It's all about the narrative


Women in ESL

Becoming Odysseus

Ulysses 3

I love the poem Ulysses,* the driving rhythm of the poetry, the solitary courage of the speaker — even the arrogance speaks to me at a certain level.  I hear its lines in my head many times throughout my day.  I guess in a way, we all want to be Ulysses.ulysses 2

But it wasn’t always like this.  When we were learning the poem in high school English class, the teacher asked us whom we identified more with, Tennyson’s hero or The Lotos Eaters.(She was the cool teacher.)**  Full disclosure here, I hadn’t actually read the latter poem; I was going totally on my memory of that section of Little Town on the Prairie where Laura finds the Tennyson book hidden away in her mother’s sewing.

tennyson book

Even so, I was firmly in the camp of The Lotus Eaters, even if it was a little tl;dr. Now it was the 70s, so slacker culture was in full swing, but it was more than that — I actively hated Ulysses.

When I was younger, the question had been easy:  “Where are the girl characters in this book?” Now, my cool girl persona didn’t permit me to ask the question out loud, but I had an awkward feeling when I read the third line, the only mention of any woman in the poem.  “Matched with an aged wife I mete and dole” –I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when I heard these words, but there was no accessible way to articulate or even make sense to myself of what I felt.

It’s like when I studied Anglo Saxon in second year university.  Again I wanted to ask, “Where are the girl characters?” but nobody was asking that question at U of T in the early 80s.* ** I dealt with my anger by avoidance, and getting an extremely poor grade in my Old English course.

In those days, I didn’t consider myself a feminist:  I was a cool girl and I didn’t need women’s rights.  I could keep pace with the boys around me. I would rather get a C in an English course than admit what was bothering me.

All this changed when I had my first child.  Suddenly equality was not a given: it became something I had to fight for.  And I realized that feminism was simply that.

So there’s a whole chunk of the story that deserves its own blogpost, or even its own blog, but here I am, 47/50 on the Buzzfeed Feminist Scale. **** It’s been a journey through feminism, and also through reading, and I’m not sure how it happened, but  now I love Ulysses.  It’s become part of the fabric of my life as I age. *****

As for Anglo Saxon, I haven’t quite reconciled  myself to it completely.  But that year when two Beowulf   movies came out, I saw both of them.  I hope that counts.




*Tennyson here as opposed to Joyce. The latter work is the source of its own dysfunctional relationship, but I’ll save that for another post.

**for which I hated her.

*** and yes I know now that  the Angelina Jolie monster does actually play quite a large role in Beowulf.  In university, though, I never made it far enough through the thorns and swords to find out.

**** Well who can honestly say that she has never criticized another woman’s clothes or makeup?

***** (I just had to squeeze this in because it makes me so happy.) For my parents’ 50 th anniversary, my father wrote this poem, which recuperates and reclaims the original Ulysses in a true love song.

Ulysses plain



Silos and Sandcastles*


Ok, well that was a bit of a devil’s advocate there.  I was just trying to cut away some of the excess from the conversation.  So what are we left with?  Women don’t tend to write theoretical books or perform as keynote speakers as often as men.  This may be simply because they do not wish to do this.  They are not necessarily depriving themselves of an opportunity for greater income or greater status.  Is it still a problem?

Actually yes.

For one thing the principle of The Fair List is valid.  Any time we see unequal representation,whether it be in terms of race, gender, or any other human division, it is an occasion for concern: not panic, but a re-appraisal of the selection process.  Organizations should look for hidden bias in their own practices, and in the outer community.  It is incumbent on them to do what they can to remedy any inequality they find.

It is also a problem when the two branches of language teaching become so estranged from each other.  I have been on both sides of the fence, so I can attest that there is a certain amount of mutual distrust.  It is not helpful to dismiss the others as less meaningful or less innovative.  We need to break out of our silos, because we have much to learn from each other.  An international teacher can benefit from developing empathy and a sense that the student exists beyond the classroom.  A stay at home might learn to take a few risks and open her mind to new developments.

On a more practical note, there’s a strong feeling in the air that the tide is coming in.  Our sandcastles are not as invulnerable as we thought.  Language teaching in Canada is  shifting, and there is not much we can do to resist this.  If changes to education and immigration policy continue in the pattern that we see now,  public esl education will be quite a different field in a few years.  In a market as tight as Toronto’s, these changes will have a ripple effect on all language teaching in the city.  We cannot waste our energies sniping at each other.   The more bound we are by prejudices and habituation, the more vulnerable we will be.  As a community, we need to be united; as individuals we need to be as flexible as possible.

So  sure, let’s talk about gender issues; let’s have that conversation.  But let’s have it on a basis of mutual respect, not as adversaries.

* And yes I’m aware there’s an awfully tortured mixed metaphor here; I’m owning it.

Gender balance in ELT — Why do we even care?


Trigger Warning:

Some of the ideas in this post might piss some people off.  If you think of me as a fuzzy kind of person who uses the word “magical” a lot, you might want to skip this one.

Ok so we’ve established that there are two basic models of esl/elt teacher, and that each type seems to have its natural habitat.  Let’s move on to the concern expressed by Russell Mayne  and the curators  of The Fair List: that women are under-represented in certain areas, most notably management and keynote speaking.

I’m going to take management out of the equation  right off.  Number one, I don’t feel qualified to  address it because I have never encountered sexism from management in esl/elt.  Number two, as I have definitely experienced sexism in other work environments (hello retail!), my feeling is that any situations where sexism appears in language schools is a manifestation of a huge systemic battle that we’ve been fighting for the past 100 years.  That’s too big for me right now.

Let’s talk about keynote speakers, but first, let’s take a deep breath.  This conversation reminds me a little of some research I did when I was studying gender relations at OISE.  Apparently, at the time,  a very small percentage (Let’s say 2% to make the math easy.) of senior partners in topflight law firms were women.  Therefore, we assume that 98% of  senior partners were men.  This is definitely an imbalance, but the problem comes when people switch the equation around.  It does not mean that 98% of men were senior partners in law firms.  In other words, this is a really small group of already highly selected people that we are dealing with.  It somehow connects in my mind with the story of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who caused a huge “Can’t have it all” uproar when she left her job at the US State Department to… return to her job as president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. (not exactly secretary of the PTA)

I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to feminism,as with most things, one has to pick one’s battles.  I’m definitely not saying “let’s all get back into the kitchen until every Afghani girl can go to school,”  but I do think that fighting over certain high-profile examples of gender balance or imbalance distracts us from the real world questions most people face when we talk about gender.

So let’s look at the example of keynote speakers.   Why are so many of them men?  It seems that men are more likely to write successful theoretical sla texts.  It is also possible that the stereotypical male model esl teacher, who is more of a risk taker and a self promoter, and also more physically mobile, may be better suited to the role of keynote speaker.  Perhaps women are just not interested in being keynote speakers.

Is this a problem?  Should they want to be keynote speakers?  Are they missing out on something valuable by removing themselves from the competition?  What do keynote speakers gain besides the intrinsic pleasure of speaking itself?

There’s money — the speaking fees themselves and the increased book royalties from raising their profiles.  However, if we examine the gender balance in the more practical side of esl writing, women are much more widely represented.  And if we’re looking at purely monetary considerations, it’s the latter group that sells in the greatest volume.  We don’t see many mass orders for the theoretical texts, whereas every esl school in the tdsb has tubs full of the works of the magnificent Betty Azar.

There’s the raising of one’s profile, but again I think we need a little perspective.  Let’s do a little side-by-side comparison.  The inestimable Kim Kardashian is quite successful in the world of reality television.  I do not follow reality television, but I am aware of her existence.  Think of a person who is quite successful as a keynote speaker (I will not cite any examples.  There was that one fluke time when 30 people read my blogpost, so I do not want to inadvertently step on  anyone’s toes.).  Do you have friends outside of ESL/ ELT?  Yes?  Good –healthy sign.  Have they heard of this famous keynote speaker? Yes?  Is it  only because you have a huge poster of him on your bedroom wall?  No?  You’re lying.  The only esl-related person anyone outside the industry has ever heard of is Chomsky and that’s because he a) revolutionized the whole idea of language itself but more importantly b) talks about things that have nothing to do with language and most importantly  c) is a good person to cite if you want to appear smart and edgy.

So what we have is a certain group of people who have a chance to perform an activity that does earn them money, but not a huge amount, not an amount that would catapult them into a higher tax bracket than your average language teacher.  They have a chance to earn prestige, but the prestige only extends to the set of people who go to conferences and pay attention to the identity of the keynote speaker.   In other words, they enjoy prestige among the group of people who agree that elt keynote speaking is a prestigious activity.  This group does not extend beyond the limits of the elt community; in fact, there is a large sector of the elt community that is almost completely oblivious to conference proceedings.  In short, this group, which tends to contain more men than women, enjoys a certain degree of privilege, but nothing that in itself elevates its members in a life-changing way.  Is membership in it something we really need to be fighting for?

A slippery slope?

Here’s a new post from Stan of Sentence First, a blog I really enjoy.  This one in particular caught my eye because I am kind of a parallel structure nerd.  It’s nicely written and well supported, but I just can’t agree: unparallel sentences just make me itchy.




This is the fourth part of the series on gender and language teaching.  Clicking on this link will lead you to the previous post, and from there to the first two.

I first became aware of another type of teacher when I started teaching in the private system.  The instructors were not maternal looking women in flowing  skirts and Birkenstocks; they were men in jeans and leather jackets.  Who were these hard-bitten adventurers who travelled from country to country?  The whole vibe was different.

It took me quite a while to adjust to the new atmosphere, not only in the staffroom, but also in the classroom.  These students had little interest in what I had offered to the Overland learners.  After all, what is the value of a safe, affirming environment when one has been safe and affirmed one’s whole life?

I think I saw this most clearly during a conference with a pupil.  “It’s early morning and we’re all sleepy.  Why don’t you wake us up by telling some kind of joke?”*  I was a little bemused.  Why would I want to do that?  I’m not a funny person and I don’t tell jokes in class.  The kind of humour I like focuses on arcane wordplay and is infused with a deeply sardonic spirit  — I didn’t think my kind of joke would make my students very happy.

Now when I read blogs of fellow teachers, I understand a little more.  The Secret DoS presents and critiques the common perception  that the successful teacher is one who gives an amusing performance.    Nathan  talks about how his original impulse as a teacher was to entertain.  And these teachers were indeed entertainers (often literally — many actors and musicians end up teaching elt).  They saw each class as a kind of gig, a chance to show what they had, score a few points, and then move on to a new venue.

This teacher model privileged risk taking and adaptability over nurturing qualities.  And this made sense — it was neither necessary nor appropriate for them to forge lasting bonds with the students.   First impressions were far more important. They were there to do a specific job, and to do it in a way that enhanced their status and that of their institution.

So when we talk about English teachers, we are talking about two quite different models.  And it’s really not that much of a stretch to argue that the differences between them fall along gender lines.



* This situation has an interesting outcome.   I gleaned from conversation that the students routinely skipped breakfast, so I invested in a Clubpack of granola bars.  After a few bites of pseudo-nutritious carbohydrate, the kids were mine, well not for life, but definitely for the duration of the term. Maybe  I couldn’t wake them up with jokes, but the spike in blood sugar worked just as well.  In this case:  Nurturers 1  Entertainers 0

Birkenstock Nation — Feminine Mystique, Part III


This is the third part of a series on gender and esl.  You can find the  first two here and here.

So*, by this point, I had a idea of what an ESL teacher was, and it was a pretty maternal model.  Most ESL teachers were women, and many of them had young families.   It’s possible to draw parallels between the life choices of an esl teacher and those of a stay-at-home-parent.  In both cases, one has traded away a certain amount of material and status advantage, in exchange for greater emotional fulfilment and sense of purpose.

It could also be argued that the ethos in the school was primarily a feminine one, not just because we had kitchen schedules and bakesales, but on a more fundamental level.  The schools functioned collaboratively and most decisions were achieved through consensus (Oh, those staff meetings that went on for EVER!). Competition was discouraged — a kind of  jante * principle pervaded. The mood in the classroom was nurturing, unconditional acceptance.

ESL teachers also tended to prefer stability, in both employment status and geographical location.  There was good reason for this– most of us had family routines that precluded changes in site or schedule.   For the most part, this stability benefited the school. Staying in one place gave teachers confidence. It also established them as a presence: after a few years, through word of mouth and institutional memory, a good class could evolve into a legend.

But of course, there were downsides.  Jante discourages undue pride, but it can also stifle innovation.  A stable teaching arrangement builds confidence in instructors and students, but it can make it too easy to block out what is going on outside the fence.  There was a certain degree of complacency and sometimes a resistance to new ideas.

Still, this was a nurturing and supportive world, and it was the world I knew.  It took a while for me to realize that there were other kinds of teachers, and other kinds of classes out there…


*and yes, I have read that excellent thread on the reasons why one should not preface a statement with the word “so.”  And yes, I will continue to do so.  I do have my reasons, which I will explain later (probably in a 10-part series.)



Feminine Mystique Part II — But wait!


pink collar

But wait, I sense a counter argument.  Were these not pink collar jobs?  After all, it has been established that jobs traditionally performed by women are  less rewarding, both financially and in terms of prestige.  Was this burgeoning industry anything more than a pink ghetto?

Well, to a certain extent, the criticism is valid.  In the early days, the teachers were in that position precisely because they had the luxury of being able to work for free.   It is also  an uncomfortable truth that, even in my day, many of the salaries earned in ESL were second incomes and considerably smaller ones, proud feminists though we were.

There’s also the matter of status.  There’s a commonly held assumption that ELT is a field that requires no particular talent or expertise.   I’m sure we’ve all been buttonholed by someone at a party who’s always thought of going into  ESL and might do so after he or she retires.  I know I know! ESL teachers have  followed diverse  paths towards their profession.  I believe that many different kinds of people can become vibrant and empathetic instructors. However, I’m sure brain surgeons are rarely told, “I’d really like to get into your field.  I’ll move on to that when I’m too old to do my regular job.”* For me, though, the worst was bumping into my former high school  gym teacher and her asking, “But what do you really do?”

So, yes, many people working in the system are paid less than similarly educated people in different fields, but not all.  Because the Feminine Mystique housewives had been there at the beginning, it was they who moved up the ranks.  Program officers, principals, superintendents, the majority of them have been female, and many of them make the sunshine list now.

And for that matter, where do you think our premier got her start**?  You might not want her job right now; you might not think that any amount of money is enough for what her job entails, but there is no denying that it’s a high profile position.

*I’d like to back up my statement with this videolisticle (visticle?)  Thank you ifp for the website evaluation lesson!

**Overland is a large, photogenic school, and we’ve had some very politically savvy principals.  So we’ve had our share of photo ops.  However, of all the bigwigs and mediumwigs that tramped through our halls, Kathleen was the only one who could walk into an esl classroom and instantly get what was going on.  I’ve also seen her work a room of new Canadians, shoring up the future vote.  That woman is a bred-in-the-bone politician; she’s also an ESL teacher.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Teacherpants wades into a controversy –the Feminine Mystique — in Scarborough– Part I

tbt esl
tbt esl


So, there’s been some talk  here and here about the role of women in ELT.  In a recent interview, Russell  Mayne  pointed to the latter article  as the most important of his blogposts for that year.  The two articles deal with the relatively low numbers of women in ELT management and as keynote speakers at conferences. Now while I’d like to respond with feminist outrage (some would say it’s my default setting), I have to admit that my experience of English language teaching has been a lot more nuanced.  You see I come  from the Toronto non-profit system, which is figuratively, and sometimes literally, a matriarchy.

It was pure Feminine Mystique… What? Haven’t read it?  Here’s what the old me would have said:

Here’s a list of books.  Take this away, and when you’ve finished all of them (yes! the Irigaray too! No skipping through the pre-Oedipal babble section!) then maybe we can have a conversation, but I still reserve the right to shout out, “What grounds do you have to say that?  Have you ever given birth to a child?” at totally random moments.  And yes I did do that and for that I am truly sorry.

The new me says, “Well, Friedan’s work is so cogent and logically consistent that I can summarize it in a few sentences.”  (thank you, ifp, for forcing me to learn some practical academic skills!)

Friedan focuses on the group of women in 1940s and 50s US who took advantage  of the new openness of the education system.  They performed well in university and married equally well-educated husbands.  After marriage, however, this balance disappeared.  The men went on to careers commensurate with their academic performance while the women devoted themselves to their families.  Friedan attributes this difference to two factors: the continuing sexism in most areas of the work force, and the prevalent value system, which presented motherhood as the exclusive path to feminine fulfilment.  Friedan sees this discrepancy as a source of discontent and self-destructive behaviour.   It’s a huge cultural trope — think Mother’s Little Helper;

think Diary of a Mad Housewife — hell, even early Family Circus cartoons allude to this.

So this was my mother’s world, and that of her friends. With good degrees from British and American universities, these women had followed their husbands to Toronto.   They struggled with physical and cultural isolation in these large concrete suburbs. Their days were full: families were large in those days –  four children was pretty average.   But still, there wasn’t much social or academic stimulation. They might have been wondering just how they had ended up where they were.

So, they coped.  Where their counterparts might have turned to barbiturates and key parties, they focused on volunteering.  They started performing small jobs for larger organizations, the United Way, the Girl Guides,or the School Board, but many of them turned to language teaching. Toronto was starting to change, on its way to becoming  the multicultural community it is now.  Immigrants were moving in, and there was little support  available for them.  Small volunteer groups set up language classes in public libraries.  These grew and eventually government funding was provided.  Buildings were found to house these programs.  Overland was one of the first.

Right from the start, the classes were set up to be student centred.  There was a built-in understanding that the purpose was not merely language instruction but also a kind of cultural transformation.   A new country meant a chance to re-invent oneself, and the learning centres sought to facilitate that.

Once, during my studies at OISE, I looked up from my copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and asked my mother, “Did you all read Freire before you started?  Did you plan from the outset for the school to turn out this way?”  She looked at her earnest daughter with amusement.  There had been no theory involved, she implied: they had just followed the dictates of common sense.

Wait!  There’s more…

Meeting with Teacherpants 1.0


interview 1994

(a bit of a riff on  this  and  this )

1994 Me:  So sorry I’m late.  One of the kids was throwing up and the other one just realized she had a science project due this morning.

Future Me:  No problem, but you might want to check your shoes.  Is that part of the science experiment, or…?

1994: Grossss! (1994speak for Ewww!)  Sorry.

F:  Don’t worry about it.  Let me tell you one thing, this part does get better.  You will eventually actually have free time to prepare your lessons.  And by free time I don’t mean the hour between 2 and 3 am.

1994:  Great!  When will that happen?

F:  In about 10 years.

1994:  (a little deflated) oh

F: The trade-off is that you will be expected to prepare, not just walk into the classroom with a vague idea.  You will also have to start showing up more or less on time…

1994: Sorry!

F: … and not give the students a crossword puzzle so that you can hide in the staffroom and make a phone call.

1994:  But isn’t that kind of…. fascist?

F:  under breath (Aren’t you adorable!)  No.  It’s considerate and professional.

1994:  Oh sorry!

F: And about the compulsive apologizing, you’re eventually going to get that under control.

1994:  Oh sorry!  I didn’t realize it was a bad thing.  I thought it made me sound nice and humble and Canadian.

F:  Maybe, but it also makes people anxious.  They think  you don’t know what you are doing.  So are those your handouts?

1994:  Yes.  We just got a computer, and one of those inkjet printers.  I’m learning a lot about fonts and formatting.

F: Indeed. I like the way you right justified this section for absolutely no reason.  Very contemporary.  Anyway, you just wait.  You’re going to have a portable computer.  You will be able to hook it up to the wall and project its image onto a screen.

1994:  Kind of like in Star Trek?

F:  Kind of.  You will also be able to use the computer to communicate with others, even with your students.  You will write extended messages on your computer to share with others.

1994:  That sounds a little nerdy…

F:  Excuse me,  but which one of  us just made an allusion to Star Trek?

1994:  But I’m not that kind of person.

F: You will figure it out.  You will not really love the screen thing, but I can promise you that you will enjoy the communication aspect.

1994:  Ok.  I have a question.

F: under breath  (That won’t change.)

1994:  A student started to cry in my class.  I didn’t know what to so.  Will that get easier?

F:  Hahahaha yes.  In the present, you are the one making them cry.

1994:  Nooo!  What has happened to the warm safe inclusive classroom space?

F:  Oh, it’s still a warm safe inclusive classroom space, but then you tell students that they will fail if they don’t improve their work, and they start to cry.  It’s a tad awkward, actually.

1994:  So what can you tell me about the big picture?  How’s the teaching going to be?

F:  It’s going to get tougher.  You don’t realize how much of your teaching clout comes from the fact that you have a huge class with a constant waiting list.  This will change.  Demographics will shift.  Classes will become smaller; the students will become more demanding.  For a while, you will have to fight harder to do what you d0.  Eventually things will work out for you, but it’s going to be a different world by the time you get there.

1994:  Do you have any advice for me?

F:  You know, I really don’t.  I could tell you to keep a piece of yourself back, rather than throwing it all into your work, but you wouldn’t listen anyway.  I could tell you to make a plan rather than rushing into things headlong, but I doubt a plan would have made a difference, and it was probably that headlong energy that got you through.

1994:  Um ok.

F:  You know I feel  kind of bad doing this, but I’m looking at you so bright-eyed and springy and, well, radiant.   There’s nothing to be gained by burdening you with all this.  Although….maybe I could just leave the bit about the compulsive apologizing. Please  have a look into this device.

1994:  Sure (MIB not released until 1997)



Blog at

Up ↑