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April 2007 - Issue No. #64

Global Issues, Social Responsibility and Teacher Education (p. 10 - 13)

by Wendy Royal

University of British Columbia, Canada


A Japanese student burst into tears on hearing, for the first time, a Korean classmate recount Japanese treatment towards Koreans during World War II. A student asked a guest speaker from the gays and lesbians club how she could prevent her son from becoming like him. A student asked her teacher if she could postpone her mid-term exam because her brother was celebrating her arranged engagement-by-proxy on that day.

These are just some of the complex issues ESL teachers face in teaching and dealing with ‘hot’ topics in the language classroom. While these examples are difficult for even experienced teachers, they are intimidating and overwhelming for student teachers. Yet do Teacher Education Programs adequately prepare student teachers to handle these issues? According to Tara Goldstein (2004), “Teacher training programs tend to focus on teaching skills, methodology and curriculum planning, classroom management and evaluation strategies. However, what is often overlooked is preparing teachers to deal with the linguistic, cultural and racial tensions that arise in multicultural classroom.”

In this article, I would like to focus on six particular challenges that new teachers face. I will briefly acknowledge what the literature says, then discuss how I have dealt with each of these challenges in my own class.

1. Conservativism

Research (Apple 2002, Banks 2004, et al) currently shows that we are in the middle of a conservative backlash in teaching critical multicultural pedagogy, social justice or social responsibility.

What impact will this have on our Teacher Education programs? Will new teachers be reluctant to teach social responsibility without the support of educa-tional administration and government policies?

In my own practice as a teacher trainer, a student recently said she had been told not to discuss controversial issues in the ESL classroom. My response was to “blame me” if she got into trouble since I believe students have a right to discuss these critical issues. As experienced teacher educators who teach from a critical pedagogical standpoint, we need to assume a leadership role and stand up for new, more vulnerable teachers, if need be. In other words, we need to take the TESOL 2006 conference theme to heart and “Dare to Lead”.

Some researchers, however, remain optimistic, despite the conservative trend. “Some gains are never lost. Researchers say backlash has its advantages – it offers a chance to reassess policies, and practices, and strategize for the future. Setbacks are a necessary part of the spiral of change.” (Goldstein & Selby, 2000)

2. Ethnocentrism

Research (McLaren 1995, Willinsky 1998, Norton & Toohey 2004) has emphasized the responsibility that ESL teachers have since English language education has been linked historically to furthering the colonial project. It is therefore imperative for Teacher Education programs to challenge traditional knowledge, for teachers to reflect on our own embedded worldviews, to be vigilant about what knowledge is taught by whom for what purpose.

“ESL teachers need to go into the global language trade with awareness of its imperialistic connection – but with the possibility of transformation. This should be introduced into the Teacher Education curriculum. We cannot uninstall the mammoth program of westernization that the world has absorbed, nor is this the best course of action. We have a responsibility to revise faulty lessons of the past. The west is accountable for how it has divided the world.” (Willinsky, 1998)

So, how have I problematized my own ethnocentrism? As a South African teaching in Canada in the 1980s, when apartheid was still firmly entrenched, I often used my country to discuss issues of racism. Although it is extremely painful to criticize ones’ homeland, it opened up a space for wider discussion of racism; my students could discuss not only their experience of racism in North America, but also reflect on issues of social justice in their own countries.

Sometimes this involves taking risks in the classroom. During the heyday of the apartheid era, I invited a close friend of mine, a Black South African, to talk to my students, who didn’t know I was from South Africa until that day. I divided the class into two groups. Sipho talked to one group while I spoke to the other. Although we had established a very warm teacher-student rapport in my class by that point in the semester, when I exchanged groups with Sipho, the antagonism towards me as a White South African was palpable. I had to struggle to break through that hostility, but it provided a valuable teaching moment as we challenged stereotypes and dealt openly with the destructive effects of racism.

I also discuss historical and systemic racism within Canadian society, such as the residential schools and Japanese internment. My students are surprised because they see Canada as the embodiment of human rights. I point out that societies can change and evolve although the legacy can have a long lasting impact, such as on the lives of First Nations people. Because challenging western ethno-centrism usually involves revealing the less-spoken aspects of our history, I have sometimes been charged with being ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘negative’, but as Neil Postman says “I write as a devoted patriot who wishes to celebrate the best by noticing the worst.” (Postman, 1988)

Despite my well-intentioned attempts at “counter-ethnocentrism”, I recently used a comprehension test from a popular reading text, which makes an effort to explore alternative histories. It described former Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, who “won the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East…. which led to the establishment of Israel from the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states…” I was horrified that I had never noticed this blatantly biased perspective before. Perhaps I was more sensitive because I had an Israeli and a Palestinian student in my class. It made me realize that we constantly need to scrutinize ourselves and the materials we use. Moreover, Teacher Education programs should include activities where new teachers can critically examine materials, “correct faulty lessons of the past” and design alternatives.

3. Teacher neutrality and balance

Brandes and Kelly (2001) studied student teachers who were integrating social justice into their practicum in a Teacher Education program in the public high school system in order to determine the feasibility of teacher neutrality in the classroom. They concluded that “teacher neutrality is not only undesirable, but impossible. Teachers who claim ‘no politics’ are actually perpetuating the status quo. (There is an) assumption that multiple perspectives would compete on neutral grounds in classrooms.”

While I agree with Brandes and Kelly’s conclusions in mainstream classrooms, I am not convinced it applies in the same way to ESL classrooms. Because of the cultural differences, educational backgrounds and power differentials between minority students and their teachers, there is more possibility that students may simply adopt the teacher’s perspective to please their teacher, to pass the exam or to meet perceived expectations.

Admittedly, these are still assumptions which need further research, but until they are verified or rejected, I prefer to construct my class in such a way that discussions revolve around the students’ opinions rather than mine. However, in truth, I am not neutral because my position comes through my choice of materials, themes and activities. Which brings us to the sticky question of ‘balance’. Do we need to present both sides of every issue in order to give a ‘balanced’ perspective? As Brandes and Kelly have concluded, this is a fallacious argument since students are immersed in a particular environment that promotes a certain viewpoint. As teachers of social responsibility, we are trying to introduce alternative perspectives and knowledges. Consequently, I will, for example, invite gays and lesbians into the classroom, but don’t feel compelled to invite someone from the fundamentalist right who opposes same-sex marriage.

Brandes and Kelly describe their “preferred teacher role as being inclusive, situated and engaged.” They explain that “inclusive” means including minority perspectives, “situated” refers to teachers’ awareness that they are located within a particular identity from which they view the world and “engaged” relates to encouragement of inquiry and critique of the issues and teachers’ own positions on them.

4. Difficult knowledge/ extreme polarization

How do teachers deal with what Deborah Britzman refers to as “difficult knowledge” (in Bramble, 2000) such as patriarchy and homophobia in some cultures? Aneta Pavlenko (2004) explains that “ [there are] tensions that teachers face when they try to search for a middle ground between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.”

However, Kogila Moodley (1995) best reflects my own opinion and praxis: “Cultural heritage can be an obstacle to survival – some aspects of a culture can and should be discarded as being culture-specific to another time and place. There is a tendency to ignore the dynamic aspect of culture - an immigrant can take up a ‘third’ culture that is made up of aspects of the traditional and host cultures.”

When I discuss social issues – Canadian residential schools, treatment of minorities, sexism etc., - I also ask students to reflect on similarities in their own culture, either orally through group discussions or written journals. This can result in some unpredictable and uncomfortable outcomes, such as those described in the anecdotes previously mentioned. Teacher education programs need to train new teachers to deal with these situations sensitively, respectfully and appropriately. Teachers need to determine if a topic can be discussed orally or is too ‘hot’ and should rather be left to a written teacher/student dialogue. They need to find ways of de-personalizing and distancing the topic through strategies such as role plays.

5. Practical ways of integrating social issues into the language classroom

I am very concerned about teaching language skills and critical social issues. We have an obligation to prepare ESL students effectively with language skills, so they can participate successfully in mainstream society. Moreover, I believe students are more likely to resist if they feel teachers are on a ‘moral soap box’. But I use social issues as the content whenever I can – I look for opportunities to naturally integrate these themes into the regular curriculum. For example, when I invite guest speakers into the classroom to talk about their experiences with racism or homophobia, I use this as an opportunity to teach note-taking skills, interview techniques, roles in group discussions, even grammar.

6. Should social responsibility be included in all Teacher Education programs?

According to Jones & Street-Porter (1989), “Teaching critical multicultural pedagogy is a professional responsibility, not moralistic.” I support their position since this not only empowers minority students with knowledge of their rights in the host country, but it also provides them with socio-cultural capital – students can knowledgeably discuss issues that are important to Canadians.

While many general education programs do include such a course (for example, the Faculty of Education at UBC has a compulsory course Social Issues in Education with 30 sections), TESL programs have not tended to put as much emphasis on critical multicultural pedagogy. Yet, as one student in my workshop, Teaching Social Issues in the Language Classroom, an elective in a TESL Diploma Program, wrote in her evaluation. “(Teaching) Social Issues is a MUST for teachers who believe that education is about awareness and social change.”



Apple, M.W. (2002) Interrupting the right: On doing critical education work in conservative times. Symploke.10 (1-2), 133-152.

Bagley, C.A. (1992) In-service preparation and teacher resistance to whole-school change. In D. Gill, B. Mayor, and M. Blair (Eds.), Racism and education: Structures and strategies, (pp. 226-247). London. Sage Publications.

Banks, J. (2004) Multicultural education: Historical development, dimensions, and practice. In J. & C. Banks (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Multi-cultural Education. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Bramble, Maxine (2000) Black education in Canada: Past, present, future. In Goldstein (2000).

Brandes, G. & Kelly, D. (2001) Shifting out of ‘neutral’: beginning teachers’ struggles with teaching for social justice. Canadian Journal of Education. Toronto. Vol. 26. (3) p. 437

Corson, D. & LeMay, S. (1996) Social Justice and language policy in education: The Canadian research. Toronto. OISE Press, Inc.

Giroux, H. A. (1983) Theory & resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition. Massachusetts. Bergin & Garvey.

Goldstein, T. (2004) Performed ethnography for critical language teacher education. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.) Critical pedagogies and language learning. Cambridge. CUP.

Goldstein, T. and Selby, D. (Eds.) (2000) Weaving Connections. Toronto. Sumach Press

Hoppenrath, C. & Royal, W. (1997) The world around us: Canadian social issues for ESL students. Toronto. Harcourt Brace.

Jones, C. and Street-Porter, R. (1989). The special role of teacher education. In M. Cole (Ed.) Education for equality. London. Routledge.

Kanpol, B. & McLaren, P. (1995) Critical multiculturalism: Uncommon voices in a common struggle. In H. Giroux and P. Freire. (Eds.) Critical studies in education series. Conn. Bergin & Garvey.

McCaskell, T. & Russell, V. (2000) Anti-homophobia initiatives at the Toronto Board of Education. In Goldstein & Selby (2000).

Moodley, K.A. (1995) Multicultural education in Canada; Historical development and current status. In J. & C. Banks (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. New York. MacMillan.

Norton, B & Toohey, K. (2004) Critical pedagogies and language learning. Cambridge University Press

Pavlenko, A. (2004) Gender and sexuality in foreign and L2 education: Critical and feminist approaches. In Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (Eds.) Critical pedagogies and language learning. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York. Delacorte.

Postman, N. (1988) Conscientious Objections. New York. Vintage Books

Sleeter, C. (1995) An analysis of the critiques of multicultural education. In J. Banks and C. Banks (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. New York. MacMillan.

Willinsky, J. (1998) Learning to divide the world: Education at empire’s end. University of Minnesota.

Wright, O. M., (2000) Multicultural and anti-racist education: The issue is equity. In Goldstein (2000).

This article is based on a colloquium talk at TESOL 2006 in Tampa, Florida on social responsibility and language teaching. The colloquium, commissioned by the Executive Board of TESOL, featured panelists from Japan, Israel, the US and Canada who addressed issues of politics, gender, religion and race with applications to curriculum and materials.

Wendy Royal is a former journalist who teaches at the UBC English Language Institute. She has taught in Spain, Germany and South Africa, and teaches a TESOL Elective Course on “Social Issues and ESL”. Current contact information: Wendy Royal, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Wendy Royal’s classic text “The World Around Us: Social Issues for ESL Students” is now available for purchase in Japan.

Cost per book is 2,500 yen or US $25 (shipping included). Payment in yen can be sent by post office kogawase check (leave blank) or by a US $25 dollar check made out on a US bank to “Kip Cates”. Buy your own copy or get a class set! Send payment to: Kip Cates, Tottori University, 4-101 Minami, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551

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