Steve Schertzer

No fries with that!

Teachers as mentors and heroes (part two)

I had that same dream again last week. More like a nightmare, actually. These dreams come and go, but the last one was particularly vivid. I dreamt that I was asleep when I was suddenly awoken by a fellow teacher. "Hey Steve, you're late for class!" was all I heard. It was 8:15, and my first class was at 7:00. So I rushed to school and tried to apologize to my boss only to be fired. (I must try to remember that it was only a dream, but we all know what these dreams symbolize.)

I prefer the other dream that comes and goes. The one where I rush back home to Canada with little more than the clothes on my back because I saw a snake in my toilet. (For the armchair Freudians out there, please spare me what you think the snake symbolizes.)

Last month, in part one of "Teachers as Mentors and Heroes", I quoted Julian Edge and Larry E. Smith, who fear that we ESL teachers, especially since the occupation and subsequent liberation of Iraq, are becoming more and more like neo-colonialists and linguistic imperialists, and less and less like ESL teachers and TESOL providers. In this column, I hope to put those fears to rest once and for all.

To quote Mr. Edge one more time:

"To the extent that the dominance of English-speaking nations is now to imposed by force, English language teachers may now explicitly be perceived as a second wave of imperial troopers. We move in, following 'pacification', with the unspoken role, it can be argued, of facilitating the consent that hegemony requires, so that the fist can be returned to the glove."
(TESOL QUARTERLY, Vol. 37, no. 4. Winter, 2003. p. 703.)

If Mr. Edge fears that Western hegemony is turning into imperialism-- especially in Asia-- why does he take it out on ESL teachers and TESOL providers? Why not blame the sex tourists in Southeast Asia, who collectively spend billions of U.S. dollars every year perpetuating a climate and culture of immorality, greed, and pathological dependence? Why not blame the Western/American multinationals, who set up shop all over the third world and pay little more than slave wages to the local population, while, at the same time, increasing the CEO's overseas bank accounts to the point where the disparity of wealth is at socially dangerous levels? Why go after ESL teachers who are trying to make a positive difference in spite of the odds being against us?

ESL teacher Tom Griffith responds to Mr. Edge by stating our careers as TESOL providers are founded on a paradox.

"Most teachers get into ESOL because they love other cultures. Yet by spreading English and its embedded values, they may be eroding the very cultural diversity that attracted them in the first place." (TESOL QUARTERLY, Vol. 38, no. 1. Spring 2004. p. 714.)

Interesting point. But being and working in Thailand presents for me a slightly different angle on Mr. Griffith's theory. What attracted me to Thailand as a tourist-- the relaxed and laid-back atmosphere, and, to a certain extent, the Thai's sense of fun and play (Sanook) is the very same thing that, at times, drives me to distraction as an ESL teacher. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy sanook just as much as the next guy. But learning English involves a certain amount of committment and determination, and reconciling these many different elements in both Thai and Western society can be very frustrating for ESL teachers.

But some cultures and certain cultural attitudes do have to be changed if we TESOL providers are to make a positive difference. As Griffith points out,

"TESOL members are passionately, incorrigibly idealistic. No one seems content simply to teach language--- TESOL professionals must have a larger purpose, they must shape students' values as well as their grammar, and they must use their classrooms to change the world." (Ibid. p. 714.)

Obviously there are dangers here, but the benefits in changing people's lives for the better will far outweigh any negative aspects of cultural change. ESL teachers don't, and should not, work in a vacuum or a culturally protective bubble. Where we see suffering and injustice we have a responsibility to speak out. But to do this, we need the help, encouragement, and support of a great many people: The school owners and directors, the administration, our fellow teachers, the parents of the young people we teach, our students, and the rest of the community.

We cannot stand idly by in the countries that we teach and continue to rationalize and justify in the name of culture such barbaric practices as female circumcision, honour killings, female infanticide, and child labour just because people like Julian Edge and Larry Smith may label us as cultural or linguistic imperialists. If being against any or all of these barbaric practices makes me a neo-colonialist, then I for one wear this badge with pride and honour!

Teaching ESL in Japan and South Korea are obviously different in many ways than teaching here in Thailand. While Thailand still has a large amount of financially impoverished people, many of whom are desperately trying to improve their "lot in life" by, amoung other things, trying to learn English, the Japanese and the South Koreans would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered financially poor. Spiritually poor, maybe. Ethically challenged, perhaps. Morally destitute, probably. But financially impoverished? Not anymore.

And herein lies another huge and frustrating paradox in the ESL world: As we ESL teachers and TESOL providers--- especially those teaching in financially impoverished countries--- strive to help others to financially improve their "lot in life", are we not, at the same time, helping to turn them into the same capitalist and consumerist pigs that have now permeated Japan, South Korea, and other developed countries?

Here's something to think about whenever someone like Julian Edge and Larry Smith refers to us ESL teachers as neo-colonialists and linguistic imperialists. Here's something to think about whenever we ESL teachers have any doubts as to exactly what our mission should be.

Here in Bangkok the minimum wage is 173 Baht a day. That's less than $4.50 U.S. A day! Recently I went to Burger King for a double whopper with cheese and a small coke. (Now I know I didn't need the double whopper with cheese, but that's another story.) That cost me 179 Baht. To make 173 Baht for the day, a server at any of these fast food establishments would have to work nine or ten hours. It doesn't take an Einstein to do the math here. Imagine working at McDonalds, Burger King, or any of the other fast food establishments, and not being able to afford to buy the very same burgers that you're flipping!

It's the same at the Nike plant in Chonburi or any of the other multinational companies paying slave wages to the local population. It's even worse at most Thai companies where getting more than two days off a month is unheard of. Part of what it means to go from an agricultural (third world) society to a manufacturing and service based (developing) economy is that the workers, after having been placed in the factories and restaurants, must be able to afford to buy the very same items that they manufacture and produce. Otherwise, they were better off on the farms! Even Henry Ford knew that!

Given these harsh economic realities, can anyone think of a better reason to spread English around the world? Can anyone think of a better way that we ESL teachers can use our skills to become mentors to each other and heroes to our students than by helping to lift them out of this dire poverty so that they, in turn, can possibly become mentors and heroes in their own society? That is, if those working at McDonalds, Burger King, Thai companies, and first world multinationals can afford to take English classes.

Japan, South Korea, and other "developed" countries have recently had their fair share of anti-English or anti-ESL movements. But this is not, as Edge and Smith would have us believe, that we ESL teachers are the new linguistic imperialists. The anti-English backlash seen recently in South Korea, and at times, elsewhere, has very little, if anything to do with the current Bush administration or the war in Iraq. This behaviour, by some people in certain host countries, is a direct reflection of who these people are: Xenophobic racists who haven't an inkling of how to get along with others who don't share their genetic code!

What South Korea, with its recent anti-English backlash is saying is, our job is done. It may or may not be true, but that's besides the point. Japan, with Asia's biggest economy and the world's second biggest economy, stopped needing ESL teachers years ago. And South Korea, with Asia's third biggest economy and the world's tenth biggest economy is now telling us ESL teachers something we may not want to hear. It's time for us to leave. We have overstayed our welcome, if we were ever welcomed at all. (Personally, I got that message two years ago.)

Eventually it will become that way in Thailand and other third world countries as well where English is still sought as a way to improve one's "lot in life." With the emerging of a middle class, ESL teachers will quickly become irrelevent, so let's enjoy it while we can. So a huge part of our role as TESOL providers and ESL teachers is to help to create a middle class in the society in which we teach, recognize when we have overstayed our welcome and have become irrelevent, then move on to another third world country in the hopes of helping to create another middle class.

Edge and Smith may see the convergence of the current Bush administration's foreign policy and the present reality of ESL teachers in South Korea. While many Iraqis now see the U.S. as occupires, "You liberated us, we're free, we thank you, now piss off!", many in South Korea now see us ESL teachers in much the same way. "You taught us English, we increased our standard of living, we thank you, now piss off!"

But this connection--- if there really is one--- is based not on the war in Iraq, or American hegemony. It is based simply and purely on human nature; our self-appointed "right" to dislike and distrust other people who weren't born in your country. "You liberated us; you taught us English; we're free; we increased our standard of living; wealth is now spreading quickly from west to east, so keep it going; we thank you kindly; now get the hell off my land!" It's primarily human nature. Not politics.

I realize that the Mr. Edge has taken quite a pounding, not only in my column, but from some of the other respondents published in TESOL QUARTERLY. I will give him the last word here because I'm quite sure that some of these responses have helped to open his eyes to other points of view.

"I reaffirm immediately, lest I be misunderstood again, that in this piece, I am not working in a nonjudgemental mode. I am being as judgemental as the next person as I struggle to find my way forward." (Ibid. p. 720.)

And that's the point, isn't it? That we ESL teachers are struggling "to find our way forward." Sometimes we struggle so hard that at night we dream of being late for class only to be fired. We dream that we are on the next plane home because of that "snake in the toilet." Yes, Mr. Edge, we all struggle with our own demons, and other people's demons, in this very precarious and often hazardous ESL world. But as we struggle to find our way forward, let's remember the harsh economic realities of many of the students we teach in financially impoverished countries. Let's give the snake in the toilet its due be recognizing not only own own doubts and fears, but also the doubts and fears of our fellow ESL teachers. By doing this, we can then become mentors to each other and heroes to our students.


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