‘Teaching
is always political’

Teachers are ‘more than classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content’ and should consider introducing social justice issues, says writer and academic J. J. Wilson

English language teaching is sometimes regarded as a neutral, value-free endeavour. We teach the medium, not the message. After all, what values are contained in the present perfect? The act of declining verbs isn’t going to solve the world’s problems. And teacher training rarely touches on the wider role of the teacher in education.

But there’s another school of thought that says teaching is always political. Teachers and students bring values, beliefs and approaches to the material and to one another. Everything the teacher does in class reflects her beliefs about education, about people and about the world. It’s like the axiom from communication theory: one cannot not communicate. The same applies in the language classroom: educators cannot help revealing deeply held beliefs.

The latter is a view that rejects the reduction of teachers to technicians. We are more than classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content (mini-chunks of easily digested junk).

And so … to social justice.

Those of us energised by the global malaise – wars, repressive governments, ecological catastrophe, terrorism – see opportunities to engage our students in real conversations about real issues.

It seems a moment ripe for the methods of Paulo Freire: dialogue, problematising and praxis (the turning of theory into practice) as vehicles for grappling with social justice issues. But we need to remember there is no blueprint. No one-size-fits-all method or technique will work because our approach will depend on the people in the room – their personal history, their cultural capital, their funds of knowledge.

We are then faced with a quandary. We need to ‘cover’ certain topics on the curriculum, so how can we subvert the syllabus? One way is to take the unit topic and regard it critically, to problematise it.

Let’s examine a common unit topic: food. We may begin by finding – or getting students to find – facts about food. Who exports it to whom? How many tons are thrown away daily? Why would so many ‘food products’ be unrecognisable to our great-grandparents? Or we may do a 90-degree turn with the topic and ask about hunger instead. Who goes hungry and why? 

“ A social justice approach may be off-putting to some students. Many attend English classes as a refuge from the real world of trouble and strife ”

Why do people go on hunger strike? Why do Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus fast? And what happens when a man (David Blaine) lives without food for 44 days in a three-by-seven-foot glass box suspended near London’s Tower Bridge? (The answer: a quarter of a million people go to gawp; some women hold banners with messages of love; others run around naked under the box; others pelt it with rotten eggs; another dangles a hamburger from a remote-controlled helicopter.)

Another common topic is work. Again, we problematise. We might ask about exploitation, environmental damage or corruption. Or we might question the very nature of work – and ask why an employee in a supermarket is setting out genetically engineered fruit rather than tending her garden, why a line cook is taking orders from strangers instead of cooking for his family, why a woman is watching the children of the wealthy at a daycare centre rather than spending time with her own, why a musician is composing jingles for fizzy drinks rather than jamming with his friends.

Or take the topic of places – how are they presented?

Are they merely ‘destinations’ for the wealthy or are working-class people present? To what extent have the poor played a role in structuring the place? Are the places idealised? How is inequality manifested in the social conditions presented?
Rio de Janeiro is an example of a city often given superficial treatment in textbooks. Its history of violence and struggle is usually whitewashed.

Why? Who do the omissions serve? And what might a place designed for social justice look like? La Plata in Argentina is built on a grid system. Every sixth avenue has a park, and in each park there are different types of tree. Why? So that the blind know where they are by the different smells of the different types of leaf. What can we learn from La Plata’s urban planners?
I offer these ideas non-prescriptively. Caveats abound. A social justice approach may be off-putting to some students. Many attend English classes as a refuge from the real world of trouble and strife.

Many believe in the middle-class aspirational values so common in textbooks. Many do see the world as a white, homogenised, consumerist candy store for grown-ups. If so, we should not proselytise, but tell stories instead – stories that highlight the full diversity and range of the human experience.

Dr JJ Wilson is writer-in residence at Western New Mexico University, where he teaches ESL methods, linguistics, publication, and creative writing. He is also a novelist and author of English language textbooks. J.J. Wilson’s Blog: https://jjawilson.wordpress.com/about-me/

Tips for introducing a ‘social justice approach’ to your classroom

Overall, the process of adapting topics might look something like this:

  1. Peer beneath the surface of the topic to see if it reflects injustice.
  2. Decide if there are assumptions to be questioned, or misconceptions to be challenged.
  3. Adapt content to local contexts, i.e. the people in the class. Course books are a tool, and tools are what you make of them. If you want to subvert the topic in order to introduce a social justice perspective, get creative and think your way to new approaches.
  4. Gather authentic materials on the subject and create activities that allow students to investigate it.
  5. Make space for students to act out their solutions.