What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK | 25 January 2021
If I’m honest, I’m still not 100% sure what this means. I’m at the very start of, what will be, a lifelong journey learning about social justice, both within and outside my profession. What I have noticed is the absence of social justice within teacher education and training, which I find in some ways hypocritical. Universities should be about questioning. The essential skills of questioning are at the core of learning, however, throughout my 18-year teaching career, it is only over the past year that I have really begun to engage with issues of social justice within education and to question the core of what I do. There are three areas I’d like to focus on: 1. incorporating social justice topics into the curriculum, 2. creating an equitable and socially just learning environment, 3. questioning the foundations of teaching and learning to make radical changes.
The most obvious way of incorporating social justice into my teaching is by focusing on topics of social justice via readings and discussions. This is the area that I have incorporated most over the past few years. Due to the nature of my discipline, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I have quite a bit of freedom in terms of topics and sources. Therefore, I try to incorporate topics related to discrimination and injustice into the curriculum. One of the challenges here is that sometimes I have a slight fear of certain topics, but I am now realising that my fears are unfounded as very often students find engaging in social justice topics meaningful and very relevant to their lives. So more recently, I’ve been looking into creating a safe and brave environment for students in order to discuss social issues.
The second area, creating an equitable and socially just classroom environment, for me, is more challenging. I feel that a lot of discrimination within the classroom towards certain learners can be less visible, and so over the years, I can now admit, that I’ve possibly become complicit in perpetuating socially injustice practices without realising it and am now starting to question what I do. I have always put students’ well-being at the forefront by demonstrating care and compassion. I also often try to reduce the power that I hold as a teacher as much as possible by showing my human and sometimes vulnerable side. Over the years, I have become more aware of representation in the materials that I am selecting as ELT/EAP materials often lack diversity and representation. I feel representation is a very powerful tool for creating an equitable inclusive environment.
In connection with creating an equitable space for students, I’ve started looking into and questioning how curriculum, assessment, materials and teaching methodologies discriminate. This again is challenging as it can be invisible due to discrimination being a part of the system, a system which in many ways has been built on excluding. I’ve started looking into the whiteness of academic writing, and how this discriminates. I’ve started to question who is benefitting most from the assessments: the institution, myself or the students. I’m questioning the standards expected of academic discourse, and how it could be a form of language discrimination. I’ve started having discussions with students around these issues as I believe that English language teaching and academic language is built on discrimination especially whiteness.
Radical changes to all aspects including recruitment policies (many universities rely on precarity), administration, curriculum, assessment, materials and professional development are key if we are to move forward. The elements of social injustices embedded into the core of English for Academic Purposes can again be invisible. I’ve become interested in learning about the concepts of decolonising the curriculum, whiteness and anti-racism. I am learning that whiteness is so ingrained in what we do that many practitioners are unaware of the injustices and how they affect both practitioners and students. Educational institutions, organisations and associations must start questioning the effects of whiteness and racism in order to begin making profound changes. If we are to incorporate social justice issues in the classroom, we must question the foundations that teaching and learning have been based on. The social injustices at the core of teaching and learning cannot be separated from capitalism and neoliberalism.
I’m still in the very early stages and am committed to continuing to educate myself on these issues. I plan on continuing to question and discuss these issues with colleagues and to start collaboratively putting changes into place.