remains either very expensive or has an extremely high opportunity cost in preventing many such students from working.

But IF we change who gets to have the power and IF graduate school were more accessible, then maybe people wouldn’t be as competitive during undergraduate programs. And then maybe there would be less of a gap in outcomes for students from different backgrounds.

And then if everyone really did have the same chance at success once they got to college – any college – maybe getting into the “right” college wouldn’t dominate childrens’ lives for the decade beforehand.

I’m not even really going to talk about the scandal in detail. I’ve said enough about it. Suffice it to say that it’s a hell of a lot of work to do instead of helping your kids achieve the grades and scores required for acceptance.

But maybe this sort of nonsense wouldn’t happen if getting a college education itself was more important than the name of the school.

And in order to change that, though, what do we need to change? We need to change people. We need to change the conversations people have in certain circles, where pride is tied only to achievement. Because we could change the entire system, but if we don’t change the pressure people feel to make sure their children are good enough to be bragged about, then nothing will matter, and we’ll stay in the same position forever.

Some folks try to change the entire system, and I commend their idealism. It would be much better if we had a different system, one where education really did matter but wasn’t so tied to “prestige” or lack thereof, but the best our current students can hope for is to be allowed a chance at accessing the system that exists.

And that’s a shame.

A Hypothesis

I’ve been in and around the TESOL world for eleven years now. That’s not a lifetime or anything, but it’s not nothing. I know a couple of things.

From my vantage point, the TESOL field is far too homogenous. However, I’m looking at this from the perspective of adult education and the program I studied in. Maybe it’s more diverse outside of the prism through which I have viewed it.

So I need to find out of it’s truly as monochromatic as I assume.

But then, I also need to find out if that’s really a problem. I believe it is, and studies have shown as much for the achievement of students of color, but good language teaching is not “just” good teaching. It’s a specific set of skills (alongside teaching skill in general), and would my push to diversify the field necessarily lead to better outcomes? I supect and hope as much but I don’t know it for a fact.

In my heart of hearts, I suspect that the lagging attendance and success rate of adult English programs can be tied to the homogeneity and lack of explicit intersectionality in TESOL. The former is probably going to take forever to fix. But the latter could be changed.

I just have to gather evidence that doing so would be beneficial, and doable.

We talk a big game about being learner-centric, but how learner-centric can we be if we never provide space for our students to really explore their full identities in English?

On ELLs and Immigrants

Children are guaranteed access to public school. Not necessarily good schools, but A school. And by law, at least in some states (including NY), students can receive materials (and teaching) in their native language (depending on which language it is).

You see there are a lot of caveats, right? But still, there is SOMETHING for kids who need to go to school. There is a lot wrong with the system for these kids, but there IS a system.

And what about their parents?

Part of why I’m doing the work I’m doing is because adult learners are not given any of the support their children are. There are programs, sure, and the ones with money can pay for excellent courses. But for the ones who don’t have a lot of money or time, there’s no roadmap. Maybe you get lucky and live near a non-profit that does great work. Or maybe you have access to nothing and you struggle with any and all official documents.

And why is this? Because these adults are just immigrants. Or, to put it another way, they are SEEN as just immigrants, and that’s not exactly high status in this country, especially if your native language isn’t one people aspire to.

The children are immigrants too, of course. That’s just what the word means. But children have a future, see, and they have a chance to become “American.” The adults, they made their choices, they didn’t learn the language before coming, they get the table scraps to fight over, and if they end up in dire straits ebcause of it, then they shouldn’t have come here.

I think this classification hurts everyone, even the people who hate immigrants (not that I care about them, but still), because the successful integration of different cultures should be our goal as Americans. And in much more transactional terms, people who struggle with standard American English are limited in their employment opportunities, which is bad for any economy in which they could participate.

I have no grand point, and this certainly precedes Trump. But think about this before the next time you ponder why an adult struggles to improve their English while their children excel. It’s intentional. To some folks, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.