Feb 9, 2019

Dealing with Politics in Conversational English Classes

Dealing with Politics in Conversational English Classes photo
My political leanings, and where I usually keep them: At Home.

    Many are taught that subjects like politics and religion are not for general discussion, but sometimes a student in a conversational English class may feel so comfortable with the teacher that they ask, suggest, or state an opinion that may otherwise be controversial.

    I believe that these comments and questions usually should be met with the same energy with which they were intended. In most cases, this can be a great learning experience, but it depends very much on the student, the comment, and the teacher.

Situation 1: Nip it in the Bud, or try to.

    A few years ago when I was teaching for a large regional eikaiwa in Sendai, one of the adult male students in a group lesson threw out the N word without a moment of pause or concern. Neither the student nor anyone else in the school was of African heritage, but I was deeply offended as I was always taught that this is not an okay word in civilized society and this guy had the fluency to know better.

    I stopped him mid sentence and called him out on it, stating that that kind of language was inappropriate. He waved a hand at me in a dismissive way and continued talking as if I had not made any comment. Never seeing him again was one of the best parts of quitting that job.

Situation 2: Converse

    At the same job in Sendai, I was asked by a sweet group of senior students what my thoughts were regarding gay marriage. Knowing that this was a professional environment meant keeping my opinions to myself for the most part. Because I had been teaching these specific old folks and bonding with them for some time, I elected to have short conversations on the topic. This only works if you can detach yourself enough from the topic to speak professionally but without ad hominem insults at anyone who disagrees. If you cannot make that distinction, this is not the path for you.

    For these students, this was something interesting, and a lively conversation in English for a seventy-year-old mind can be very exciting and rewarding if done correctly and with respect.

    I told them my stance, that I was very much pro-marriage equality. They posed their arguments against, mostly saying that it was against the normal order as they saw it. One went so far as to call homosexuality "decadent" which still to this day makes me wonder if this was a problem with diction (did he mean "indecent?") or if he had a terribly interesting backstory I had not been aware of.  Either way, the conversation was a respectful, fair exchange of views and I do not regret it for a moment.

Situation 3: Short, true, and professional 

    Since the 2016 election, I have dreaded talking to conservatives. I have very strong liberal values and everything I see about the current president of the US points straight toward blatant malfeasance at best and fascism at worst. Trying to explain this to my conservative father-in-law is not something I have been looking forward to, but luckily I have this wonderful language barrier to hide behind instead.

    My newest private student is an older man who likes to play golf. He tends to be generous and kind and interesting, and want little more than more tips on what to say at the golf course and to talk about his grand-kids.

    Back in November, just before the US midterm elections, he asked my opinion on Trump. To my utter surprise, my response was succinct and professional: "I think he is dangerous, unintelligent, and a bad business man."

    He responded, "But what about the caravan?"

    And I replied, "Many of those people are from countries that the US had a part in destabilizing. They deserve a chance at something better. Others are seeking asylum. That is legal and they also deserve a chance."

    He dropped the subject after that, and I doubt he will bring the subject up again.



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.