On Be(come)ing a Critical English Language Teacher Researcher: A Personal Reflection (by Jennifer Burton)

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” ~ Anaïs Nin

It’s 2019. I am a second-year PhD student. I walk into a graduate course in Methods and Curriculum in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages). This time I am not the student. I stand at the front of the classroom as the instructor. I say the following:

“Your languages and life experiences are welcome in this space—they all count! You are the experts in your own contexts. I am not here to lecture to you at the front of the classroom or to tell you what you must and must not do. I will present the current research in TESOL, and we will discuss the realities of taking up these concepts in your workspace. This will be a conversation.”

As I voice these words to my students of diverse cultural, linguistic, and professional backgrounds, I also take these words to heart in terms of how I got to where I am today. Since understanding the lived realities of my students is a critical part of my teaching practice, it’s important for me to share some of my experiences with you as well. Let me catch you up. I never intended to enter the field of language education. In fact, I became an English language teacher by chance. In the second year of my undergraduate degree in Justice Studies, I walked by an advertisement for a TESOL course that read Teach English Overseas. The words spoke to me. Two years later, I took the one-thousand-dollar weekend-long crash-course in TESOL, and I walked out of it with a language teaching certificate in hand. This certificate, along with my university degree, made it possible for me to teach English as a Foreign (EFL) language in South Korea.

The plan was to teach in Korea for one year. It was the first time I had ventured so far away from my home base of Regina, Saskatchewan, population less than 300,000. I fell in love with Korea because it provided me with a taste of something new, literally and figuratively speaking. It was there that I first tried food from a different country, and the first time I heard a language other than English or French. The small world that I knew was growing before my eyes, and one year abroad turned into five.

When I came back to Canada, I went to graduate school, and it was Dr. Andrea Sterzuk’s Language and Learning class in education where I was introduced to concepts like linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992) and native speakerism (Holliday, 2006) for the first time. Grappling with these concepts provided a catalyst to re-examine my experience in Korea with a critical lens.

I stated earlier that I became an English language teacher by chance. I lied. It was privilege that got me here. I now know why my recruiter, whose job it was to find me a suitable position to teach in Korea, asked me to make myself look as white as possible in my job application photo. I needed to fit the image of the ideal English language teacher. In other words, I needed to look-like and sound-like English (Rosa, 2018), which for me wasn’t difficult because I am a white native-English speaker born in Canada. Unlike the personal accounts of John Wayne N. dela Cruz who wrote about his experience in Canada of being asked in an English teaching job interview how a non-Canadian can teach English and Vijay Ramjattan who observed that being brown makes others perceive his accent as “non-Canadian”, I had a different experience navigating discourses of power as they relate to language teacher desirability. While I didn’t know it at the time, I was able to leverage the privileged subjectivities that positioned me as a more favourable language teacher compared to Korean TESOL-trained English-language speaking teachers.

My work today, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in a university context in Canada, has allowed me to explore my transforming role as a language teacher and incorporate criticality into my pedagogical practices. I am no longer the ‘expert’, even though I am thoroughly aware that students still position me as one. My classroom is a community, and we shuttle between being teachers and learners. The students share their experiences. I listen. We talk about accent, power, identity, and approaches to language teaching. We engage in critical dialogue. Our meaningful conversations move beyond the superficial dialogues in the class texts, and I make efforts to include class content from current world events. I tell my students, “There is no stupid question in this class if it comes from a place of not knowing, not from a place of judgment”.  And so, my students share their opinions, perspectives, experiences, and realities about social and cultural issues and privilege that might not otherwise be explored in an ESL class.

After one classroom observation, I read over my academic coordinator’s evaluation comments. I won’t forget the conversation I had with her following the observation. She advised me to stay away from political topics like religion because those topics didn’t belong in the language classroom and she didn’t want me to offend anyone. When half the students in my class were fasting because of Ramadan, I found it incredibly ignorant not to engage in conversations of the students’ lived realities. If we cannot have conversations about our students’ experiences and engage in dialogue about differences across and within their languages, cultures and life expertise (etc.) in the very space where they come together, then where can we have these conversations? In not engaging in these conversations, are we not asking our students to temporarily rid themselves of their identities upon entering our classrooms? Here, I am reminded of, and take solace in, the words of Pennycook (1989) who says that English language education is political and, as such, needs to be discussed. My role as an English language teacher is not simply to teach the English language.

When I taught my first graduate course in TESOL this year, I thought hard about how to best introduce concepts of privilege and positionality in ways that would incite meaningful dialogue among the students. These concepts challenged me to re-examine my role as an English language teacher, and I wanted my students to feel safe enough to think through and voice opinions on these concepts, many of which they were being introduced to for the first time. I know from my own experience of transformation that most of my growth and increase in criticality and reflexivity in my own practice as a language teacher and researcher has resulted from moments of discomfort. These moments of discomfort pushed me to dig deeper into my belief system to unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions and ways of thinking. This is made possible with the gentle guidance and patience from mentors in my life. I use the word be(come)ing in the title of this piece as a way to signal that I am forever in a process of being and becoming critical. My goal is twofold: to always remain open and to always be willing to be wrong.

As such, in an effort to stay true to a personal commitment to remain open to challenging (and changing) the way I understand myself, I invite you to engage with this piece in the comments in two ways:

1. Please offer some constructive feedback, or perhaps suggest some readings, or ask a question that might stimulate me to think differently about my position as a language teacher/ researcher.

2. Tell a story or experience of a moment in your life (or classroom) where you were called to ‘dig deeper’ and challenge some of your taken-for-granted assumptions, or share your position of what being critical means to you.

I am listening.


Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT journal60(4), 385-387.

Pennycook, A. (1989). The concept of method, interested knowledge, and the politics of language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 23 (4), 589-618.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, 1-7.

Rosa, J. (2018). Looking like a language, sounding like a race: Raciolinguistic ideologies and the learning of Latinidad. New York: Oxford University Press.

Since her first BILD post, affiliate member Jennifer Burton has moved on from the U of Regina M.Ed. degree mentioned there to doctoral studies at OISE/UT in Toronto.

2 thoughts on “On Be(come)ing a Critical English Language Teacher Researcher: A Personal Reflection (by Jennifer Burton)

  1. Thanks for the good read. Here is a suggestion: We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change by Myles Horton, Paulo Freire. 🙂

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