On lurking stereotypes



I'm not sure whether this post should be published. First of all, I'm not sure about the timing. It's Christmas after all. On the one hand, it's the time when people should focus on the positive. On the other hand, it's also a time of contemplation, reflection and retrospect. Also, I fear that by hitting the publish button my reputation will probably be discredited; I risk losing some of my fans. Forgive me, I'm still going to give it a go ...

I'd been thinking about this post for a while but I hadn't had the courage to write it up until I read David Harbinson's latest post. I think it was exactly the ‘the teacher rolled his eyes’ bit which gave me a kick. It was then when I asked myself the question I had asked myself many times before: what is the role of us EFL teachers? Part of it is obviously teaching our students English. What else? Should we try to eliminate stereotypes from their thinking? Should we change the way students' see certain issues?  Are we automatically owners of the truth?

If you ask a five-year-old child what colour water is, the answer will likely be ‘blue’. But you know it's not true. You also know that there's no point in convincing your little child that water is not blue because that's how he sees it now - this knowledge is based on his experience and what he was told by adults. And honestly, water does look blue at first sight - even you must admit that.

If we want to change our students' perspective on the world and global issues, for example, shouldn't we have the right answer against which we can judge the correctness of the students' answers? In other words, if we want to eliminate a certain stereotype, logically, we must believe that this stereotype is inherently bad and we must have an alternative at our disposal. To give an example from David's post, equalling gypsies with thieves is bad and wrong. Anybody can be a thief. Saying that a certain group or a minority equals terrorists is even worse. Terrorists can be found everywhere in the world. I strongly agree with this viewpoint. That's why I would obviously try to prevent my students from believing or claiming these things publicly. Do I have the right to do so?

Sometime in June I did something that shattered my beliefs about what I truly believe. The story goes like this: last February I enrolled my six-year-old son in a local primary school - one of the tree schools we have here. I chose this particular school because my elder sons had once attended it too. Apart from the advantage of being within walking distance, the school was, I believed, of high quality because both my elder sons left it well prepared for their further studies. I personally knew most of the teachers employed there; I knew they were passionate professionals.

Just after I’d enrolled my youngest son, I heard rumours that a couple of the best teachers were planning to leave. It worried me a bit but I thought it was just gossip. Then the figures were published: the school had accepted very few pupils and thus was soon likely to be struggling to survive. This was a bad sign. Something was wrong - the administrators must have done something which had put the parents off. I was worried but I wanted to stay loyal.

Unluckily, just before the start of the summer holidays I bumped into a friend of mine – a teacher at the school in question - and I asked her how things were. She informed me that my son had been placed in a small class of about 17 pupils. She added sadly and sympathetically that a third of the class were kids of a certain notorious minority. She was risking her career by telling me, but as a mother herself, she thought it was important that I knew. I should stress that the administrators tried to keep this particular piece of information secret for two more months! Needless to say, this kind of information should not be kept secret; the parents have the right to know.

Anyway, I panicked, especially as soon as my friend started telling me stories about how difficult these kids were and how challenging it was for a teacher to teach a class like this. She told me about cases of violence and the fact that these kids were not motivated to learn because they got no support from their parents. She told me about some hygiene issues too. She added me that if she were me, she would take action immediately. So I did. Even before the school started, I took my son out of that school, and transferred him into another one, much further from our place, but safer, to my mind. It was a very quiet and quick procedure. Nobody blamed me and I only hear words of approval from all my friends and family members, and from all the teachers themselves.

The trouble is that I, a teacher and an educator whose task is to eliminate stereotypes, actually helped to disseminate one. I did so without too much thinking. I ran on autopilot, so to speak. I mean, I do believe that certain ways of thinking are bad and I'll always do my best to spread the word, but once it comes down to my (or my family's) personal benefit, I act automatically. Basic instincts simply win, no matter how scary it sounds. What is worse, I wouldn’t act differently if I got another chance.

My point is, and this is related to David's post, that no matter what we think is right and what we, members of a developed society, should think that is right, we won't find out what we really believe until we get into a challenging situation. Sometimes we teachers claim certain things in the classroom and we want to believe that this is what we should tell our students, either because it's politically correct or because deep inside we feel it's right. But I think that instead of preaching we’d better listen and try to understand – because you never know if what you preach is what you truly and unconditionally believe in. The stereotypes are there, lurking and waiting to emerge from the darkness and chaos of the human mind.