Monday, August 29, 2011

Gary EFL Everywhere

Here is an extract from a book I wrote, which has just been published:

   Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a field of employment that I have been involved with on and off since 1987; essentially it is my day job, work that provides me with a sporadic income while I await the Big Break. The TEFL English teacher, it must be said, is generally not taken very seriously or respected. People think if you can speak English, then naturally you can teach English, and so just about anybody could do it, and logically this implies the teacher is an anybody; a nobody. This attitude always perplexed me, but it was in part the result of the job not being structured along professional lines, but which I mean not unionized. If you go to see a doctor, you would expect them do have a proper grounding in medicine, and that is why doctors are respected; why were the same requirements not applied to TEFL teachers? Increasingly, they are, but a flimsy certificate is realistically all you need to get a job in many private sector schools. The TEFL field thus remains amateurish. However, on closer inspection the assumptions and practices of TEFL reveal a particular political agenda that go a long way to explaining the anti-intellectualism of TEFL, and even of many practising teachers.

   The first thing to say about practising English teaching is that it is not a politically neutral activity, you can’t “just teach English.” “Neutrality” is a code word that means agreeing with the system and being whatever the system requires of us, including the requirement that we be ahistorical. In fact, historically speaking, the role and spread of the English language in the world was a direct result British and US imperialism. English was used as a Trojan horse to infiltrate elites in non-English speaking countries, a tool for connecting with and developing comprador classes. Every single person born in a colony or ex-colony will know exactly what I am talking about here; the use of language as a tool of control by outsiders. It follows from this that the spread of English language use in the world is not a natural, neutral process, as is often unquestioningly assumed. The idea of language being a “tool for communication” is one I often heard being uttered by uncritical teachers who lean towards the language-as-neutral-tool assumption; they have been neutered and are not really thinking about what is actually going on. In fact, English played a central role in expanding global capitalism, and has also played an important role in the formation of social classes. It is noticeable how different social classes speak differently, reflecting wide differences in underlying political and social assumptions. How can a teacher account for these differences if not by a discussion of class formation and power relations? English grammar, for example, cannot be explained as a set of rules, because language doesn’t have rules so much as prevailing patterns that change over time and among different groups of people. If we were to say, correctly I think, that English language teaching has become part of a process whereby political and economic domination has been established by one part of the world (the North) over another part (the South), then we have moved a long way from the idea of English being used solely as a neutral tool of communication. But they don’t discuss these issues when you do a TEFL certificate, and this absence is itself very revealing.

   In English and the discourses of Colonialism, critical theorist Alastair Pennycook does make the connection between the spread of English, colonialism and domination. The story is a complex one but, as Pennycook rightly points out, that should not stop us from trying to understand it, and understanding the influence of colonialism on modern global relations. Interestingly, Pennycook discovers from his research that the (British) colonies were a primary centre for cultural production, and not mere receivers of the metropolitan culture. This is significant because many of the attributes, attitudes and unspoken assumptions of TEFL actually gained force in the colonies. Thus views of racial superiority, the superiority of Eurocentrism, and related ideas about the noble savage, the lazy native etc. all flourished in the colonies and were exported back to the colonial metropolitan centres. In the colonial mindset, those who did not speak English were considered non-peoples with no civilization and no history to speak of; their languages were not worth learning. To put it crudely, if you didn’t speak English you were not okay. This emphasis on English has been tremendously distorting. In India, for example, the bureaucracy still uses English as its primary language of communication, even though its use effectively guarantees that bureaucrats become dissociated from the people they are responsible for at the local level, a point well made by V.S. Naipaul in his book An Area of Darkness, and by others. Making the study of English literature mandatory for passing the Indian civil service examination was seen as natural in the 19th century, just as “foreign” students today are “naturally” required to study reductive, globalized English language textbooks that focus on subjects like shopping, dating and travel, the current preoccupations of Britain’s middle classes. Stuart Hall, the distinguished British cultural theorist, once said that he went to a very good English boarding school in Jamaica that offered a very good education, but where he never learned the names of the plants and animals around him, and never learned anything about local history before the advent of the colonial era.

   English teaching then has a role embedded in history and implicated in global economic and political relations. TEFL not only helped facilitate the global expansion of European and North American capitalism over time, but is now considered to be an important business activity in its own right, and is spoken of as such. So, now we hear the catchphrases common to business activity: TEFL is a “service industry”; English is a “tool”; the students are our “customers”, and so on. The process began in the 1930s when The British Council for Relations with Other Countries was set up. Ostensibly aimed at increasing “cultural understanding”, the British Council has been a key force in the marketization of discourse about English teaching; they pioneered the packaging of teaching English as a business. The English language thus became a “golden egg” to be exploited for monetary gain. After the retreat from empire, the British Council partly filled the vacuum and helped to promote British interests abroad, via English, and the marketization of discourse served as the new camouflage for this hidden political goal. Behind the scenes, the British Council is very much aware of the political and economic purposes of its work, and talks in plain English about them. Publicly, you hear same old guff about “cultural understanding.” The Council has cemented its influence by running teaching courses for TEFL teachers that are largely uncritical and focus on a market-orientated, “delivery” style of education, very much in vogue, but which are in practice disempowering because the same old colonial assumptions are at work: you know nothing; this is how we do it.

   [...] Many teachers complained about the way we were summarily treated by our employer, but they did not have a handle on colonial history, or of the nature of subject relations within a global system of economic domination. We teachers were deliberately treated like a subject colonial people who are supposed to accept their subordinate role in the set up, and not complain since if you get paid there is nothing to complain about. Promotion in this system depended on becoming a “team player,” i.e. an uncritical follower of the system. The increasing threats of punishment from on high did have a local flavour, but the system of authority; the hierarchical power structure, the assumptions on what was to be taught and how to teach, was straight out of the colonial book. Officially, there was no racism at the school, but non-native English speakers had to work harder to keep their jobs, and could be fired, and indeed some were fired, on a whim by our employer. People who were profoundly uninformed about education were in charge; the school was being run like a factory where teachers were the dispensable workers. The point is that this state of affairs was the result of a system of logic, not an accident or the result of ignorance — there really was no use in complaining. The continuing emphasis on attendance, on bureaucratic procedure, and on paperwork was all part of a massive system of control designed to keep people busy. Proper educational work, which is inter-subjective in nature, and therefore difficult to measure, was never observed. Instead, good teaching was viewed as a kind of performance, and a successful teacher defined by his ability to keep a class under control and focused on a task at all times. It never occurred to our masters that a kind word, a bit of mucking about, or a digression into music, might be, if handled in the right way, of more educational value than the prescribed curriculum.

   Every teacher has an obligation to learn, and if you don’t learn something from your teaching then it will not be possible to develop a meaningful practise, or praxis. I use the term praxis advisedly, since one must try to make some connection between theory and practice, and it is not enough to rely on folk psychologies, like the belief that a teacher is an authority who is supposed to tell the student what the general case is, or what to believe. Rather, an educator seeks to guide the learner to a better understanding of their own mind. Far from being depressed by the grim employment conditions of the school I worked at, I felt that my knowledge and insight into the nature of TEFL, such as it was and is, gave me a kind of power. Of course, I had to make compromises in order to fit into the system, but I always did so knowing what the real deal was; within the classroom I always acted in a way consistent with my own principles of equality, dignity and liberation. Within my sphere of influence, I knew that I was a very important and influential role model, and if we teachers were told not to ask the question why, then with my students I made sure to ignore that violent dictate. [...]

   Day to day, the institution tightened controls, but usually only when there was an inspection by an outside organization or authority. At other times, they could not care less what was going on. During such loose times, irresponsible behaviour ensued, which was eventually detected, and then there would be another round of threats, purges, and fresh petty bureaucratic procedures to follow. And so it went on in its merry dysfunctional way. Experts were flown in, talked about mission statements, flew out again, and of course the mission statement never materialized, or not one formulated by us teachers anyway. New managers came in full of good intentions and expertise. One of them, I remember, gave a talk in which he admitted that our school-wide tests were not really valid. We all knew this—standardized multiple-choice testing was discredited as long ago as the 1950s. This type of testing is still prevalent only because it serves corporate interests: it is quick, efficient, seen to be fair even though it isn’t, and gets easily sifted and quantifiable results. So, what was the genius manager’s solution? He talked about Rauche analysis, some mysterious mathematical formulation that re-computes test results to make them fairer. No one asked if the Rauche analysis took into account cheating because we were all asleep, or playing games on our hand phones. “We need to build a test culture,” he said, without irony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gary, you're awesome. Thanks for posting. Being a potentially new TEFL teacher, I find your wisdom highly relevant to myself. If you ever have more to post, please know that you have a student("teacher") in the making. ;)