ESL: choosing to embrace or avoid sensitive topics

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If you are a teacher or mentor; whether it’s a primary school teacher, an instructor in a college, a high school teacher, or even a parent – chances are you encountered a few topics or questions where you had to pause and choose two options: answer or change the subject.

You probably had a situation in mind when you read that first paragraph. Your student pipes up and you freeze. You do know the answer, but do you want to say it? That super uncomfortable question that you wish they didn’t ask? That you wish didn’t exist? Are you afraid of what they would think or how they would understand the world around them after? Are you ashamed of the world that you both live in? If you are a teacher like me, I think you can understand that the reality of the culture that produced a certain way of things can make things awkward, but should they be avoided if they are very much real things?

I teach a program called LINC: Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada. It’s a great program for new immigrants, in which teachers in this program introduce topics that help students settle, like filling out a form for a driver’s license, how to purchase items at the grocery store, or what it means to say “how’s it going?”. These topics are language-based of course, but are also focused around integrating into culture and the attitudes around the City of Ottawa and Canada. When it comes to uncomfortable topics, I can definitely name a few and how I handled them, in hopes that you can consider those uncomfortable questions and decide if you should avoid them, while also taking into account the other’s culture and where they come from as well.

1: Gift giving

For starters, a student of mine in the spring expressed that he hadn’t seen his daughter in 5 years because of a nasty divorce. I empathized with him, because I don’t get to see my family very often either. He’s a good student; very respectful and attends class regularly. Occasionally, he would drive me to the bus stop, that was a good 15 minutes walking from my school. Every time he always had a small gift, like gum, chocolate or some fruit. It was really nice, and was showing his appreciation in the ways that he could. One day during the summer, I told my students that I was going home, so there would be a supply teacher. My students knew where I was from, and were curious as to how much it costed me to go home. Then, during a ride home from my student, he asked again: how much the train costed. He dropped a very shocking comment that he would pay for my entire trip. I froze, and of course I wanted to say yes, (free train ride!!) but I couldn’t bring myself to accept. I knew it was wrong, and that it was too much to accept that kind of gift, let alone that amount of money from a student. I told him, no – over and over, but he kept insisting.

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The next day after class, I rushed out of the room, trying to avoid my student in hopes that he wouldn’t approach me with the money. But he did! He drove up beside me and tried to hand me an envelope. I couldn’t accept, but still insisted. He told me he reminded me of his daughter that he couldn’t see, and that it was the least he could do for a great teacher. I was panicking, my mind was going into fight or flight mode. It hurt me saying no in the first place, and they fact that he really missed his daughter really made me feel for him. In that moment, I had to tell him it’s not what we do in Canada. I considered that giving gifts of money in this regard may be normal in some cultures, but unfortunately isn’t the case in Canada. I had to explain that it’s not okay to give a gift like that on a normal day, or let alone at all if we weren’t family or friends. I think it was a little embarrassing for my student, but then explained that small gifts were okay, like coffee or food on a normal day. On holidays, things like gift cards or small amounts of money were okay. It was hard for me to teach him at that time and place, under the circumstances that he missed his only daughter. In the end the gift giving slowed down and I think he finally understood these customs that we have in Canada.

Verdict: Be happy when students give you gifts, but remember to consider the culture that you want to represent and teach while considering where they come from in their intentions.

2: Emergency situations

A topic that I was hesitant to teach about. I knew it was important but with my class consisting of refugees, I couldn’t help but feel a little tug in my heart telling me to prepared for a student to be triggered – for whatever reason. What I’m understanding from my students is that they’ve been through the worst – displaced from their home, their jobs and their family in which they had no choice. When I thought of teaching emergency situations and calling 911 in English, I was gripping the edge of my seat in the case a student would say I needed to stop or they needed to leave. The unit consisted of a variety of vocabulary, including verbs in the “-ing” (present continuous) form. Words like: “choking”, “not breathing”, “missing”, or even “committing suicide”, felt uneasy for me to teach, and on top of that, I was so worried I was going to step on a student’s nerve. As the week began, we talked about it, and I asked them if they ever called 911 before in Ottawa. All of them said no, and so our adventure began.

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As I was teaching the vocabulary, a lot of my students were keen on learning these words. To my surprise, they felt it was really important for them to know as well. I was relieved. We began some dialogue practice and even watched some videos of people calling 911. One of my students even worked as a medical assistant, and was excited to share his medical knowledge with the class in this topic. Also, another student ended up actually calling 911 during that weekend, and was thankful for the practice.

Verdict: Don’t be afraid to jump in and teach real-life topics that could save someone’s life. Even if saying “suicide” is a trigger for you, be aware that these things unfortunately do exist and we must be prepared to share with others how to prevent that and other emergencies. Be strong and know that your class will support you.

3: Phrases

Since I’ve begun my teaching career, there has been some incidents that have been unexpectedly sensitive. Ordinary topics that trigger students, or seem to get culturally displaced when you talk about them.

During my first couple weeks as a lead teacher, we began talking about the summer – what do people do in the summer, where do they go, who do they like to spend time with and so on. And we are talking about summer in Canada. Here in Canada, you already know what you like to do in the summer. You wait patiently for school to be out, or for your vacation and you go wild. You camp, travel, and spend time with your friends and family. I mentioned this in class, and my students seemed to understand. I asked if they’ve ever been camping, and they seemed confused. I tried to explain that camping is a good time with friends or family and people do it in their free time in the summer. They sleep outside, have a fire and everyone’s happy. One of my students understood and said she’d been camping before, and traveled in the summer with her family. However, she wasn’t happy about it, and revealed that the only time she’d been camping was in a refugee camp.

I paused and thought for a second, “oh no.” In that moment I fucked up. I totally wasn’t expecting there to be another meaning for camp! I wasn’t even thinking about that, and was too caught up in the fact that I didn’t really know any other meaning for camp, being I’m from a super safe and stable country. Luckily, my student wasn’t upset or anything, but what she said completely caught be off guard. The class listened to her story, about where she came from and where she stayed as a refugee before coming to Canada. She was very strong in saying so, and I think she’s just happy to be safe. In the end, it turned out none of the students were interested in leisurely camping, because they hated bugs anyways.

My classroom, behind a church in Ottawa
Spring, 2019.

Another incident, this time a little more sensitive, actually happened with Pat during his early teaching days. It was his first couple weeks being a teaching assistant and was leading the adult literacy students in ESL. With that level, you teach very simple topics, such as the ABC’s, numeracy, and sometimes even how to hold a pencil. He had the opportunity to teach the phrases for “hello” and “goodbye”. “Hello” went perfectly fine, but “goodbye” seemed to cause some problems.

He was also teaching Syrian refugees at the time (there are multiple classes), and a student broke out in tears after learning what the word “goodbye” meant. She expressed in broken English that she was reminded of saying goodbye to someone close to her in Syria, and missed them terribly. As Pat was recalling this to me, he was shook by the fact that something so simple; a phrase that could mean so little, yet be so heavy in memories, was a trigger for one of his students. Pat eventually decided to move on to something else as it was too emotional for the student.

Verdict: You don’t really know what to expect until you experience it. Experience helps you learn and is quite valuable, so don’t be afraid to make that mistake. As teachers, it’s important that we learn too, and can help with your teaching, especially with vulnerable students.

In the end, you never know what could be sensitive for your students! But always be aware and read your students as you are teaching, especially if you suspect it could be sensitive. But don’t be afraid to teach them sensitive topics. At the very worst, you will learn from a very valuable experience for your teaching.

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Have you ever experienced sensitive topics? Either as a teacher or in another field? What did you do? I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

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