Vol. 8. No. 3 F-1 December 2004
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Politics in the World, Politics in the Classroom: Teachers in Jeopardy?

Karen Stanley, editor

Back in the late 70s, when I was travelling and living in Europe as a language student, Americans were not particularly popular. One American acquaintance in Athens, while at the home of a Greek family, was quite taken aback when she was verbally attacked by another visitor. He essentially felt she should answer for what he considered offenses committed by the US government. In another instance, to avoid anti-American sentiment, an American of Italian-Greek heritage identified himself as coming from "just north of Windsor, Ontario (Canada)." Of course, that geographic location is occupied by Detroit, Michigan (USA).

This same friend, however, experienced a different type of negative response while seated in a small restaurant in rural Colorado with some friends. The waitress studiously avoided their table, serving any number of customers who had entered later. It finally dawned on them that Italian-Greek Jim had been "branded" as Mexican, and that the anti-Mexican sentiment was what was keeping the waitress away.

These days, we can't help but be aware of the anti-American sentiment which has been growing throughout the world. While a British citizen in Canada recently told me (with a smile), "We don't blame you. After all, the American citizens didn't elect their president," not everyone is so able to separate an individual of a particular nationality from the government of his/her country.

The question then arises of how, as ESL or EFL instructors, we should handle students who direct their anger with a government at us as classroom teachers or at other students in our classes.

While the following April 2004 discussion from an email list focuses most of all on the current situation of Americans in the Middle East, the principles involved can easily be transfered across time and nationalities.

Because of the sensitive nature of some of the posts, several contributors preferred to remain anonymous.

The thread began with a poster who, as an American teacher in the Middle East, had had several of his adult students making extremely hostile remarks in class. In the past, his no-politics-in-class approach had worked for him, but he reported he had never experienced such hostility before, even during the intefada uprising. He asked what he, as a teacher, should do to make his time at the college better, or whether his best option was simply to leave the country. [-1-]

Kenton Sutherland <KSuther929@AOL.COM>
Senior English Language Fellow, United States Department of State, Chile (Sep. 03 - June 04)

[A poster] paints a difficult teaching situation in a Middle East country near Iraq where students in class are making very prejudicial comments about the war in Iraq and terrorism against the USA.

I recall teaching in Latin America during the height of the Cold War when I was accused of being a CIA agent and had my life threatened. All I did then was to ignore it the best I could and go on with my teaching. I once walked out of class on a heated anti-American discussion and refused to be drawn into political discussions. The students seemed to get the idea that unless they cut out the anti-American rhetoric I would not teach them. I tried to be a good teacher and a good representative of the USA, and it seemed to work, even though I realized that some students' prejudice was obviously still at work. I guess I never thought about leaving the country because I didn't take the threats against me very seriously, even though two of them were at knife point.

The question in the Middle East today may be more serious. It sounds, from [the poster's] description, that he is on dangerous ground indeed. If a few of his students make anti-American and terrorist-supporting comments, it is likely that many others harbor the same feelings. I personally would not feel comfortable or safe teaching in such a

situation. When political feeling becomes so strong among students, it may even be difficult to teach them English effectively. If that were the case, I would probably resign and look for a situation where my teaching would be more appreciated.

Tom Tobias <tom@TEFL.ZZN.COM>

I think the political turmoil is unfortunate, and the misery it has caused is terribly sad. Is there a way to profit from this catastrophe, a method to actually become MORE proficient in explaining the nuances of our arcane language, and its relationship to our culture? Perhaps not, maybe the best advice has already been received by the previous response, suggesting that you move elsewhere, but, I think, unless someone physically threatens you, that you can use this dreadful situation in Palestine and Iraq as a method to motivate students. Every situation of political turmoil involves (at least) two sides of an argument. Surely our language reflects wartime conquests hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Perhaps some of the grammatical inconsistencies can be attributed to one or another tribe/nation imposing its will on a conquered people. Perhaps some of the laxity in our language with its numerous exceptions relates to a sullen, conquered people, unhappy with compulsion to adapt to an alien, albeit militarily superior culture, refusing then to follow the militaristically precise form of conjugation introduced by the conquerors. We had, a couple of weeks ago, on the other cuny list, a discussion of "vulgarity". Perhaps some of those notions of vulgarity date back to periods of military conquests, including unjust invasions, robberies, thefts, rapes, etc. Language can not be divorced from politics. You are not in error to introduce such ideas for your students, perhaps you can redirect them to focus on Sri Lanka or Ireland instead of troubled areas next door. In China, whenever the debate turned to the downed US spy plane and Taiwan, in 2001, I sought to change the arguments to Argentina and the Falkland Islands in the 1980's, or Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and theft of the western third of USA in middle of the 19th century, or the robbery/murder committed by Roosevelt in stealing Panama from Columbia at the turn of the last century. [-2-]

Carroll Moreton, Jr. <cmoreton@MS33.HINET.NET>
Ming Chuan University, Taipei, Taiwan

I have seen this situation take place in many of the classes I have taken and taught. I had one professor who handled it well; he facilitated discussion. He asked questions in a non confrontational and non judgmental manner. Also, there is no use in you personally defending the actions of your country against such attacks, but you may ask students to take the opposing view in debate after they have researched all sides of the issue.

Peter F Clements <peter@iuj.ac.jp>
International University of Japan, Niigata, Japan

I would tend to agree with Tom. Politics (or political issues) cannot be ignored in the language classroom. Whether you explicitly address them or not, they are always present in some way.

I think there are two fairly productive ways of dealing with the issue that people are talking about here: one, to agree with your students that certain topics are "off-limits," and proceed accordingly; two, to engage students in open and balanced discussion of the specific issue(s). Both of these choices, in my view, are political (not meant pejoratively here!), and both require that the teacher treat students as adults, and involve them (at least to a certain extent) in the process of deciding what happens in the classroom. If teachers just pretend to ignore those things and in some way "punish" those who make incendiary remarks, then it seems to me that they are in some sense feeding the flame (the more you try to "control" a group of unruly children, the more it seems they get out of hand).

A previous poster also mentioned that it may be necessary for teachers to extricate themselves from the situation in some way: shutting down the discussion, leaving the classroom, or (the extreme case) leaving the country altogether. Personally, I would keep this sort of reaction in mind as an option--there have certainly been times in my own experience when expressing my own disapproval in such a direct and visible way has had a useful effect. And if you really think your safety is in question, by all means get out of there. However, this is an extreme reaction for extreme cases, and perhaps to be avoided until things get really ugly/emotional/etc.

Lecturer, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

I think it is laudable that Americans are prepared to be up-front about issues regarding their country, but no teacher has to be an apologist for his/her country's foreign policy (whether s/he agrees or disagrees with it), and in difficult situations, such as this, it is probably better not to try.

Primarily you are a human being doing a challenging job in difficult circumstances, and deserve to be treated as such. [-3-]

Nazli Fard Hooshmand <nazli55@PARSONLINE.NET>
Tehran, IRAN

It is said that the world's history is divided into two parts one before and the other after 9.11. As a teacher who is from Middle East, I really become upset for our colleague who have problem with his students. I remember the time when people from Middle East had hard times after the 911 in the U. S. But, my suggestion is that it's better to go to the class and before starting the lesson, just say that "we're going to have a discussion today" (Before they start accusing you). And ask them about their emotions towards people suffering from hunger, pain, etc in the world. Does it make them happy? Ask them about war? Tell them to explain their emotions towards it. And then manage the discussion indirectly in a way to be able to conclude that all of us are human beings no matter of color, language, religion, etc. so you can say your disagreement about killing people no matter where it is. It's suggested to ask them whether they agree with all the politics of their own country. So it can be concluded (indirectly) that you do not agree with all the foreign politics of your country, either. (I mention the word "indirectly" so many times, that's because I think it's a better way to express yourself without arising hostility.)

They should be reminded that lots of people from Middle East were killed in 911 attacks.

At last, I can understand their anger towards this war, but by bothering you they make a big mistake.

David R. Boxall

Personally, I have no objection to any of my students expressing anti-American sentiments; such feelings are a useful warning signal, and besides, I make a distinction between myself and the entity that issued my passport. But if I did get bent out of shape, I don't think I could do anything about it without backing from higher up. I was teaching in Saudi Arabia when the 9/11 attacks took place. One student took rather public delight in what had happened. The teacher complained to the Saudi administration, and, to their credit, they came down on the culprit like a ton of bricks. There was no further trouble.

Anonymous (1)

>I have a situation I hope you can advise me on. I am an American teacher in the Middle East and, given the recent >events between American soldiers and Iraqi insurgents (Iraq is a next door country), some of my adult education >students have said hostile things to me during class. The comments have ranged from, "it's good that they will kill >the three missing Japanese workers" and "I knew one of the 911 hijackers and he was a good man" to "the next >terror attack should be in an American city"... [Should I leave] the country?

You are working there to teach English. They are there to learn English. As a matter of professional minimums, such discussions are not acceptable, not permissible and harm and prevent the purpose aims and instructional objectives of the learning curriculum and if they are not part of the syllabus. As a Muslim, a haji, and as a scholar of the religion and its history, anyone who makes such a remark in your classroom is acting in direct defiance of the rules of Islam that govern behavior of students in a classroom. Be that as it may, however, basic professional standards are breached by adult students in a language class who choose to disrupt the learning process. [-4-]

A basic feature of the professional classroom is the safety of all participants from any kind of abuse. That includes a sine qua non, the safety and respect of the instructor.

If your employers cannot insure that safety as a matter of policy, than one should consider the alternatives. I know more than one individual who has decided that their personal integrity could not reconcile working in the Magical Kingdom.

BTW, No one who kills an innocent person is a "good man" and ALL of the most leading muftis in the Islamic world have categorically condemned those who committed such crimes. The Chief Mufti of KSA declared them enemies of Islam. [Of course, that might be the only fetwa I would ever choose to cite by the KSA Mufti.] Arab culture, Islamic law, and international professional ethics and pegdagogical standards all agree on this one point: what the students you have quoted have said in class is unacceptable behavior IMHO.

Geoffrey Vitale UQTR <glevit@lycos.com>
voluntarily retired

I lived in Morocco for 5 years - and was there when the country joined the Arab League. This changeover led to the expression of overt antisemitism in my school, swastikas and suchlike on the wallboards of Jewish teachers. I expressed my disapproval to my students, mentioning in passing that my mother was Jewish, with all that this implied. I was told that 'I wasn't the same' - though I'm not sure whether they were referring to my behaviour or my rather squashy nose. The fuss died down quite quickly, thanks to the very proper behaviour of the authorities and to, indeed, the behaviour of those threatened. But, no one was bombing Morocco at that time, and the only perceived enemy was France, which was trying to deal with Algeria in pretty much as brutal a way as any more contemporary colonialist power. Incidentally, in the end the French did deal with the Algerian problem very successfully... by getting out.

I do not believe that had my life been threatened, I would have stayed in Morocco and today I would certainly not hang around in say Saudi Arabia to check out whether my EFL qualifications were a sure guarantee against martyrdom. I agree with [ Anonymous (1)]'s comments in theory but would be a bit wary of testing them out in situ. After all there are plenty of other safe though maybe less well paid places to teach in the world and a few months on the dole puts one on a level playing field with 70% of the world's population. However, were I to leave such a situation I might consider demanding that the people who were originally responsible for my being put in harm's way paid my moving expenses.

Anonymous (2)

I too am a teacher in the region as I live and work in the United Arab Emirates and agree with much of what [Anonymous (1)] says. We are professionals and should demand conditions that allow us to pursue our professional goals and those of our employer that in turn will benefit the host country nationals.

Working in the UAE, I too have adopted a policy like the one [the original poster] has of not talking about political issues in the classroom. Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to open that can of worms, anyway?! Ladies and gentlemen, please take no offense, but why discuss politics and religion in the classroom when such issues have the potential to degenerate into heated discussions that start out rationally but degenerate into chaos? This point reminds me of the cobra snake charmer in Thailand who had played with Cobra's most of his life and was an expert in handling one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. He did fine for many years...until he was bit earlier this year and died. Why take chances?! [-5-]

Acknowledge their views, show respect for them, and leave it at that. Insist on not talking about the war in Iraq. If you believe your life is threatened, then leave. Only you know your situation.

Adding my last tidbit of opinion to the mix, I think it is important to remember that there will be a whole spectrum of views when confronted with the issue of the American intervention in Iraq whether this war is justified or not. extremists and fanatics are not a monopoly of this part of the world as many of my Middle Eastern and Muslim friends living in the US found out in late 2001. You are going to have fanatics of all spectrums wherever you go. If you are not comfortable with that and are scared that this war against terror could affect you directly, then stay home or go live with penguins in Patagonia. In the end, American and European people living and working in the ME need to know the intricacies of the culture in which they live. For me, keeping a low profile, behaving decently, and respecting the local laws of the UAE go a long way in making my stay comfortable. I also keep my eyes open and stay away from trouble. In other words, I use common sense.

Anonymous (3)

On the subject of students cheering for 911, I am reminded of my student teaching in the U.S. several years ago when during lunch break I came back to the class to find students watching the TV "Shock and Awe" bombing of

Bagdad. They were all cheering as though watching a football game, and almost to a man they told me they wanted someone to give them an M16 and parachute them into that seething hell so they could kill some "sand n.....s." Besides demanding and getting an immediate retraction of the racial slur, I asked the students, all boys, if any of them had ever been to another country. Of course they had not. But by the magic of Hollywood's comic book approach to war and the news media's easy allowance of manipulation by the government for the sake of doing patriotic service, these kids were as unteachable on the subject of xenophobia and blind hatred as any other group in the world. I mention this, because I sometimes think that as U.S. citizens, we blindly assume a free ride when it comes to the difference between what the U.S. represents to the world as an ideal and what the U.S. represents to the world when its actions fall short or are perceived to actually countermand those ideals. As an individual teacher, I

felt every bit as "foreign" and isolated talking to these fellow citizens as I have talking to Korean students (in Seoul, where I currently teach), with one caveat: the Korean students don't question my patriotism when we agree to disagree.

It is a political year, so I expect more rather than less interference of the world outside my classroom. Indeed, as the U.S. vice president left Seoul today I found commentators on the local news scratching their heads at the purpose of the vip's trip. Evidently, they hadn't realized that all of Asia had been merely a backdrop to the U.S. political campaign for the last week.

My students ask me how I will vote and I tell them--Why not? Since 911, the entire world seems to find itself swept in a political maelstrom in which the U.S. needs and desires play out large in every country as though the U.S. views every country as merely an extension of its backyard. In this climate, for every personalized attack I may feel from Koreans who don't know anything about me other than I am not local, I realize they feel the weight of my country day in and day out, politically, militarily, and culturally in their affairs. [-6-]

Anonymous (1)

>I lived in Morocco for 5 years - and was there when the country joined the Arab League. This changeover led to

> the expression of overt antisimetism in my school, swastikas and suchlike on the wallboards of Jewish teachers. I >expressed my disapproval to my students,

When I was at K. University, my supervisor developed anti-semtic and anti-Christian propaganda to teach as modules at the College of Sharia Law where we were teaching required English for credit courses. [Incidentally, the supervisor was from Iowa or someplace like that in the US West and a Wahabi convert.]

The materials were full of racist, sometimes rabidly racist misinformation and disinformation. I told the administration that I could not as a Muslim teach racism and disinformation, and I was called before the university language center's administrative board for an official hearing because the supervisor officially accused me of insubordination. He also officially accused me of saying things against him in private conversations in a social context outside the university. I was asked how I could know the content was untrue and prejudiced. I said that I had been a professor of world religion in an Orthodox theological seminary, and had been the PR director of an official Orthodox Christian church body, and had done doctoral research on Jewish and Orthodox Chriustian culture and religion as part of my doctorate in anthropology. The commission exhonerated me, but I quit anyway, and I made it clear that it was an offence against Islam to teach those materials.

Racist hatred is wrong in any classroom at any time by anyone. It is unprofessional, stops learning, intrinsically threatens the well being of learners, immoral, unethical and illegal under international law, as proven recently by the decisions made by international UN Courts in places like Rwanda and The Hague and elsewhere.

BTW, under sharia law, anyone who practices racism is excommunicate from the umma. It is unforgiveable under Islamic law, but that has never bothered anyone has it. It is also forbidden by Orthodox Christian theology, but that did not prevent Kosovo, did it.

As teachers, we must stand up for international ethical standards wherever we teach, as a prerequisite for our own professional standing and as human beings. The UN Charter of Human Rights was written by a consortium under the directorship of Eleanor Roosevelt who deliberately brought together Islamic scholars, Buddhist and Hindu and Confucian scholars as the primary authors. It is a truly international endeavor and those who say it is Western are just blowing a smoke screen around their own ethical failings IMHO. I believe strongly that teachers above all other professions have a primary responsibility to place ethics first.

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