In Part 1 of this post, I pointed out the unique opportunity teachers have to help learners think critically about important issues – in that case referring to gender relationships. As stated by a young woman in the article cited, “God [gave] them brains – [but] you can’t force people to think if they don’t want to.”
As teachers we have a mandate to educate and that includes helping learners to think critically. As teachers of those new to learning in English and arriving from around the world, our mandate goes far beyond language to include cross-cultural differences, particularly the norms and expectations that may differ. This is where our efforts to help learners bridge cultural gaps sometimes strays into areas we are less comfortable talking about explicitly. Sexuality and how this is part of personal relationships is one such topic.
With all learners we find ourselves dealing with areas of relationships, but English is replete with ‘nice’ ways to refer to things built on implied meanings. Those new to English do not necessarily ‘get it’ when the teacher makes such a polite and indirect reference or request – for example to suggest to learners how to be nice or be kind.
Making the implicit in our language, explicit, is at the core of helping learners acquire the academic language needed to succeed in school. At the secondary level in particular, being explicit about the nitty-gritty of relationships is usually delegated to those specially trained for such discussions. Aside from the fact that ‘discussions’ per se are not ideal when your students are still learning to articulate their understandings in a new language and a new culture, those working with immigrant and refugee learners are by and large not specially trained to deal with any aspects of what is euphemistically called ‘sex education’.
Yet, if not you, then who will deal with this? The assaults on women in Cologne and other cities on New Year’s Eve started a firestorm of protest. Some wanted to simply send ‘those people’ back, since they did not sesem to know how to treat women properly. Others pointed out that such inappropriate behaviour is by no means unique to new immigrants or refugees. Citing education as the core need, some called for ‘franker discussions of the cultural differences between societies that refugees had left behind and their new home’.
This is where teachers often come in. Teachers start from Day I of Kindergarten to model and verbalize appropriate behaviour in the classroom, appropriate behaviour toward each other and toward teachers. With lots of modelling and positive reinforcement, students quickly learn all the little niceties that allow us to coexist peacefully on a day-to-day basis. Moving from polite greetings and such ‘rules’ as turn taking, to more sophisticated concepts such as respecting personal boundaries and how to treat each other across gender is a giant leap that is far more complex and far less easy to model or explain simply and clearly.
To talk about such issues often is sparked by what we like to call a teachable moment. Something just happened that prompts a measured response from the teacher and often becomes a mini-lesson created on the spot. Only after a level of linguistic capacity has been gained and a high level of trust has been built between the teacher and her group, can such far more complex issues, that must be broached, quite deliberately become the lesson of the day.
How you approach a group will depend on a variety of factors and will be consonant with your personal style. That you will find yourself having to teach/talk about deeply personal topics is a given. The only option is to consider just how you might best approach them – ideally before a crisis of ‘teachable moment’ finds you.
Norway has led the way in helping you prepare. As explained by TYT in the video clip, Norway has begun teaching male migrants how to treat women. This has become a newly available [and mandatory] class/course for newcomers. While one might argue that everyone ought to have such courses, I am pleased to see there are supports being created [and likely soon to be available] and that others are taking seriously the need to do something [rather than wring their hands]. I am also pleased to hear the emphasis is on cultural norms that are different where relationships are concerned. In cases where such a difference is the law of the land, that new norm must prevail. In fact teaching about the laws is seen as a good segue into more personal topics. Though I have had to deal with challenging issues in the past, I am thrilled to see and hear that such a need is being articulated and dealt with openly. I hope you find this helpful in your own efforts.