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One Problem, Many Perspectives – How Irene Heidt Teaches Prospective English Language Teachers to Understand Racism from a Critical Perspective

Innovative teaching projects 2022

Internationale Studierende
Photo : AdobeStock/Prostoc-studio
Eine Gesellschaft ohne Rassismus braucht rassismuskritische Lehrerinnen und Lehrer.

Racism is a problem. Especially for those who experience it every day and suffer from its manifold forms and consequences. However, overcoming racism is a major challenge because it is so deeply rooted in our everyday lives and society. This is reason enough to provide future teachers with theories and strategies on how they can design lessons that are critical of racism, believes Dr. Irene Heidt, a didactics expert in English. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with her about the need for a critique of racism in teacher training and the value of a virtual exchange with U.S. students.

The University of Potsdam funded your teaching project “Critical Antiracist English Language Teacher Education through Autoethnographic Reflexivity and Virtual Exchange” (Rassismuskritische Englischlehrer*innenbildung durch autoethnographische Reflexion und virtuellen Austausch). What is it about?

The teaching project engages future English language teachers with issues such as racism, imperialism or (neo-)colonialism through postcolonial and critical race theory but also through autoethnographic (self-)reflection and virtual exchange with students from the U.S. Besides working at the University of Potsdam as a Postdoc, I am also working as an English language teacher at a secondary school, where I realized the importance of these issues in English language teaching that addresses topics such as Apartheid in South Africa, the British Empire, aftermath of 9/11, postcolonial India and Nigeria. And yet, so far language teacher education does not adequately prepare language teacher candidates to teach these sensitive topics from an antiracist perspective, nor to critically reflect upon their own implicit knowledge rooted in the habitus which (unknowingly) guides our actions in and outside the classroom. Therefore, the aim of the teaching project is threefold: 1) To enable English language teacher-learners to critically analyze textbooks so as to make them recognize racialized representations and images of particular groups in textbooks and to develop antiracist teaching materials. To that end, Dr. Jule Bönkost, who is working in the field of antiracist education, was invited for two online workshops. 2) To engage teacher-learners in critical autoethnographic self-reflections on how dominant cultural discourses and epistemologies shape our identities and thus might have an influence on our future teaching practices and understanding of our students. 3) To exchange these ideas with students from the U.S. within a virtual exchange.

What makes the seminar innovative?

The innovative part of the teaching project is certainly the virtual exchange with students from the U.S. Here, my colleague from the U.S. and I have designed joint seminar sessions based on the question ‘What can we learn from each other?’. The virtual exchange addressed historical, cultural, and discursive understandings of race, racism, and discrimination in the U.S. and Germany, in an effort to engage both student groups with different perspectives and worldviews. For instance, one of the sessions has dealt with the two nations’ colonial past (and how it still affects the present) where both student groups have examined and discussed current debates on renaming street names such as ‘Mohrenstrasse’ in Berlin and removing confederate monuments in the U.S. Here, we have also discussed the question of ‘How should we teach and address the two nations’ colonial past in the English language classroom?’. I think that the virtual exchange has enabled both student groups to understand issues of (neo-)colonialism and racism from different perspectives and multiple voices.

Why did you want to do something differently?

Recently, scholars have called for an anti-racist English language teaching due to global resurgence of nationalist and xenophobic populism, deep-seated racial, gendered, and socioeconomic inequalities which were particularly foregrounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, in light of increasingly heterogeneous classroom constitutions in Germany, official documents on teacher education (e.g. Educating Teachers to Embrace Diversity, 2015, HRK/KMK; Interkulturelle Bildung und Erziehung in der Schule, 2013, KMK) argue that prospective teachers should be prepared to deal with diversity, in an effort to contribute to inclusion and social cohesion. Therefore, it was important to me to respond to these calls in my seminars and to equip my students with knowledge on how to address and teach issues of racism, colonialism etc. in legitimate ways in their future English language teaching and to find their own subject position by critically reflecting on their (self-)knowledge in relation to the larger historical and cultural context they are situated in. This is then supported through an (inter-)cultural dialogue with students from the U.S. within the virtual exchange.

How did the idea for the teaching project originate?

Working as an English language teacher in a secondary school, I felt that at the university we do not prepare future English language teachers to recognize, address, and teach issues of racism nor to critically reflect on their own understandings, experiences, and epistemologies so as to avoid unconscious (re-)production of these issues in their future language teaching. Another reason was also that through the many interactions that I had with my students in the previous semesters, I have noticed that many of them had to cancel their semester or internship abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, many of my students were quite frustrated since they have missed out on practicing their English language skills or making crucial (inter-)cultural (teaching) experiences. So, I wanted to offer a space where they could do all that virtually.

Is there any preliminary feedback from the students? Are there ideas on how to transfer the results of the seminar to other spheres?

There was a test run of the teaching project in the winter term 2021/22 where UP students have evaluated the virtual exchange and autoethnographic writing in quite positive terms. Since being time consuming, I was actually expecting criticism from the students concerning the requirement of writing up three autoethnographic narratives during the semester. In fact, many students have emphasized that the autoethnographies have raised their awareness of the dominant discourses that they have been socialized into, which in fact might be unknowingly reproduced while teaching.

However, many UP students have also emphasized that this seminar has to be seen as a first step towards anti-racist English language teaching. The second step, according to the students, has to deal with the question of how concretely to teach these sensitive topics from an antiracist perspective in the classroom, which is why I initiated a cooperation with a secondary school in Berlin. My upcoming seminars will be mainly concerned with organizing and conducting school projects – together with the UP students – on issues of racism in English language classrooms. In this context, UP students as future English language teachers will design materials and tasks and teach them accordingly within the school project. In that sense, the many discussions with my students within the seminar have helped me to think this teaching project in further directions.


Overview of the funded “Innovative Teaching Projects 2022”