How Can We Promote Equality in the Classroom?

I have recently had an incident in my class recently where students have been discussing immigration and there was some language used which bordered on racist. I have to state that this incident was in a class of ESOL (non-native speakers) learners.

My tact on this occasion was to point out to the people in questions that they too were immigrants and they should consider how they would wanted to be spoken about and treated. I’m not sure whether I convinced them or not!

This got me thinking back to when other such incidents have arisen and how I have dealt with them or not? This then led me on to giving further thoughts to how do I promote equality in the classroom?

There are many in my profession who believe that we should only teach English in the class room and not seek to change peoples’ views. However, I disagree with this view on a number of key points. Firstly, I happen to believe that any form of racism or prejudice should not be tolerated full stop. Secondly, as my ‘real job’ so to speak, is as an Equality and Diversity trainer, (who just happens to teach English as a hobby) I should not be allowing this to happen. In fact I should view it as an opportunity to promote equality in the classroom and to educate people on the positives of diversity and inclusion.

This is not the first time that issues such as this have arisen in the past. Some of my students have expressed views which are sexist, disabilist, homophobic or are aligned to just about every form of prejudice known to man. As an inexperienced teacher, I must admit to ignoring such comments on occasion and at other times directing the learners back to the task at hand. This often left me feeling as if I had failed to use the situation as a positive opportunity to promote equality and I would usually question what I could have done better.

Many of my colleagues have commented on these issues in the past and how to deal with them and some have even colluded with the views expressed. This has caused me again to question myself.

I have however become more pro-active in this area over the years and often challenge learners over their prejudiced views. On occasions it seems to make an impact and I see a change in behaviour but at other times it appears that their views are well entrenched and it will take more than challenging them to alter their views. This does not deter me though.

Thoughts on this issue must also be given to the materials used. Nowadays, many of the course books produced are more reflective of ‘real life’ and indeed the Skills for Life materials that were produced a number of years ago better reflected the ethnicity of the UK and even presented issues such as non-traditional families. I have always tried to embed and promote equality into my teaching and use materials which are reflective of the diversity of the UK. Indeed I strongly believe that I have a moral obligation to do so.

With the introduction of citizenship and the ‘Life in the UK’ test over recent years this has also led to there being presented a more complete view of the values and social make-up of the UK as a whole. I have indeed used some of the materials in my ‘project’ lessons at university. I believe one of the greatest advantages of using such materials is that it gives a clearer understanding to foreign residents in the UK what the expected norms of behaviour are and what the majority of the people who live in the UK think. Ultimately, they should be aware of what could even be illegal.

Some of my colleagues may disagree with me and I would welcome their views. However, two of the main reasons that people want to learn English is so that they can communicate with the people who reside in the country they live in and secondly, many foreign students at university are learning English so that when they graduate and go into business they are able to communicate with people from other countries and indeed other cultures.

There could also be great benefit in introducing topics such as ‘Gay Marriage’ in the language classroom as it can lead to debate and generate lengthy discussion which is after all one of the aims of language teaching. When I have presented topics such as this in the past it has led to much more fluency as learners undoubtedly have an opinion either way.

Perhaps teachers may feel uncomfortable and less in control if they introduce topics which are likely to provoke strong debate but when all is said and done if you have a greater opportunity for meaningful language learning and you can tackle prejudice does that not give us a win/win situation?