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  • Writer's picturewassa123

The Elephant in the Room: Teaching English Abroad...

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

So, I am here, as an American, teaching English in Africa. On the surface, it feels icky and quite frankly, neocolonialist. Am I here promoting cultural awareness or am I reinforcing ideas of American exceptionalism? How is this work any different than colonial missionaries forcing students to learn English? Is this kind of power dynamic and exchange ever defensible? One month in and I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but here is what I’ve been thinking about:

As a marginalized person, an activist, and a bit of a nerd, I spend a good amount of time thinking about a particular kind of imbalance. It is the tension between the world we live in and the world I know we can build. Many great scholars and leaders have shown us that to affect radical change, you must reject any methods within the constraints of the present system. As Audre Loudre said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But just as many leaders have demonstrated that working within the system, though it has an inevitable glass ceiling, can also serve a significant role in shaping a better world, if not having a significant impact on individual lives. Frankly, I wouldn’t be here without the in-system labour of countless Black Americans, from the SNCC students who staged sit-ins to the legal teams that made school integration possible.

In the world of my dreams, fluency in English (nor making it to the US) wouldn’t be necessary to live a relatively safe and fulfilling life. It wouldn’t mean the difference between putting food on the table or getting a life-saving vaccine. But that is not the world we live in today. Although I tend to stray away from subjective hypotheticals, I think it is pretty safe to say that I would not be as accomplished, as healthy, and as capable to decide my life path if I weren’t born in America. This is not an ode to American greatness so much as a callout of a deeply flawed global society. My place of birth, something I had zero say in, has been one of the most significant determinants of my quality of life. My fluency in English suddenly makes me qualified for an entire host of careers and opportunities, including teaching classes my colleagues have spent my lifetime preparing for. As a direct beneficiary of this and a witness of how drastically a single language can change one’s life, why would I deny my students a tool that can tangibly change theirs?


To the point of reinforcing American excellence, I suppose there is no way to get around it. A large part of it is out of my control; my students already treat me like a celebrity simply because I am an American. Cultural imperialism and myths about America are not something I am hoping to defeat simply by getting on my soapbox. And just because I am uncomfortable and disagree with the principle of American/English affinity doesn’t mean I should deny access to my students. I get so frustrated with faux revolutionaries asking marginalized people to sacrifice in the name of principles they don’t even share.

Why do we only ask marginalized people to be satisfied with their current suffering in the name of a revolution with no set timeline? Why must they be the ones to make the sacrifice for systems outside of their control and reject the measurable growth within them? Rather than taking issue with the individual making a choice we don’t align with, we should consider the circumstances that made that “choice” the best option available.

I am not here to turn my students into future Thomas Sankaras (tbh I would be flattering myself if I thought I could). I’m not even here to disrupt the system I so clearly take issue with. But if even one of my students is able to have options instead of being pigeonholed into decisions made by centuries of colonialism, this program will have been worth it.

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