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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

May 2005

Topic: Should a teacher bring his or her politics and religion into the classroom?

Chuck Sandy

Walk into my office. Have a look around. Within a few moments you'll see where I stand. The images, artwork, and symbols that you'll see displayed there will tell you something about my interests, my politics, and my religious beliefs. If you want to know more about these things, I'll be happy to tell you because I firmly believe that it is the whole person who teaches, and I want you to know who I am. If you ask about why I have a cross on my door, I'll tell you that I'm a Christian and that this particular cross is one my grandmother made for me long ago. If you ask more, I'll tell you more. I'll even tell you why I'm a Christian and what it means to me.

“Ask me anything, and I'll tell you what I believe and where I stand. I won't hesitate for a moment...”

Likewise, ask about the peace symbol on my wall, and I'll not only tell you that this print was made for the Unicorn Press in 1958 by the pacifist poet Kenneth Patchen, but I'll also tell you that I am a pacifist, too, and why. Ask me anything, and I'll tell you what I believe and where I stand. I won't hesitate for a moment, and if you ask, we'll likely connect in a way that will deepen our relationship and our understanding of each other. It will be good for both of us. You will have to ask, though. I'm not going to tell you otherwise.

Although I firmly believe that it is the whole person who teaches, I also firmly believe that it is not in anyone's best interests for language teachers ­ or any kind of teacher for that matter ­ to bring their politics or religion into the classroom in an overt manner. I don't do it, and I feel very uncomfortable with teachers who do. No one has signed up for my courses in order to learn more about Jesus or to be swayed by my version of politics. They're in my courses to develop their language skills or to learn more about linguistics or literature. This is what they expect, and this is what I am, in fact, morally obliged to provide them.

At the same time, however, I'm also morally obliged by my belief system to be nothing but who I fully am in the classroom. How can I, then, as a Christian and a person of conscious, hold this deep part of me back from my students? Clearly, I can't and I don't. While I don't overtly talk about my religion or my politics in the classroom, I do consciously choose materials and activities that reflect my values. This doesn't mean that I use or design Christian or pacifist materials and activities. It does mean, however, that I avoid anything that would promote conflict or glorify violence in any way. It also means that I strive to deflect whatever conflicts or signs of intolerance that might rise up among my students. It further means that I try hard to treat anyone in my classroom or workplace kindly and with fairness. Of course, I am not always successful at this, and when I realize I am not, I ask for forgiveness and another chance to make things right. Rather than talk without prompting about my beliefs I try to live them, and by doing so I feel I am able to give my students more than mere talk about my beliefs could provide.

"Don't draw a line. Be the line," the poet Cid Corman once wrote to me in a letter about teaching. What he meant was that it is not enough for teachers to draw a line by talking about where they stand or what they believe, for such a line of talk means nothing in any case unless it is lived. It's not easy advice to follow, but it's the right stance to take.

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Peter Viney


But …

This topic forces me to review my teaching history. My first degree was in American Studies with Political Studies. The latter is a subject I've strenuously avoided for thirty years. My Master's was in American Literature, specifically Hollywood & The Novel. I've taught literature to native speakers at tertiary level. I've lectured on film courses for native speakers, too. I've even taught 'Western Political Systems' for six months to a group of Chinese interpreters who arrived for a course in the UK in the 70s at Proficiency level.

“To me, the point is that in ELT we're teaching a skill, not selling ideas.”

I've taught English to multi-national classes with a Chilean politician (under Pinochet), an Israeli army officer, an Algerian political Commissar and a Japanese executive from a multi-national company in the same class. So politics is off the agenda. To me, the point is that in ELT we're teaching a skill, not selling ideas. This gives ELT a basic honesty that is absent from the teaching of Politics, Sociology or Literature, where however hard you try not to, you're selling an idea. That's what I always loved about ELT. It's an honest job.

But …

How honest? My main function nowadays is as a textbook author. I like to think it's an honest and unbiased profession, but I have to hold my hand up and admit that like 90% of course book writers, I sometimes slip things in that I arrogantly think are "good" for the readers. Little things on the intelligence of whales and dolphins (which might help to stop people killing them), or on the environment (which might save a tree or two). Some text books lay their hidden agenda on with a trowel. I like to think that we're more subtle, but potentially I guess we're no less dishonest. I like to think that a general spirit of liberal humanism pervades most ELT textbooks, and I was pleased at reactions a few years ago when I was talking about video. We had a character in our videos called Dennis Cook who was supposed to be a comic "everyman". Within a few months I heard people say "he's just like a typical person in my country" in places as diverse as Thailand, Mexico, Poland and France. I feel that spreading the awareness (gently) that all nationalities are "just like us" is a positive thing to be doing.

I've heard the PARSNIPS one too. I've never had a serious problem with PC editorial comments as long as they're applied intelligently. To my lasting shame, I stood in front of an audience who were asking why a best-selling textbook of mine had so few African-American / Afro-Caribbean faces. I answered truthfully that back in 1978 we had asked for them, specified them in the art brief too, and our publisher didn't think it important. They certainly do now, and that's right. In a debate I got into on this, some other authors were furious that they'd not been allowed to show people smoking in their textbook. I don't find it a problem to avoid people smoking in textbooks.

I'd be totally against expressing any religious beliefs to a class. I have spiritual beliefs, but I would not apply the word 'religious' to them, as the most spiritual people I've met in my life have been from the whole range of belief systems. I've also encountered publishers' fear of mentioning religion in textbooks. Though Marc's example, Christmas in Australia, is actually illustrated in the workbook of my current course, in the past I had some strange deletions. To me the weirdest was in Main Street, where there is a big picture of a parade in a typical New England town, except I was told I had to have a town hall not a church, as a church in a picture of an American small town "might offend other religious beliefs." I thought that seriously weird. When I go to Istanbul I expect to see mosques, and in Kyoto I expect to see temples. I'm sure non-Christian visitors to the USA expect to see churches!

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Marc Helgesen

Chuck said, "I do consciously choose materials and activities that reflect my values." Actually, I think we all choose materials and activities that reflect our values. If we teach, "talking about shopping" and "free time activities", those reflect values. If we bring in beliefs, world issues, reactions to the tsunami and the like, those are values, too. The point is, Chuck is doing it consciously. I think that is important.

“If we teach, "talking about shopping" and "free time activities", those reflect values. If we bring in beliefs, world issues, reactions to the tsunami and the like, those are values, too.”

Like Chuck, no one has ever signed up for any of my classes to hear my political or religious views (though the political views are pretty transparent from cartoons on my door, comments in my informal lunch groups, etc.) And I don't avoid "light topics" like shopping in my classes or textbooks -- I teach mostly 18 to 23 year olds. These are important aspects of their lives. Naturally, as a middle-aged American, I would be naïve to think that what is interesting and important to me is interesting to my students. And the class material has to be interesting.

However, it would also be naïve of me to think that my students are only interested in the "light and fluffy" topics. So I also try to include weightier issues, generally as an option: We are learning ways to give opinions. Here are some possible topics. Which are interesting to you? If they want to choose "dating" or "movies", fine. If they opt for "gay marriage" or "freedom vs. safety", those options should be there, too.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure for textbooks and classroom materials to be sanitized ­ void of anything that might possibly upset or offend anyone anywhere. In a project I was working on until recently, we had a multi-cultural unit that included holidays around the world. Two that got edited out were "Christmas in Australia" and "Ramadan."

Both got the boot because "you can't include religion in a textbook." (Never mind that nearly every culture has holidays that are somehow connected to belief systems). Christmas in Australia was mostly about Santa Claus on Bondi Beach ­ a religious icon only to Surfies.

Ramadan being bounced was a shame. Most of us know next to nothing about Islam ­ this in a time we really should find out more. What little we do know is often based on partial knowledge. ("They don't eat during Ramadan. No wonder they are so crabby" -- not realizing Ramadan is actually a time of feasting. It is just those feasts happen at night). My co-authors and I thought it was a chance to inform and share something interesting. We lost. (We did, however, get Bob Marley Day ­ a holiday in Jamaica ­ included. No mention of Rastafarian sacraments.)

I met a British ELT author once who told me she had been told to "avoid PARSNIPS" in any textbook.
"Parsnips? Is there some kind of a vegetable rights thing that I don't know about?"
No, PARSNIPS stood for:

parsnips.jpg Politics

I can appreciate editors and publishers not wanting to be offensive, but when topics are eliminated by rigid rules rather than careful consideration, we often end up with superficial pablum: It's the bland leading the bland.

I don't want to tell my students what to think, but I do want to give them opportunities to take issues to as deep a level as they want. Sometimes it is overt: I did give out George W. Bush's email address ( and Junichiro Koizumi's ( before the Iraq war. I did tell them that I didn't actually care if they sent letters. And it certainly is none of my business which side of the issue they are on. But it was an issue many had strong opinions about. I wanted to give them the option of stating them. When there was a sexual harassment trial involving the school, we gave students the option of attending class or attending the trial. If part of my job as a teacher is creating possibilities, I think that can take many forms.

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Curtis Kelly

Indeed, indeed. My beliefs. Yes, a noble discussion, and I am awed by the sensitive ideas of my peers. Chuck searches his soul to find a line to stand on, or to be. I am inspired! Marc calls for publishers to let the world into their textbooks. Let the revolution begin! Peter delineates his experience in the evolution of materials that started in an ancient age when the world was only white and blonde. I am both amused and excited by the way we have grown. The questions my peers asked made me think of two tools Carl Rogers gave therapy: hold the other in absolute positive regard, and yet, always be authentic. Accept, but do not lie about your own beliefs.

“If we bring our own personal heartfelt issues into the classroom to discuss, we run the danger of setting up the teacher-centered paradigm all over again.

And yet, something happened in class yesterday that has made me realize that we are missing one little, but crucial, point.

I went to the first class of the year and it was a small one of five very bright women. I asked them what they would like to do in this English class, and promised to put together a syllabus based on their self-identified needs, an approach we often use in adult education. They all agreed that they wanted to have discussions. I then asked them to clarify. "Do you want to talk about serious topics like the environment, or the war in Iraq, or more everyday conversation topics, like fashion or television?" One student answered as the others nodded along, "We want to talk about serious things, but things that are a part of our world, like manners on the train or curfews. We don't want to discuss something we don't know about." And in her response was the hint, "or care about."

Of course. It is so obvious. If we bring our own personal heartfelt issues into the classroom to discuss, we run the danger of setting up the teacher-centered paradigm all over again. "Here class, read this, this, and this, and debate it," all my favorite topics, not yours. Because of my age, education and background, certain issues related to the environment and world politics have great meaning to me. But as we discussed in the Tsunami topic a few months ago, it is unlikely that these same issues will have much meaning to Ms. Suzuki, who has never been out of Kanto.

We must be careful in our passions, and avoid teaching that is oriented towards making a mini-me; it is their boundaries that we should be trying to stretch. Knowing where those boundaries are and respecting them is more than just being learner-centered, it is being learning-centered. All real learning starts in the experience of the learner, and if it happens to meet ours at some point, then we can dwell in that overlap, but if not, then we are failing at our primary mission.

So, my friends, proceed with caution. We must hold their inner worlds as being the most precious, not ours. Learner readiness is the key. If they are ready to sort out the social or political issues we hold dear, then it is our duty to exacerbate that process, but if not, it should be our taboo.

What is wrong with the teacher centred paradigm? Is it wrong because it isn't efficient for learning or because it encourages passivity and dependence?

Curtis told us that the teacher should not impose topics on the students but conversely, should the students be able to impose topics on teachers? Shouldn't there be some way of reaching a consensus? Don't the experience and the perceptions of the teacher count for anything? Should I limit myself to the likes of Toy Story, Ultraman, Deka-Ranger and so on simply because the inner world's of many children have been contaminated, compromised, commercialised, colonised (OK, supply your own adjective if you don't like mine).

I agree that real learning starts with the experience of the learner. Surely one of the roles of the teacher is to introduce learners to new experiences and to new ways of experiencing. If we remain totally with the inner worlds of the students aren't we limiting both the students and ourselves?

One professor I know gives college students free choice in deciding what topics to cover but then insists that critical social analysis is used to look at those topics. I wonder what critical social analysis would make of most text books? There's quite an interesting discussion of sexism in ESL/EFL textbooks here. I hadn't heard of PARSNIPS before. I'm curious that economics isn't included in the list. And I wonder what Israel has done to be the only country so included?

The censorship of the PARSNIPS list is unsurprising and also disagreeable as is the teacher dominated classroom. I think that choice and respect are very important. Bu what would need to happen for learner and learning centred paradigms to truly exist? My guess is that at the very least the situation would need to be voluntary and democratic. But would that be enough? Even A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, the longest running "free" school in the World, thought that, given the relationship between teacher and student, religion and politics should remain outside the classroom.

I think the more the classroom is a classroom the more problematic issues like religion and politics become. But perhaps the real problem is the notion of the classroom itself? To the extent that the notion of classroom is broken down and a community is created with the power to make choices equalised perhaps there is no need for any taboos?

Don't say you are right too often, teacher.
Let the students realise it,
Don't push the truth:
It's not good for it
Listen while you speak!

(Listen While You Speak by Bertolt Brecht)

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Chris Hunt

Goldfish swimming round and round
Goldfish swimming up and down
Goldfish in my bowl
Goldfish in my bowl

There's a question I must ask
Why don't you bump your head against the glass?
Goldfish in my bowl
Goldfish in my bowl

Young children are very good at watching, listening and absorbing. Grown ups have tremendous power and influence over children simply because we are bigger and stronger and have more experience. It follows that we need to be even more mindful and more respectful when in the presence of children than we might be with adults. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow remarked, "A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child". And not just hard words - politics and religion as well.

“But what exactly are politics and religion. For example, how about compulsory education? To me this seems to be something of both.”

The idea of dousing children in a torrent of politics and religion seems abhorrent. But what exactly are politics and religion. For example, how about compulsory education? To me this seems to be something of both.

An article in the latest Education Revolution magazine points out that because school is so ubiquitous we had better be absolutely certain that the theories it is based on are correct. Theories or assumptions?

Recently I moved half way across the country and began a new job at a kindergarten. At least I thought it was a kindergarten. In my mind, and in my experience, kindergartens have playgrounds. But not this one. It occupies several floors of an office building. Children play in their classrooms when they are allowed to. The rest of the time they are supposed to sit upright in their chairs and listen to the teacher. After all, that is how they will learn, isn't it?

What kind of a belief is that?

The circumstances in which we teach also reflect particular beliefs. What do we do when those circumstances conflict with our own beliefs? Do we accept the circumstances and work from the inside or do we do what we can from the outside? I think it depends upon the depth of our beliefs and also on our integrity. It also depends upon our understanding.

I was interested in the kindergarten position because I thought the program was progressive. Every day I was to work with one class and stay with them for the whole day. We would have a lesson, we would have lunch, we would play together and then have another shorter lesson before finishing.

It wasn't until I had virtually decided to come that I was told that I would need to grade the children. The school used an A-D ranking. The idea that a kindergarten could require grading had never occurred to me. It was beyond my understanding.

I wondered what to do. For a while I thought about trying to deconstruct the system from within by making up ridiculous criteria ­ I had been told that the criteria used were up to the teacher. Thoughts of grading on being Japanese and being a child flitted through my mind. But finally I decided simply to refuse.

I don't know if my refusal had anything to do with it but suddenly it was decided that English would be treated differently from other subjects. For several years one teacher had pushed to get English fully integrated into the Kindergarten program. The previous year this had happened. But now it is separated again. Perhaps this served as the excuse to change the way the English program is dealt with. Grading remains for other subjects but for English reports will be written instead. How this works in practise remains to be seen.

Having been there for less than a month I'm still finding my way, but already wonder whether finding my way is actually possible. I seem to be confirming my belief in unschooling.

I think the idea of spending a whole day with the children is a good one but the strict division of time, the lack of choice, the control exercised over the children and the daily rituals that take place (such as the lining up to go to the toilet) give me more than pause for thought. Maybe I need more faith. It seems to me that unless school is voluntary what it is really teaching is passivity.

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My experience led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

(verse from My Back Pages by Bob Dylan)

Curtis warns us against recreating the teacher centred paradigm. He writes about being learning centred and holding to the idea that the learners' inner worlds are more precious than our own. But I wonder how this is possible and why it should be so.

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