Steve Schertzer

ESL teachers as mentors and heroes

ESL teachers as linguistic imperialists and neo-colonialists

ESL teachers as linguistic imperialists and neo-colonialists, or ESL teachers as mentors and heroes. That is the subject of this column.

One of the good things about teaching English at AUA here in Bangkok, (besides the lasagne and pumkin pie in the cafeteria), is their Professional Development Program, (PDP.) Some teachers don't like it, but I do. The PDP gives us teachers a chance to observe other teachers, participate in article discussion forums, create supplementary material for your classes, and learn from so many others in the field.

Two recent cases in point is an article discussion and a workshop which took place at the main branch of AUA. Both the article discussion and the workshop had a similar theme. The article, by Julian Edge, was titled, "Imperial Troopers and Servants of the Lord: A Vision of TESOL for the 21st Century." The workshop, given by Larry E. Smith, was titled, "English as an International Language for Thais."

In the workshop, Mr. Smith asked these thought provoking questions: What is the difference between English as an International Language, (EIL) and English as a foreign Language, (EFL)?
What is the preferred method of teaching EIL? Is there an 'International English' that we should be using, studying, and teaching? Is the global spread of English helpful for international communication or is it evidence of the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the United States? Are we teachers of English agents of peace or instruments of neo-colonialism?

Definately some thought provoking questions there. I'll leave it up to each teacher reading this to decide for him or herself where they stand. Before I comment, here are a couple of quotes from Mr. Edge's article.

"It has become a commonplace of commentary on the worldwide hunger for English that the demand arises historically as an inheritance of the British Empire, and in the contemporary world, from the hegemonic status of the United States across many domains of human life, including the occupational, commercial, and cultural." (TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter 2003. p. 701.)

It is also Mr. Edge's perception,

"that the 2003 invasion of Iraq marks a watershed, if only in the raising of my own awareness. The shift to overt military imposition of will where hegemonic influence fails, even more striking when the main protagonists are the three figurehead TESOL providers worldwide, threatens fundamentally to recast the role of English language teachers. It represents a decisive move that one could express in colloquial terms as the shift from 'You should learn this because it is in your own best interests' to 'You had better learn this if you know what is good for you.' To the extent that the dominance of English speaking nations is to be imposed by force, English language teachers may now explicitly be perceived as a second wave of imperial troopers." (Ibid. p. 703.)

Wow! ESL teachers as neo-colonialists and linguistic imperialists? And you thought you were here to enjoy the nightlife and play hangman with eight year olds! Ha! I guess it's my turn to respond. In defense of Mr. Edge and Mr. Smith, they are both scholars. And I'm pretty sure that they are gentlemen. I, on the other hand, am neither a scholar nor a gentleman.

I've been in the ESL world since March 1997, and the vast majority of the ESL teachers I've
met---hundreds in at least a half dozen different countries--- are, for the most part, young, naive, (unaware of the "real" world), idealists, dedicated, tolerant, sometimes confused, sometimes too trusting, and, a lot of the time, downright frightened. A lot of us, especially in places like Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, are away from home for the first time, thrusting ourselves into a world unknown; unfamiliar places and hostile environments where Westerners are, at best, tolerated, and at worst, treated wit h such disdain and scorn that their illusion quickly turns to disillusion and they are unable to complete a year long contract.

Many of us jackbooted imperialists, Mr. Edge and Mr. Smith are $20,000 or $30,000 in debt, teaching day and night to pay off a student loan. Where would we possibly find the time to do our George W. Bush impersonation, or spread the good word of Jesus?

For these reasons, and others, ESL teachers-- most of us, anyway-- should be viewed as mentors and heroes, selflessly taking the time to improve the lives of our students. People like Julian Edge and Larry Smith should be ashamed of themselves. They spit in the face of every dedicated ESL teacher. They denigrate those of us who spend hours each and every day planning, preparing, and executing good quality English lessons that enable our students to learn and better themselves for the future.

Regardless of how one feels about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, to lump ESL teachers into the same group with the neo-conservatives in Washington; to equate us, in anyway, with the political philosophies of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, or Condoleeza Rice, is not only outrageous and outlandish, it also calls into question the sanity of the people who do this.

Julian Edge and Larry Smith are certainly entitled to their opinions, as outlandish and outrageous as some of them are. That's not the issue. But perhaps they can answer this very important question:

"Given that the vast majority of ESL teachers worldwide are young, (under 30), inexperienced, (about teaching ESL and life itself), atheists or agnostic, and overwhelmingly liberal in their political thinking, what is the connection between any of these teachers and the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration?"

ESL teachers as neo-colonialists and linguistic imperialists? That would be nice. That would mean that we are truly making a difference. There are things in this world that need changing. (More on that in part two next month.) The problem is not that we ESL teachers are changing things and shaking things up. The problem is that we're not. (More on that in part two next month.) Most of us are far too meek and acquiescent in character to march lockstep into Asia and linguistically colonize the locals. Even if we wanted to, we wouldn't be allowed. So instead of shaking things up, instead of really going out on a limb and changing things for the better, we kowtow to the local customs. So in the end, nothing really changes.

Any of us who has the courage to look in the mirror, regardless of what country it is we're teaching, will quickly come to realize--- much to our dismay--- that we are making very little difference at all--- if any. Although the English language is sought after as a linguistic means to an economic end, most of us lowly ESL providers are constantly on the outside looking in, very rarely feeling quite welcomed in the country we chose to better the lives of our students. "Teach us English, Yes! But stay away from our sons and daughters", is the common mantra of the locals in relation to ESL teachers. And if you do want our daughters, make sure you bring a whole lot of cash!

We ESL teachers in Asia have had to put up with some of the most appalling conditions imaginable, especially in places like Korea, China and Taiwan. Far too many of us still do. ESL teacher's websites are full of horror stories about the mistreatment of ESL providers. People can read them for themselves. But that fact remains, most ESL teachers are mentors and heroes.

At the core of education--- real education, not this "ESL Mickey Mouse Crap"--- is change. Positive political and social change. (More on that in part two next month.) Peel away the layers of the cultural onion and at the core you will find three things: Love, freedom, and justice. Without these three things, political and social change is not possible. We ESL teachers, like any other teacher, must be agents of positive political and social change. Doing anything to maintain the status quo, or doing nothing in the hope that the status quo will be maintained, is not an option that educators have. The status quo is the antithesis of education.

I'm left with one very good and interesting comment from Mr. Edge's article.

"When we are asked what vision of a better world it is that we, as educators, believe that we are contributing to by teaching English to speakers of other languages, it behoves us now more than ever to be ready with an honest answer." (Ibid. p. 708.)

Well, here's my answer. Everyone in the ESL world, whether you are teaching, managing, administrating or mentoring, must have a mission. Everyone. What is your mission? You must know exactly why you are teaching English to people half way around the world. You must know exactly what it is that you want to accomplish as a result of teaching ESL. You must wake up every morning with a clear vision of exactly what it is that you do and why. Then do it to the best of your ability.

I recently put my five word mission statement at the top of my resume. "To propel the process forward." That's it. Life is a process, and whether you are a teacher or a student, it must be propelled forward.

I will end the first part of this column by sharing two letters. As a columnist, I get my fair share of letters. Most of them are positive, but I like them all. The first letter is from my father, the second, from a young Thai woman.


December 9, 2004.

Dear Steve,
It's 4:30 a.m. I just finished reading "Why I Came to Thailand" for the third time. I think it's the best piece of work you've ever done. First I didn't know where you were going with it.... or about your mother and the M.S.... and then the legacy.
Steve, you have no idea how proud I am of you.... and what you have accomplished in your life. You're doing the things I would have liked to do. It's 5:15 a.m. I'm going back to bed. I feel better for writing you. Love you.



February 1, 2005.

Dear Steve,

It's the accident to read your story "Why I came to Thailand" and I thought it's a good story for me and I like it very much.... Hope you have a good story again.
Sorry my English not good but I love to read it. Thank you to live in Thailand and I hope you love my country too.


So what is the mission of ESL teachers worldwide? It can be found in both these letters. It is both a personal mission and a professional mission. It is to make our parents and family proud.
It is to improve the lives of our students. It is to leave a lasting legacy in those that we teach. It is to make a difference. It is to propel the process forward.

Julian Edge's article can be read in its entirety in TESOL QUARTERLY, Volume 37. Number 4. Winter, 2003.

Larry E. Smith is the Executive Director of the International Association for World Englishes (IAWE), Inc. His website is


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