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TESOL France Colloquium Reflections: getting in touch with my inner redneck

This weekend I was lucky enough to attend the 31st Annual TESOL France Colloquium in Paris, where I met some amazing educators, attended some excellent talks and took away many things to think about. I had a nice train trip back to Dijon, which gave me some time to stare out the window at the rolling rural landscapes and reflect on my teaching, my motivation and my career. And as I can’t bring myself to put the wealth of ideas that were shared with me aside, I would like to share them with you and reflect on what they mean to me and they may affect my teaching.

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The second-to-last talk I went to during the conference was by David O’Hanlon, a Paris-based teacher originally from Australia. Although he now finds himself teaching in Parisian Grandes Ecoles, his experiences include teaching in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. His seminar was called ‘Getting in Touch with your Inner Redneck – Narrative to Advantage in the Classroom’. David suggested that teachers should be proud of their origins and their culture, and the worldview that they have as a product of this culture. This is something to be celebrated and exploited in order to make the classroom experience the most authentic it can be.

Not every class needs to end in a role-play.

The discussion questioned the one-size-fits-all nature of the traditional teacher-training philosophies, where lessons tend to follow a set pattern and students are asked to take on a certain role or viewpoint for the purpose of creating a debate. David O’Hanlon argues that this is not necessarily desirable for two key reasons:

  1. On commonly raised ‘controversial’ debate topics, the class will often have homogenous views and the student representing the ‘unpopular’ view will lack arguments and will be resigned to losing the debate from the beginning.
  2. If we had a more authentic topic, or if students were debating as a group with a teacher who was presenting genuine arguments, students would be readier to participate and give detailed and real responses.

I agree that people will always argue more effectively if they are convinced of the argument themselves and that in the context of language learning, the opportunity to speak should be maximized. Another advantage of this is the relationship that can be created with a teacher when talking about real and engaging topics from our own viewpoints.

And so this idea of having an ‘inner redneck’ is not to imply that every English language teacher is uneducated, bigoted and with farming roots. I think New Zealanders and Australians in particular (even though most of us are city folk) tend to identify with our rural countrymen, especially when we are abroad. We take pleasure in the simple things and David O’Hanlon stresses that we shouldn’t be ashamed of this, but rather take pride in it.

Perhaps the best example of inner-redneck denial is Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime-minister. Contrasting the thick and unashamedly Australian accent of the present PM Julia Gillard, Rudd was always very polished. He was scholarly, spoke fluent Mandarin and touted progressive policies like digital education and official apologies to the Aboriginal people. The image he tried to convey though (be it intentionally or not) of sophistication, intelligence and forward-thinking, I think left Australians thinking that he wasn’t ‘comfortable in his skin’. I wonder if this is a special down-under phenomenon from our colonial past, when British was better and our inferiority-complex had people imitating accents and traditions, (see Heavenly Creatures 1994). A leadership style like that of New Zealand’s John Key (who loves rugby and barbecues, and occasionally offends minority groups) can create a warmer rapport.

In the interests of connecting with students, making them comfortable and trying not to alienate them, it could be helpful to be true to ourselves. We don’t hear any accents like mine on any of the sound recordings that we use in class (except one ‘Australian’ on the Business Result Upper-Intermediate DVD), but I’ll try not to talk any differently than I normally would just to imitate the CD. While I don’t agree with doing things ‘just so they’ll like me’, I hope that being true to myself and my values will help students to do the same.
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