Inclusion and Diversity in the TEFL Classroom

With so many unique backgrounds and cultures in an English school, it's important to ensure there is inclusion and diversity in the TEFL classroom.

How can we make our classrooms inclusive and diverse?

Textbooks used in the TEFL classrooms in the UK haven’t changed since the 1950s in many respects. The reason is clear. Publishing houses will often send writers a list of no-go areas to avoid offending those markets that are more conservative. And when these markets keep the publishing houses in business, there is an apparent need to maintain the image of the white, straight, middle-class family unit. Disturb the status quo and they run the risk of losing custom.

As a result, despite there being a concerted effort to produce materials that reflect modern society more accurately, the reality is it probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

With this in mind, there are some things we can do in our own schools and classrooms to make them more diverse and inclusive places. Lucy, an experienced TEFL teacher, shares her advice.

students in study group

Set an example

Like anything, setting an example comes from the top down. Schools should be safe spaces which treat teachers and staff the same regardless of their different identities. This should go without saying, of course.

In classrooms, some teachers make a point of setting out ground rules from the get-go. This could be a collaborative dos and don’ts list signed by students, or a poster on the wall. Something like, ‘Remember that we are always inclusive in this classroom. It is important to value everyone regardless of their different opinions or ways of life.’ This goes a long way and sets the tone. And any kind of prejudice should be tackled firmly but fairly. It’s worth pointing out that if students are studying abroad for the first time, this could be their first exposure to different cultures, lifestyles and religions. Travel really opens your mind and they could just be at the start of their journey.

mixed students in classroom

Pick your own materials

Back to the materials now. Often, you'll find a page full of white people that even the teachers, let alone the students, can’t relate to. How many times have we seen a unit which introduces family vocabulary with a white nuclear family, grandparents and pearly-white smiles? When you don’t see a person of colour, a disabled person, a member of the LGBTQi+ community, or a single parent in print, that person can become invisible. And this invisibility feeds inequality and a lack of understanding. Even fear in some cases. Why not use the materials but be more inclusive with your own questions? For example: How have families changed in the past fifty years? What types of family aren’t represented in this unit? And even, what does family mean to you? This will encourage people to talk about their own unique set-up.

This can be done in almost any unit. Take jobs, for example. Students are often shown photos of jobs on a page that are stereotypical – a male builder, a female nurse. It’s true we tend to see more people of colour in textbooks in recent years, but it tends to come across as tokenism, even if this wasn’t the intention. I recently saw a black nurse on the page and couldn’t help thinking it was done to tick the inclusion box. Like the previous example, why not make your own questions: Do you think each of the jobs shown might be more challenging for a person from an ethnic minority, a disabled person, an older person, a woman, a member of the LGBTQi community? Why? Why not?

Then there are making your own materials to ensure inclusion and diversity in the TEFL classroom. Images are especially powerful. I make a point of selecting images for activities that show a range of different identities. I remember taking the time to pick famous women for a quiz who weren’t only actresses and singers! It’s harder than you might think to choose recognisable female scientists, even though their contribution is obviously as valid as their better-known male counterparts.

inclusion and diversity in the classroom

In short, while we may not have as much control as we’d like of our textbook content, there is a lot we can do as teachers to make the learning environment more inclusive for everyone.

Written by Lucy Holmes. Lucy is a TEFL teacher, materials’ writer and author of Talking Images: idioms. She has lived in Italy and Japan and taught English for twenty years. As well as teaching, she writes for Macmillan and OUP, and is currently working on her second book.

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