We asked six British Council teachers about their experiences in dealing with questions about race and ethnicity in the classroom.
Have you heard comments that suggest students expect a certain type of English teacher at the British Council?
Kamila Mistry, Egypt: Most students don’t expect a British teacher to be of African, Indian, Caribbean, or Pakistani origin. They automatically expect somebody white, and they are usually surprised that I’m British, because they assume I’m Egyptian. But when I explain that I was born in the UK, but my parents are from India, most understand.
I have had a few students whose comments upset me. One girl didn’t believe that I was British and demanded to see my passport. She accused me of lying just so that I could teach at the British Council. I also had a gentleman who told me that I am not a 'real' native speaker because I am trilingual; and that I would not know English as well as other people brought up in the UK because I had been influenced by my Indian culture.
Mohammed Islam, Egypt: When I first started teaching at the British Council in Egypt, despite giving an overview of my origin (i.e., born, raised and lived in London), I had a few students telling me they didn’t want me to speak 'Indian English' to them. This stereotypical idea bloomed due to my skin colour and my South Asian ethnicity, despite my having a London accent. I was actually quite surprised upon hearing the comment, but it did not upset me as it instantly highlighted people's lack of exposure to the UK.
Khalid Hussain, Egypt: At first, some students did not believe I was British and that I did not already know Arabic. Some seemed disappointed that I wasn't what they were expecting or hoping for. But I anticipated this, so it wasn't a problem for me.
Terri Pleasant, Saudi Arabia (and previously, Malaysia): On finding out that I was American, a young learner in Malaysia asked me, 'then why is your skin so black?' On a separate occasion, an adult student complained to customer services that his teacher was Malay. He was referring to me. I am a brown-skinned American Muslim, and perhaps my headscarf, modest clothing and his limited experience led him to make that assumption about my background.
These experiences shocked and amused me initially. Then I began to see them as an opportunity and duty to educate. By the next lesson, it was pretty obvious to that adult student that Muslims are found everywhere, not just in Malaysia.
Tanya Khaliq, Saudi Arabia: Initially, it would make me feel uncomfortable when I could feel that the students were expecting to see a white British speaker as their teacher. There would be a surprised look on their faces upon seeing me, as I am Pakistani.
Duran Duckett, Egypt: I have experienced this, being Jamaican-British. I felt slightly disappointed that some students were unaware of the diversity in Britain, and shocked and puzzled as to why this was a new concept for them.
What strategies have helped you deal with this, that other teachers could use in the same situation?
Mohammed Islam: I posed the question, 'Have you ever heard someone speak in an Indian English accent?', and surprisingly, the answer was 'no'. The following class, I got my students to listen to two or three audio clips, and asked them to guess where these people were from, along with their names. This really helped to clear up the concept of what a native speaker really is.
Kamila Mistry: I always explain my background during our first lessons at the 'getting to know you' stage. If I ignore it, I’m usually bombarded with personal questions. I have also done lessons on multicultural Britain, to try and raise awareness among students.
Khalid Hussain: I launch straight into British culture. Once you start teaching things that students have little or no knowledge about, they are super-eager to know more about you and your background. I don’t think any of them were concerned after the second lesson.
Tanya Khaliq: After being interrogated many times about my ability as a Pakistani to teach English, I now share my personal information and qualifications first, by planning some fun 'getting to know you' activities. I also enter the classroom with confidence and positive energy. Now, even if there are questions about my background, I answer without any reluctance or anxiety.
Duran Duckett: Whenever this comes up, I use the opportunity to give a little presentation on the Commonwealth and the melting-pot nature of Britain. I treat it as a cultural-exchange opportunity, and as part of the whole aim of the British Council: cultural awareness. I try to make sure that students feel comfortable enough to ask any question, and I identify similarities between their culture and society and mine.
Teachers could create a lesson (reading, listening or speaking) about countries in the Commonwealth, their influence upon British culture and vice-versa. For example, I used a video on the Caribbean tourism industry to teach a listening class. And as part of a speaking class, I assigned one Commonwealth country to each student, asking them to research and give a presentation on it. I also taught a reading class on cuisine from different cultures in London. These lessons show students how vast and diverse the English-speaking world is, and also get them to understand how the UK itself became such a melting pot.
Terri Pleasant: In Saudi Arabia, many students believe I am a native of an African country because of my physical features, but they also seem to recognise my American accent and therefore accept me as a teacher. Some have expressed that they wish to achieve a British accent. I tell them that during the course with me, I will not be teaching a British accent, and that in fact, there is not one single 'British' accent. In all my classes, I encourage learners to consider the type of English they will need to understand in their lives, whether in their local context, their travels or studying abroad. I encourage them to look at accents from a practical perspective, i.e., what accents you need to understand, and what accent you need to be understood.
Class time permitting, I have exposed learners to a variety of British accents, shown learners a map of the English-speaking world, and shared personal experiences: photos of my hometown, stories about my experiences with British colleagues, etc.
Should teachers be expected to deal with these issues? To what extent should the employer take the lead on managing student expectations?
Kamila Mistry: Students are naturally curious about their teacher, and it’s important to build rapport. But teachers should not have to deal with upsetting comments or impolite statements. It is the employer’s responsibility to market the British Council as a school that represents the real UK: a diverse, multiracial country with individuals from many different cultures and backgrounds.
Tanya Khaliq: I feel teachers should do what they do best: teach, and manage the situation in a calm way. However, if students bully, are disrespectful, or constantly inject negativity into the classroom, then the matter should be reported to management.
Terri Pleasant: I believe that it should start with the way courses are marketed, but teachers should also make students aware of the relevant aspects of their background. By forming a personal connection in this way, you can build rapport with your students while encouraging cultural awareness.
Duran Duckett: In the ideal situation, teachers wouldn’t feel the need to explain themselves to students, and could concentrate more on delivering lessons. However, from experience, this is not always the case. Sometimes students do bring to the classroom some level of unawareness and curiosity, and may pose questions, because their expectations might not have been met. For example, being Jamaican-British, I have to explain to students that Jamaica is not in Africa, why we speak English, how an island can be a country, that there is no state religion, why my skin is so dark and not brown like everyone else in Latin America, and that it is not a place where we relax and take drugs.
Explaining these concepts can sometimes result in misleading information on my part, simply because I have never had to deal with these questions before. So teachers should be prepared to talk about these things, or get creative by encouraging their students to do some research.
What else could be done to improve things?
Kamila Mistry: From the moment they walk into the teaching centre, students need to be made aware that all teachers, no matter if they are male, female, British, Egyptian (or of whatever nationality), are qualified and capable. They should understand that native English-speaking teachers are not necessarily better than non-native English-speaking speakers, and that it is unacceptable to judge a teacher based on their background. We are all equal.
Tanya Khaliq: We could work more towards preparing our learners by having an orientation day before the start of term, where they could learn how the British Council works and be introduced to teachers, so they can see our ethnic and cultural diversity. This could give the teaching centre an opportunity to highlight how the British Council doesn’t discriminate, and uses expert teachers to give their customers the best.