Recently, one of my favorite paintings has been Pieter Breugel the Elder's “The Blind Leading The Blind”. While it's ostensibly an illustration of Matthew 15:14, it's taken on a variety of meanings to a variety of people. For me, it's an illustration of the many absurdities and perils of teaching English – how we can be blind to so many things, especially in how we lead others who may be just as blind as us.
Like scales falling from my eyes, the extent of my own blindness came to me a few weeks ago. I was going through my lesson PowerPoint files, revising them with the usual visual tweaks and updates that always come with the passing of a new calendar year and school year. (EXO is out of style now. So of course it's time to rip out all of the pictures and references to Kris, Baekhyun, Kai and D.O., and put in some new visual references to the latest Kpop “sensation du jour”.) Apart from the pictoral references to Kpop stars and champions from League of Legends, I also made it a point to put in pictures depicting situations directly related to the target language. I had a boy leaving home to go to school, two people shaking hands in a business meeting, a student arriving late to a class, and a woman staring forlornly at an alarm clock, lying sleepless in bed. It was then that I realized that they were all, with one or two exceptions, exactly alike. They all belonged to the same socio-ethnic and socio-economic ingroup. They all dressed alike, lived in the same kind of house, ate the same kind of food, and had all the same kinds of toys.
I grew up as a person of color, in a city where ethnic, racial, and (yes, even sexual) diversity were taken for granted. A city where diversity was touted as one of its defining characteristics. I grew up never really thinking, or even being acutely aware of, the innate differences in my appearance or my background that made me different from others. And I didn’t really appreciate how that affected my interactions with the people around me. As a result, I was, and still am, blind.
This blindness is something that, at first, may not seem relevant to the situation of a middle-school EFL instructor in Korea. But we live in a society – both in Korea, and across the globe – where language, culture, ethnicity, and racial identity are deeply intertwined. As a result, our awareness of the implicit messages we unknowingly communicate in our procedures and teaching (known by some as “The Hidden Curriculum”) is, I believe, becoming more and more important. I don't intend to level any accusations that English teachers are contributing to the many issues that modern Korean society faces with respect to racism (as well the many other “-isms” with which we all jointly struggle – and I'd find such accusations to be spurious anyway), but I find it funny that apparently, I've inadvertently, presented an image of English as being primarily the domain of the Caucasian Middle-Class North American. Being brown, the irony isn't lost on me. I don't see it as an indictment of English teachers: far from it. I see it as a starting point for us to do more to open our students’ minds. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us as educators to broaden our students' perspective. To show them that the world – and speaking English – is bigger and greater than they may think. That English isn't just about North America, or any one ethnicity or race (regardless of the color of their skin).
So I'm sitting here now, doing some more visual tweaks. An image of an African-American teacher here, a picture of an Arabic student there. And why not some pictures of Malala Yousafzai beside Infinite's L, alongside Im Dong-hyun, the remarkable record-setting blind archer? In an earlier moment of insight, I turned a previous lesson on talking about famous people into a lesson on famous Korean athletes with physical disabilities. In doing so, my eyes were opened to a whole realm of incredible Koreans who completely overturn our traditional notions of what is and isn't physically possible. In broadening the diversity of the people in my lessons, introducing people such as Malala Yousafzai or Richard Turere, I hope I can open my eyes – and the eyes of my students – just a little bit more.