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Mar 16, 2017
Hugh Dellar

Teaching in troubled times: Trump, tackling tensions and resting easy!

We live in troubled times. We’re living through an age in which immigrants are routinely scapegoated and blamed for all of society’s ills and the religious practices of millions of people are regularly conflated with the murderous impulses of a tiny handful, while the blood on our own hands, our occupations and human rights abuses are brushed under the carpet. We inhabit a world where lies become truths if repeated enough and where accusations of ‘fake news’ are hurled at journalists working in an increasingly precarious field. Dangerous nationalist delusions are being propagated by powerful millionaires (and billionaires) hellbent on ensuring the focus of public attention is anywhere but on their own business interests. And inevitably the tensions created by the times spill over into our classrooms.

We’ve heard from several teachers recently who are worried about how best to deal with the often heated arguments between students that are flaring up with increasing regularity. This post is an attempt to provide some sort of guidance to any of you out there who find your own classes suddenly engulfed by heated debates.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that conflict is a natural, normal part of everyday life. Whether it’s a row with your partner at home about where to go on holiday or how much to spend on doing up the garden, a disagreement with your parents about politics, an online spat with a stranger about an opinion you’e posted somewhere or a disagreement at work with a difficult colleague, conflict is everywhere. Most of us are lucky to get through a day without having to negotiate some kind of difference of opinions or ideas, and almost all of us will – at one time or another – experience the kind of blazing row that can flare up when tempers become really heated and we lose control of our emotions. Given all of this, it’s worth asking why we expect the language classroom to somehow be free from any kind of dispute. True, publishers try as hard as they can to remove anything that could even possibly be seen as controversial or divisive from their material, and to reduce the risk of debate developing as best they can, but it’s simply unrealistic to expect the world to stop at the classroom door . . . . and, of course, there are plenty of good pedagogical, psychological and motivational reasons for wanting to actually do more to connect the classroom to the world outside.

If you accept that conflict is natural, then it follows that we all have conflict management strategies that we use outside the class. These will be unique to us, and always in the process of developing, but perhaps we sometimes underestimate (or forget altogether) our abilities in this department. For me personally, here are just a few of the many things I had experience of before I even started teaching: I’d served as a doorman at a rough south London late-night drinking venue, worked as a barman and had to deal with very drunk customers on occasion, worked in a restaurant run by a very volatile couple that I sometimes had to separate and calm down, played in a band in very hostile environments, dealt with (and been the victim of) bullying at the secondary school I went to, managed to avoid violent skinheads on several occasions, helped my younger brother though the tough time we both had when our parents divorced, and so on. In short, I’d (unconsciously) developed a whole raft of skills for managing trouble. However, rather than recognising these skills that we all bring to our classrooms and building on them, my initial training course did what many of yours may well have done too and pretended they didn’t exist, insisted conflict must be avoided at all costs, and emphasised a happy, clappy, cheerful, fun-and-games approach to teaching instead. In retrospect, this was a missed opportunity to make trainees more aware of the skills we already had – and to help us develop extra skills needed to deal with issues that arise during class.

It’s often said that our job is simply to teach English – not to teach students what to think. Whilst I’m in broad agreement with this position, I do think it’s worth adding that it’s also often the case that we’ll sleep a whole lot better if we simply tell students what WE think. Let me give you just one example: several years ago now, I was teaching a multi-national Intermediate group at the university I used to work at. I can’t remember how or why the word gay had somehow entered the classroom, but I do remember one student suddenly announcing that he ‘didn’t like the gays’ and that ‘the gays must die.’  Resisting the urge to correct his use of the definite article, I simply said that while he was quite entitled to his point of view and I wasn’t there to tell him what to think, he was basically saying that friends of mine would be better off dead, which was a very hurtful thing to hear. He looked slightly shocked and asked if I knew “the gays”. I said yes, I know some of them. Some of my oldest and closest friends are gay. And he probably knew some people who were gay as well, even if they hadn’t yet told him that they were! He then asked me why they were gay. “I’m assuming you think you’re not gay and that you like women, right?” I enquired. “Why?” He looked confused and responded: “Why? Why? Just because I prefer women.” At this point I said he’d answered his own question and that gay people were gay because they preferred men. He was free to have his own feelings about that, but I’d be happier if he didn’t share these particular ones with me again. In situations like this, silence is essentially complicity, and not letting a student know how profoundly offensive they are being is basically the same as encouraging or supporting them.

If blazing rows are going to be avoided and if we’re going to do everything we can to ensure the students we’re talking to feel respected, it’s vital that we maintain a high level of civility and politeness throughout. Notice the kinds of phrases I used in the exchange outlined above:

I’m not here to tell you what to think

You’re obviously entitled to believe whatever you want

It’s your right to say that and I respect your opinion.

However, for me personally, I feel / think that . . . 

At the same time, though, while the individual’s right to express opinions we may find unsavoury or even offensive is important, there’s a bigger right at play – and that’s the right of the group as a whole not to be subjected to opinions that could cause great upset or hurt. We place such emphasis on the rights of individuals that we sometimes forget the responsibilities of the individual to the group and the fact that in teaching – as in most areas of life – the group is ultimately more important than any one of its constituent members. In the class mentioned above, I knew both that one of the other students in the group was gay as I’d bumped into him out and about with his partner one day and also that one of the teachers on the teaching team was too, so the ‘gays must die’ comment was very directly attacking those within the set-up. Even where this isn’t obviously the case, students may well have gay family members, Muslim neighbours, black online friends, and so on, and letting broad-brush smears against whole groups go unchallenged is, in essence, sending those students a subliminal message that their lives and feelings are less important than the right of the intolerant individual expressing their hate and anger.

I said above that in general we’re not there to tell students what to think and, ironically, simply giving students the language they need to word their own interior worlds is often one of the best ways of taking the heat out of difficult situations in class. It’s a way of moving from touchy topics to a calmer, more academic language focus and can be enough to help those involved realise that they’ve been on the brink of losing it and give them time and space to pull back. Again, an example may help to illustrate what I mean here: many years ago now, I spent a few months teaching mainly ESOL (English as a Second Language) students – people who’d moved here to the UK to start new lives and to settle, and so needed the language for more immediately practical (and often mundane) reasons than many EFL students. I didn’t have much experience of these kinds of groups, so you can imagine my horror when a week or so into my time there, a huge row broke out in class one day. I had two Iranian guys in the class, and they clearly had little time for each other. On this particular day, they suddenly leapt up and started screaming at each other across the room – in Farsi! Realising I needed to do something – and fast – I shouted at them to stop and tell me what the problem was. They both sat down and spluttered out their accusations in Intermediate-level English. I listened calmly, asked the odd question to make sure I’d understood and then wrote on the board:

I know your g………..! You’re a government spy! You can’t f……….. me.

> You’re a traitor to the Iranian nation. You deserve to be s………… on!

Paraphrasing the basic meanings here, I elicited (or tried to) game, fool and spied. I gave everyone a minute to write down the new language and then simply said Now you can have your argument in English . . . but during the break, please. NOT in class time! So, anyway, Exercise 3 . . . 

In the same way, on other occasions when I’ve had students making appalling comments, I’ve simply stopped things and drawn their attention to the board, where I’ve written:

You can be k……….. out of universities here for making homophobic comments.

I’d paraphrase and elicit kicked and then elicit / add in other kinds of comments you can be kicked out of uni for: racist, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, etc. Giving these comments a name and putting them in this context is usually enough to drive home the point that they’re often seen as being beyond the pale and generally unacceptable.

There are two final points to make here, and one is a ray of hope at the end of what can sometimes feel like a long, dark tunnel. You see, I’m a believer in the power of dialogue and have faith in the (potentially) transformative power of conversations. The student I mentioned earlier who was so surprised that I not only knew but also spoke up for some gay people actually came to me at the end of the lesson that day and apologised. “I don’t want you to think I’m uneducated”, he began, “It’s just that back home we say things like that all the time and nobody ever says anything.” I thanked him for coming to discuss this further and then said “Well, you’re not back home now, are you? And if you don’t want to sound uneducated, maybe it’s better not to make blanket statements about whole groups of people, especially such unpleasant hateful statements.” He never did again – not in my classroom, at any rate!

And finally, with most discussions, there comes a time when enough is just enough. You’ve reached an impasse, you’ve hit a wall, you’ve realised no-one is going to change their mind about anything, you’ve taught your connected bits of language and they’ve failed to really calm things down . . . so move on! Simply say: OK. Well, I can see we’re not going to get anywhere with this. We’ll all just have to agree to disagree and move on. We’ve got plenty of other things to be getting on with after all! Page 42.

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