Class Act: (De)colonizing the Classroom and Confronting My Privilege

The formal education system is not something in which I am professionally certified. However, I have had eighteen years of experience in it as a student, and now, I have moved into the role of teaching in my time here at Gu-Chu-Sum in Dharamsala. This has exposed to me how my positionality and biases, as well as those of other volunteer English teachers, have become entrenched in the classroom. More broadly, I am being challenged to consider how education continues to be situated in worldwide colonial systems.

Although our Tibetan students have diverse socio-political histories and realities, I believe that sometimes I am not aware of how the manner in which I am teaching is also informed by my own socio-political history and reality. For instance, as white women, Jess and I maintain privilege in classrooms in the Global South, sometimes hindering our students’ learning processes because they rarely challenge our biases and take our word as “truth”— this also may be because of the “guru” teaching culture, but is further exaggerated with my light skin. In this way, Jess and I not only hold the power and privilege to teach material of our own choice, but we are given power to teach it using pedagogical methods that we consider to be valid. This means that our biases are ingrained in the content and (re)inforce ideas of white colonial elitism.

Jess and I have also discovered that our students are quite well-versed in conversing about the Tibetan political situation in English. I really should not have been so surprised—this topic reflects the students’ lived experiences and therefore sparks a relevant way for them to learn English. That being said, it is volunteer English teachers who repeatedly bring this conversation topic into the classroom, so I also wonder why other topics are getting swept to the side? What about Tibet’s environmental sustainability, institutional capacity, and other dimensions of its livelihood? How might we balance the dialogue of everyday Tibetan national identity and pride with conversational English language skill-building? How can these equally significant aspects of Tibet’s future be transmitted if they are not being talked about? I do believe that these Western, short-term teachers have good intentions in their desire to broadcast Tibetan students’ testimonies, but at the same time, the explosion of the Free Tibet movement has steered me to ask different questions: Do Westerners perceive Tibet as an oasis of tradition—tradition that they wish to preserve since it comforts them in an increasingly globalized world? How does this reproduce colonial binaries and Orientalist narratives of the “traditional” Global South and the “modernized” Global North?

As I am learning to teach, I am also teaching to better learn the ways in which the formal education system actively participates in colonialism. I arrived in Dharamsala with the goal of using my unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage that make their way into the classroom. However, I have come to realize that I too cannot insulate myself from outside forces. Instead of pretending that education exists in an apolitical bubble, we need to recognize that everything that we as teachers bring into the classroom could possibly privilege or silence certain individuals’ or groups’ voices.

-Jillien

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