On lurking stereotypes

I’m not sure whether this post should be published. First of all, I’m not sure about the timing. It’s Christmas after all. On the one hand, it’s the time when people should focus on the positive. On the other hand, it’s also a time of contemplation, reflection and retrospect. Also, I fear that by hitting the publish button my reputation will probably be discredited; I risk losing some of my fans. Forgive me, I’m still going to give it a go …
I’d been thinking about this post for a while but I hadn’t had the courage to write it up until I read David Harbinson’s latest post. I think it was exactly the ‘the teacher rolled his eyes’ bit which gave me a kick. It was then when I asked myself the question I had asked myself many times before: what is the role of us EFL teachers? Part of it is obviously teaching our students English. What else? Should we try to eliminate stereotypes from their thinking? Should we change the way students’ see certain issues?  Are we automatically owners of the truth?
If you ask a five-year-old child what colour water is, the answer will likely be ‘blue’. But you know it’s not true. You also know that there’s no point in convincing your little child that water is not blue because that’s how he sees it now – this knowledge is based on his experience and what he was told by adults. And honestly, water does look blue at first sight – even you must admit that.
If we want to change our students’ perspective on the world and global issues, for example, shouldn’t we have the right answer against which we can judge the correctness of the students’ answers? In other words, if we want to eliminate a certain stereotype, logically, we must believe that this stereotype is inherently bad and we must have an alternative at our disposal. To give an example from David’s post, equalling gypsies with thieves is bad and wrong. Anybody can be a thief. Saying that a certain group or a minority equals terrorists is even worse. Terrorists can be found everywhere in the world. I strongly agree with this viewpoint. That’s why I would obviously try to prevent my students from believing or claiming these things publicly. Do I have the right to do so?
Sometime in June I did something that shattered my beliefs about what I truly believe. The story goes like this: last February I enrolled my six-year-old son in a local primary school – one of the tree schools we have here. I chose this particular school because my elder sons had once attended it too. Apart from the advantage of being within walking distance, the school was, I believed, of high quality because both my elder sons left it well prepared for their further studies. I personally knew most of the teachers employed there; I knew they were passionate professionals.
Just after I’d enrolled my youngest son, I heard rumours that a couple of the best teachers were planning to leave. It worried me a bit but I thought it was just gossip. Then the figures were published: the school had accepted very few pupils and thus was soon likely to be struggling to survive. This was a bad sign. Something was wrong – the administrators must have done something which had put the parents off. I was worried but I wanted to stay loyal.
Unluckily, just before the start of the summer holidays I bumped into a friend of mine – a teacher at the school in question – and I asked her how things were. She informed me that my son had been placed in a small class of about 17 pupils. She added sadly and sympathetically that a third of the class were kids of a certain notorious minority. She was risking her career by telling me, but as a mother herself, she thought it was important that I knew. I should stress that the administrators tried to keep this particular piece of information secret for two more months! Needless to say, this kind of information should not be kept secret; the parents have the right to know.
Anyway, I panicked, especially as soon as my friend started telling me stories about how difficult these kids were and how challenging it was for a teacher to teach a class like this. She told me about cases of violence and the fact that these kids were not motivated to learn because they got no support from their parents. She told me about some hygiene issues too. She added me that if she were me, she would take action immediately. So I did. Even before the school started, I took my son out of that school, and transferred him into another one, much further from our place, but safer, to my mind. It was a very quiet and quick procedure. Nobody blamed me and I only hear words of approval from all my friends and family members, and from all the teachers themselves.
The trouble is that I, a teacher and an educator whose task is to eliminate stereotypes, actually helped to disseminate one. I did so without too much thinking. I ran on autopilot, so to speak. I mean, I do believe that certain ways of thinking are bad and I’ll always do my best to spread the word, but once it comes down to my (or my family’s) personal benefit, I act automatically. Basic instincts simply win, no matter how scary it sounds. What is worse, I wouldn’t act differently if I got another chance.
My point is, and this is related to David’s post, that no matter what we think is right and what we, members of a developed society, should think that is right, we won’t find out what we really believe until we get into a challenging situation. Sometimes we teachers claim certain things in the classroom and we want to believe that this is what we should tell our students, either because it’s politically correct or because deep inside we feel it’s right. But I think that instead of preaching we’d better listen and try to understand – because you never know if what you preach is what you truly and unconditionally believe in. The stereotypes are there, lurking and waiting to emerge from the darkness and chaos of the human mind. 
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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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9 Responses to On lurking stereotypes

  1. mallingual says:

    How terrible for those students. The teachers and the school have made their mind up about them and the Pygmalion effect means they'll likely be right…

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Unfortunately, you are right. These kids usually end up in 'special' schools or they drop out of school completely. The thing is they have no motivation to get a decent education because their parents don't encourage them to do so. It's not the teachers or the school who are to blame though – it's the whole system which kills their motivation.

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  3. Chewie6577 says:

    No, this post does not discredit you. On the contrary, it shows that you're a thoughtful person. You weighed your options and did what you felt was best for you and your family.

    I agree with Mallingual; for this has all the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy: I think the kids are bad, so therefore I'll treat them as bad kids, which means the “bad” kids get even worse. It's sad. There's a saying in English that goes “Give the dog a bad name and you might as well hang it.” It would apply here.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Chewie6577. I've never heard this saying but it seems that it does apply here. The truth is that people think about these kids in a negative way even when there's no apparent reason. The only reason is that they were born to their parents. When they come to a shop, for example, the people present automatically presuppose they'll steal something, which they sometimes do. Well, thanks for reading my blog and commenting. Merry Christmas 🙂

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  5. So proud of you for writing this post. It is a highly problematic issue that many teachers around the world face and very tricky too. You didn't mention the administration – teachers can be accused of promoting certain “politics” when that wasn't the intention.
    I personally will not allow racist remarks or slurs in class but do not initiate any activities relevant to that topic. Since I teach in a school, when I think there is an undercurrent in class I tell the school counselor who leads group discussions about issues, in L1, in a helathy way. I do not have the tools to do this.
    Life is complicated.
    Kudos!
    Naomi

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Naomi. Yes, this is a tricky issue. Every word which I’m about to produce in response to your comment seems inappropriate. I keep deleting and rephrasing. I’d like to explain the local situation but I’m afraid I’ll be misunderstood. As you say, teachers are sometimes accused of promoting certain ‘politics’ … I live in a very small town, of about 17,000 people. So the question of a minority is actually a question of specific families who I know and meet every day. I don’t want to be judgmental but I can guess what the situation is like when I see the kids alone wading through the dirty stream in summer, wearing T-shirts and shorts in winter; when I hear their parents yell and swear publicly (the kids start to do the same soon too), when I’m told that the parents don’t send their kids to school (the doctor’s) because they can’t be bothered to wake up early. The same parents abuse the social system and thus show their kids that this is the way it is; why work when you get generous social benefits? I mean, you can’t blame the teachers for promoting something – they just know they’ll have to deal with extra issues when these kids end up in their class. I’m sure they’d love to change the situation but they know they can’t because there’s no ally to help them to fight the worst monster – the lack of motivation…

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  7. venvve says:

    Hi Hana,

    Reading this post something instantly came to mind – I remembered a case that was all over the Croatian media some years ago – an HIV-positive little girl who was supposed to start school in a small town on the coast. The local community was horrified. There was so much pressure in terms of other kids’ parents threatening to enroll their children in other schools and so much media attention that the family eventually moved to another small town inland (the population is around 20,000). Here is a link to the story http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3240291.stm
    I was curious to find out what had happened since, and was able to find a relatively recent report in the Croatian Journal for Public Health. http://www.izlog.info/tmp/hcjz/clanak.php?id=12452 Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an English version, but Google appears not to have butchered it completely – I think the reader can get the gist.
    On a somewhat different note, there’s only one minority that most Croatians would recognize in your description. I don’t know how typical this is http://www.errc.org/article/romani-children-face-protesters-at-pre-school-programme-in-croatia/4058, but sadly it happens.
    Anyway. I thought you and the readers of this post mind find these links interesting. They certainly made me think.

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  8. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for the links, Vedrana. I’d probably never compare these two cases (the one I describe in my post and the story about the HIV-positive girl) but I know what you’re driving at. All I can say: poor kid. However, what the authors of the article describe as prejudice and anger may well be just fear. If only the girl‘s parents had been as cautious as the parents who were, allegedly, prejudiced. I mean, some kids pay for the irresponsibility of their parents; in this case they were drug addicts. Nevertheless, everybody’s moral duty is to help but risking one’s own child’s health, no matter how groundless the fear may be, is something every sensible parent will try to avoid. This is natural and understandable. I understand both sides though. However, the solution lies somewhere else than in asking the parents of the healthy kids to be brave, and telling them that if everybody washed their hands, everything will be OK. Again, there’s something rotten in the whole system and taking vulnerable parents as hostage is not fair. A mother is able to lift a tractor is her child is in danger.

    As for the second link, the situation is quite opposite over here. As I said in my comment, the kids are not blocked from entering the schools. This is obviously illegal, contemptible and virtually impossible. On the contrary, the kids aren’t *sent* to school at all – by their parents. If they are, this happens sporadically. I must stress that I’m describing the situation I’m familiar with, i.e. the situation in our small town. I’m not saying that this is true for the whole region or country. It’s not true for every member of the minority either.

    The article also mentions separate Roma-only classes. This is exactly what I think should NOT be happening but which exactly describes what happened over here back in February. The administrators of the school I talk about had taken a few wrong steps, and the result was that they were able to accept very few pupils this year. I don’t know how it works exactly, but all the kids who had not been enrolled in the first class (because they simply hadn’t turned up on a particular day) were automatically enrolled in this particular school – the school with the lowest number of pupils. This, in my opinion, created a very unhealthy environment for everybody in the class, including the teacher as well as the members of the aforementioned minority.

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  9. Hana Tichá says:

    …and I got so passionate that I forgot to thank you for your comment 🙂

    Like

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