Published 28th February 2018

diversity in TEFL

Being a TEFL teacher is not only about teaching English as a Foreign Language. As the teacher, you also need to play certain roles in order to create the optimal learning environment in your classroom. Sometimes you may need to act as a referee, sometimes as a cheerleader, or dictionary or therapist or friend. Whatever hat you need to put on in the classroom will depend on the day, the class and the lesson. One responsibility you will always have, though, is that of educator – and not only of English.

Read more: Four Roles of TEFL Teachers

Being an educator in the EFL classroom

Being a teacher means you teach a subject. In the case of TEFL, you are teaching English as a Foreign Language. But in actual fact, you teach much more than that. As you teach you naturally communicate your ideas and beliefs on all manner of things. While you may not realise it, your students will pick up more in your lessons than just the linguistic content.

This might mean you teach concrete information, which is particularly the case with CLIL lessons. It might mean you teach a specific mindset, such as mindfulness. Or it might mean you teach certain beliefs and ideas, based on your religious convictions, for example. Teachers are in a very privileged position to be able to pass on their thoughts and agendas to very impressionable students.

Read more: How To Integrate CLIL Into Your EFL Lessons

This is why it’s important to be careful of what we are teaching between the lines, so to speak. We can influence our learners’ minds every time we step into the classroom. This is why it’s important to use this opportunity for good and raise awareness of pressing issues in our environment. This could be about global warming, current events, or discrimination, to mention but a few.

Considering the world we are living in today, the issue of diversity is an urgent one.

Why is diversity in the EFL classroom important?

There is a myriad of reasons we need to consider diversity in the EFL classroom. The first one is for the sake of classroom management. We all know motivation and dedication are so important for learning, and creating a good classroom atmosphere goes a long way to promote these. Our students need to get on with each other in order to feel comfortable with each other and, consequently, learn, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs.

These days it is important for our learners to be aware of each other’s circumstances, cultures and heritages. It’s not often that you are teaching a class of students who all come from the same place or have the same backgrounds, even if you are teaching a class of Thai students, for example. If you think about it, what community is made up of people from the social background, religious background, sexual orientation and so on? Language schools, in particular, are likely to be multicultural and it’s important for our learners to be aware of this and accepting of each other.

This is important for the classroom because in order to learn our students need to be relaxed, open and engaged – in other words, their affective filter needs to be lowered. This won’t happen if students feel uncomfortable with each other. Pairwork and group work are integral parts of EFL lessons and won’t work if students don’t want to work with each other.

Read more: What is The Affective Filter in Language Learning?

hands on table, different cultures

Outside the classroom

At the same time, being accepting and understanding of each other’s differences is a key element of life outside the classroom as well. These days especially relationships between people of different backgrounds are very important.

Then, on a more academic level, studies have shown that students learn better from materials that are culturally familiar to them than when learning from materials that are culturally different. If you have spent any time dealing with current ELT materials you will know this doesn’t pose much of a problem when you are teaching Caucasian, male, heterosexual, middle-class European students, as our coursebooks are heavily weighted towards this persona. Considering that the majority of our learners do not, in fact, come from Europe and aren’t male or Caucasian or heterosexual means our coursebooks are making it harder for our learners to learn.

From another perspective, it is important for our younger learners to recognise themselves in their learning materials. We need to make sure people from all walks of life are represented equally and fairly in our ELT coursebooks and learning materials. Considering the vast quantity of materials we already have which are not diverse or representative at all means that there is a long road ahead of us, but it is a challenge we have no choice but to accept.

Read more: The Case For and Against Coursebooks

How can we celebrate diversity in the classroom?

First and foremost, as a teacher, you need to be aware of the different issues relating to diversity that are relevant to your learners and the society and culture you are all living in. You need to get to know your learners and understand their backgrounds and beliefs, in general, and as they relate to language learning. You need to be mindful of communicating your own beliefs in the classroom through your use of language. And you need to cast a critical eye on the materials you use in your lessons.

On a personal level, it’s important to orchestrate activities that enable students to get to know each other. Get the students working together in groups to allow them to talk about their backgrounds. Create activities that highlight family life, culture, religion and other aspects of their life which may be different, in order to educate your students about these differences.

You may think this is obvious when it comes to Young Learners and teens, but it is just as necessary when teaching adults. If your learners have not travelled much or spent much time outside their home country (or hometown) they may not be aware of these differences or they may have preconceived ideas which have never been challenged before.

Be prepared

When it comes to your classroom materials, do a thorough read-through of your coursebook to identify any problematic content. Be prepared for your lessons by supplementing or adapting the materials as and when necessary. We are not saying it’s necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but you do need to be careful of what you are utilising in your classroom. When you can, bring in images of people from different races, ages, economic backgrounds, sexual orientations and physical capabilities to include in your lessons. Include famous people and celebrities from different countries and backgrounds. Identify different opinions and attitudes which are prevalent around the world.

A word of warning: proceed with caution. Topics like these (like religion, for example) can prove to be controversial in the classroom. Students can become very defensive or antagonistic when talking about certain topics. It’s not your job to change people’s minds; you are simply trying to create and maintain a peaceful and harmonious learning environment.

As a teacher, you have a responsibility to realise that you are teaching more than a language and that you have the power to make a difference when it comes to diversity and representation.