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Analia Solis
Experienced Secondary Educator

Breaking through Policy: Embracing Humanity in EAL Teaching

May 7, 2024
By Analia Solis

Lauren and I talk about many things related to education, teaching English and our own ethnic backgrounds. We often touch on identity; how can we not, considering our profession and teaching methods. Our conversations are rigorous, enlightening, and thoughtful and they often lead me to reflect on my experiences as both a learner and an educator.

I find myself asking …what is the relationship and interplay between my personal experience as an immigrant and my role as EAL teacher? How do they inform and influence each other? In this piece, I’d like to explore identity and how those who come to Australia are described and labelled.

I often think about my own journey of when I first came to Australia. In the mid-late 1970s, the way to describe migrants and their linguistic status, ranged from migrant, refugee, ESL, and then all of the other not so nice terms – like ‘wog’. At that time, the policy approach was post-integration and had newly embraced multiculturalism. 

This was the thinking of the time and subsequently informed teaching ideas. Adults were provided with supports and given ESL classes, whilst young children like me, were put into a classroom as it was believed that they would simply absorb the language and culture easily.  

From then to now, the landscape has changed dramatically. Multiculturalism as a policy approach has evolved yet remained consistent, though not without debate and challenges. Over this time, I note that there are more ways that people are labelled and described.

We use many of the same labels as the 1970s such as, migrant, refugee, ESL, and have added some newer ones, like EAL/D, CALD and asylum seeker. None of these terms are wrong, they describe a reality and reflect changes that have occurred for the student, for example, EAL reflects the bilingual and multilingual nature of migrants and refugees.

Currently, we live in a world where identity has become increasingly dissected, individualised and politicised, and I wonder how useful all of this language really is?

In our classrooms, new students arrive and to prepare, we collate and build a profile on them based on all these words that tell us about them – refugee, EAL, traumatised, etc,. We make decisions about our teaching based on these profiles. We need these, but are we missing something?

Sometimes I wonder if I have treated my students the same way that I was treated in the school system…

More broadly, as teachers, can we sometimes think about our students and our EAL teaching through a policy lens? I think the answer is yes because policy approaches inform the education system and curriculum.

It means that we see migrants as people that need to be taught in accordance with our language and culture, and as a result, it’s always in relation to what they don’t have and don’t know. More importantly, there’s often a judgement attached to this – a superiority that evaluates ‘us’ as better, and we do this as educators, just like the policies do. We see their deficits –a lack of language, skills and culture, and unfortunately this means we can end up looking down on them, just like immigration policies have done and to an extent still do.

We do this for many understandable reasons – we want them to survive in this new country, to navigate the systems and mostly for them to ‘fit in.’

The evolution of policy and how it has informed teaching has gone from not enough attention (integration/early multicultural policy times), to one that focuses too much on labelling and categorisation (current multicultural / inclusion policies) both ultimately ignoring the people in front of us. This results in not recognising their existing skills, knowledge, lived experiences and a bigger identity that goes way beyond the labels we use to describe them.

Now I look back at my experiences as an ESL student and a teacher, I have lived and felt both ends of this and at their extremes, and the discrepancy concerns me. I am curious and interested in how to connect them.

It’s simple – focus on what we have in common, we are all human.

We may sometimes forget to see our students as a whole person and at their core. These labels simply describe decisions they have made or have been forced to make, the experiences they have had and their relationship to language and their cultural practices.

Don’t define your students by the labels we use to categorise and identify them. They simply help us in our planning, teaching and to navigate systems; they have no real place in our relating to them and building relationships with them.

Let’s focus on what we have in common – what do we share in regard to our humanity and human experience? We all know joy, challenges, family, laughter and so on. Use these as ideas to explore, share, learn new language and tell the stories of who we are and can be.

In trying to connect the discrepancies, I had this idea to do a wish list of the me that looked back on my experience and the teacher in me that recognises what I wish I had done more often with my students and EAL teaching.

I wish I’d been asked to write about what I loved and what I missed – describing my home and the places and things I loved, so that I could learn to describe with feeling and knowledge.

I wish I’d been taught and allowed to express all my feelings not just the ones chosen for migrants – sadness and gratefulness OR my difficult or traumatic story.

I wish I’d been asked about what was the same, not always asked to highlight my difference or explain my difference – who was that making feel better?

I wish I’d been allowed to bring my culture, not just the traditional part (like my traditional ‘costume’) but the modern parts of it, like music and song lyrics.

I wish I’d been allowed to show what I know. For example, South Americans are political and we can discuss these complex topics at an early age.

I wish I’d been allowed to keep my writing – cursive and using small lines.

So, think about what all your students already come with and not just what they need to learn quickly to fit in. Sometimes fitting in means to find commonalities and sharing them can be a strong incentive to communicate.


Analia Solis has been teaching in secondary schools for 26 years in both government and independent educational settings; primarily focusing on Sociology, EAL and English. In addition to her teaching, she has worked with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority for various years in a variety of roles.

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3 thoughts on “Breaking through Policy: Embracing Humanity in EAL Teaching”

  1. Intelligent, humanistic, EAL student, EAL teacher, English as a first language teacher, teacher, migrant, sociologist, educator, political and feisty. You are the perfect storm. Great piece. Made think in particular about how I teach diversity to an incredibly multicultural cohort and gave me a few writing ideas. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for sharing your lived experiences and how that informed and guided you to understand how empathy and humanity play such an important role in the education ‘system’.

    The legal ‘system’ and lawyers representing ‘clients’ in areas beyond the corporate and financial sector, like personal injuries, family, crime etc can take something away from your insight and experience when entrusted to guide a person, and not just a ‘client’ through the ‘system’.

    I hope my children have the benefit of educators like you, with a high level of emotional intelligence as well as teaching skills as they navigate the education system.

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