On the Lack of Compassion in Teaching Non-Native English Speakers

I feel my depression acting up again, and I think my job is definitely to blame. I know it will sound pretentious of me to claim this, but I think I suffer greatly from being a person invested in my humanity on a staff that seems hell-bent on being half-dead.

To give you all an idea of why I feel this way, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Last year, I graduated from a master’s degree program (Social Justice Education at UMass Amherst) that focuses on making educational settings less oppressive. One of the things I appreciated the most about this program is it’s focus on critical pedagogy, challenging the rampant hegemony of the education system. To give a crash course on critical pedagogy, it is the process of using teaching materials that do not center the narratives of rich, white, cis-heterosexual, English-speaking, Christian men (theorized by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). The purpose is to allow underrepresented narratives to be heard. So I was surrounded by people who encouraged multilingualism, who celebrated it, even. I was surrounded by people who were not afraid of conflict, who were not afraid of expressing their opinions. I was surrounded by people who used music, videos, and poetry in class as teaching materials, who liked getting students out of their chairs to talk, create art, demonstrate concepts. I was informed by authors like Laura Rendon (Sentipensante, 2009), Lisa Leigh Patel (Youth Held at the Border, 2013), and bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress, 1994), who argue that both teachers and students deserve to enjoy education. It should be a life-affirming process.

In American education, it has become normalized for students to be unimaginably bored, stressed, or anxious because of the antagonistic standards and mechanical schedules of people who call themselves educators. Frankly, I think teachers themselves become mindless in this process. How can teachers maintain their humanity when they are basically asked to bulldoze students into submission?

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The Library of the Dale Mabry Campus, which houses the Learning Resources Center

So if you can imagine, at my current job as a writing tutor at Hillsborough Community College, I am surrounded by either young professionals who think they need to conform to current standards for educational professionals (and thus, are slowly losing their humanity in front of my eyes), or old white people who have been teaching for so many years in an outdated manner that they have forgotten what living feels like.

Furthermore, over half of the students at this campus are students of color (HCC Factbook, 2013), and over half of them are also not native English speakers (HCC Factbook, 2013). This demographic is not reflected by the staff, who appear to be mostly white, with the exception of the rare woman of color who has been co-opted by the institution to reinforce problematic standards. Honestly, students are treated with nothing short of dehumanization on this campus. Just today, I was looking over an essay with a student, and I could tell she had a lot of anxiety around turning in this paper. It was a simple 5-paragraph narrative essay. She asked me at least 5 times throughout the session whether or not she had any punctuation errors (the answer was no. I assured her again and again that I did not see punctuation errors). She was also terrified that the teacher would take points off if she did not get her title and heading just right. (And I thought to myself, when some students have never even been to school before now, and some are learning English for the first time in their lives, what kind of person takes off points just because they don’t like the place where they put their name on the paper? Why are teachers allowed to be so anal-retentive in this manner? Is their entire day, their entire life so thrown off by something as small and insignificant as where a student puts their name on the top of a page?).

I think the last straw for me in this session was when the student told me her teacher wouldn’t read an email if it seemed too much like a “text message”. The student asked me if I could help her word an email, in which she was asking the professor whether or not he wanted their work in MLA format. Honestly, if this was Harvard or something, perhaps I would allow a comment like that from a teacher slide. But this is not Harvard, it is a community college in a predominantly Spanish-speaking, POC neighborhood. This student only sees her teacher once a week. She is expected to turn all her work in online. The teacher apparently doesn’t take much time to answer questions, and clearly exercises absolute authority over his students to the point that none of them feel comfortable approaching him. That is literally why this poor student (who clearly knows how to use a computer and writes with enough clarity that any person who is not an asshole can follow) was sitting in front of me asking me whether or not they are writing an email correctly. This professor’s comment seemed excessively ageist, xenophobic and elitist to me.

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The writing commons, where writing tutoring occurs

Sessions like this one are not unusual for me. I get students in the writing center who come to me with all manner of anxieties about things that, in my opinion, don’t even matter that much to writing. Sometimes, I feel I am more a counselor that assists students in building confidence than I am a “tutor”. Such endless rules these professors pummel their students with: no contractions, no passive voice, no first person, no second person. Again, in a context like a private college where all the students have received 1550s on their SATs, perhaps this is a reasonable standard. But this is not Harvard. It is not the University of Florida. It is a community college of predominantly people of color and immigrants. How will a student ever feel confident writing in a place where everything they do seems wrong in the eyes of their professors? How can a student approach writing with anything other than the utmost fear if they are never given any compassion in the learning process?

This is not even the half of it. Many of my staff members criticize people for mispronouncing words like “subtle” or “often” (which are pretty difficult words for a non-native English speaker, considering the number of silent letters in English words). A few times, I have observed the professors who teach non-native English speakers (the classes are referred to as EAP on this campus: English for Academic Purposes). Most of them patronize their students egregiously. For presentations, I am frequently told to “speak slowly” so students can understand (as opposed to, I don’t know, try speaking Spanish?). At least one of the professors speaks to her students as though they are small children with low intelligence. This same professor believes in teaching her students by telling them to “assimilate” to American culture, and to only speak English in her class so that they can “master English,” to the detriment of keeping their native language alive. To my knowledge, not a single one of these professors has ever learned a second language, yet they condescend to know the best way to teach students English. How can a person know anything about teaching language if they have only ever acquired one?

For perhaps the third time in a month, I am sending out an SOS to all the radical educators. What do you do about a workplace environment like this, besides leave? What power do I have to change things? How will I go about it when I feel like I am the only person who sees the need for change? Please help me. My sanity is at stake.

Works Cited

Hillsborough Community College. (2013). HCC Factbook 2013: Institutional Research. Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, FL.

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2 comments

  1. The only way to save your sanity is to … find another place to work. I worked at the DM Writing Center, and was much happier when I moved to another campus where the writing center that was familiar with and embraced writing center pedagogy. Still, even there, it was hard to avoid the lack of compassion from faculty that you describe.

    1. Hi AG, thank you for reading. I’m definitely in the market for another job at this point. I hope it gets better, but there is so little effort to retain talent in this place.

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