Lead Article

Professionalism and Witness in TESOL

The global role and popularity of English has created opportunities for Christians to teach English around the world. These opportunities, though, have come with a variety of challenges and tensions which need careful consideration. Accordingly, this article aims to address two significant questions for expatriate teachers in China and elsewhere:

  1. What is the role of professionalism for Christians in TESOL?
  2. In what ways can Christian witness be a legitimate dimension of TESOL?

Professionalism as Foundational

Is professionalism a priority for Christians in TESOL? Absolutely, yes. At a practical level, one would never dream of opening a hospital without medical professionals or of boarding a plane not operated by aviation professionals. Similarly, the idea of launching a language learning center without language education professionals makes no sense. Yet the myth that “if you can speak English, you can teach it” has long plagued the field.

From a faith perspective, there is even more reason to affirm professionalism. Christians need to pursue professionalism as a dimension of integrity. That is, we should be who we say we are. If we say we are English teachers, then that is what we should really be. To lead an English language classroom with excellence requires the appropriate training, credentials, and experience. To just fill a role or to use TESOL merely as a means to an end disrespects our learners, the learning process, and the gift of language.

In addition, the pursuit of professional excellence is a first line of Christian witness. God is not glorified by mediocrity or well-intentioned incompetence, not to mention that students tend to see right through it. They know when a “backpacker teacher” is using their classroom to earn money for further travel or has other ulterior motives. In the same way, they know when an unqualified Christian teacher is unable to truly assist them in learning English.

Witness as Normal

What do I mean by witness? As I have defined it elsewhere: “Living out one’s beliefs in purposeful ways so as to persuade others also to accept them as true. Christian witness thus might be direct and verbal, but it should also flow through actions and character, such as by service or patience or showing care or working for justice.”[1]

The fact is that witness in this sense is an integral aspect of education in general. Teachers do not leave their identities, beliefs, or values at the door of the classroom. While brainwashing or proselytizing is highly unethical, this does not mean that teachers are empty vessels or neutral actors. Our identities, beliefs, and values shape and influence what we do in the classroom, including how we plan lessons, choose curricular materials, and interact with our students. We live out our identities, beliefs, and values in appropriate ways within specific contexts and relationships. They are part of how we know what we know and why we do what we do professionally, that is, of our “teacher knowledge.” Simon Borg has defined “teacher knowledge” as “the unobservable cognitive dimension of teaching—what teachers know, believe, and think… [T]eachers are active, thinking decision-makers who make instructional choices by drawing on complex, practically-oriented, personalized, and context-sensitive networks of knowledge, thoughts, and beliefs.”[2]  These can and should include spiritual and religious beliefs.

I am not the first to argue that due to the nature of the learning process, witness is to some degree inevitable, though the secular world tends to prefer terms such as “transformation.” In his book Values in English Language Teaching, self-identified atheist Bill Johnston argues that “all teaching aims to change people; any attempt to change another person has to be done with the assumption, usually implicit, that the change will be for the better” (p. 5). He later explains: “[W]e are always in the business of changing our students… [W]e can never satisfactorily segregate our influence as teachers from our influence as people; and, even more crucially, we can never fully separate our relations as teacher and student from other aspects of relations between people.”[3]

Though witness—whether by Christians or others—is therefore normal, purposefulness and reflection remain key to ethical effectiveness. Merely being a teacher is not enough for learning to take place. The teacher must work hard and do what teachers do. Similarly, merely being a Christian is not enough for meaningful witness to take place. We must work hard at integrating faith and practice in ways that benefit our students and honor our callings.

Witness as Complex

As described above, Christian witness is holistic and complex. It is carried out through words and actions, inside and outside the classroom, in learning processes and through relationships. It is done by teaching with excellence and therein serving our students’ needs and caring for them as intrinsically valuable individuals created in the image of God. This begins with basic professionalism but it certainly does not end there. Like teaching, learning, language, and the Christian life itself, witness is engaging and absorbing, requiring wholehearted commitment.

One tension that challenges the authenticity of witness is that of power dynamics. Teachers necessarily hold some authority over learners. Given this, if a learner takes an interest in a teacher’s religious beliefs, it might not be based on sincere interest. Perhaps the learner took note of the teacher’s faith and observed that she enjoyed talking about it. Desiring access to the teacher, additional opportunities for language practice, or simply to please the teacher, the learner might ask questions and interact in ways shaped by the power dynamics rather than by genuine curiosity.

Another tension that challenges the authenticity of witness in TESOL particularly is the connection with various forms of imperialism or neocolonialism. English is a global language largely due to reasons of British and American political and military power during the last few centuries. In addition, English as a global language has been and remains linked to business and profit motives and thus to economic hegemony as well. While the world wants to learn English, it does not necessarily want to learn the English-speaking world’s consumerist values, media-saturated culture, or (sometimes) monolingual parochialism. This extends even to questions of teaching methodology, as the prevailing general paradigm of “communicative language teaching” has often been judged to be an inappropriate or ineffective Western import in non-Western educational contexts.

The most effective way in which a Christian teacher can address these moral and spiritual issues is by learning the local language(s). Doing so shows respect for other languages and cultures and works against the sometimes unconscious message that English is a superior language or that learning English is all that matters. The dynamics are altered for the better if Christian English teachers take a learners’ position, demonstrating humility and valuing others above themselves (Philippians 2:3) in a daily, concrete way.

Philip, the Language Teacher

Philip, in the Book of Acts, presents Christian English language teachers with an admirable example for imitation, (8:26-40) In his encounter with the Ethiopian court official, the opportunity for witness arose initially from a cross-cultural language teaching situation. The Ethiopian, a eunuch, was the treasurer in the court of Queen Candace and therefore likely a person of power and influence. He was also apparently a Gentile convert or proselyte to Judaism, since he was studying a biblical scroll in Hebrew or Aramaic. In either case, he was reading in a foreign language. Philip therefore offered him a reading lesson: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (v. 30) The Ethiopian gladly accepted. After a passage from Isaiah 53 had been read aloud, he asked, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34) Or to put this question in terms of grammar, “What is the antecedent of the pronoun?” From this rather unlikely and unglamorous starting point, Philip was able to share the good news with him. (v. 35)

The point is that Philip here did not ignore individual needs in order to force his own agenda, but was given the opportunity to bear witness to his faith by meeting the Ethiopian court official at his point of inquiry. This was true physically or geographically, as God led Philip to a specific desert road where the man could be found. It was also true intellectually, as Philip listened to hear what the eunuch was reading and asked him about his level of comprehension. And it was true spiritually, as Philip started from the language learning exercise in which the treasurer was engaged and proceeded from there to the gospel. Philip was able to “teach the lesson” and answer the man’s questions about the prophecy because he knew Scripture well—the situational equivalent of professional preparation in TESOL. Perhaps most importantly, Philip did not try to create something out of nothing. He simply joined in with what God was already doing in the Ethiopian’s life.

Professionalism is never neutral. Witness is never anxious. As we teach with excellence and live out our identities, beliefs, and values in appropriate ways within specific contexts and relationships, we do so in the knowledge that God already knows and loves all our students better than we ever could.


  1. ^ Baurain, Bradley. (2007). “Christian witness and respect for persons.” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6, 201-219.
  2. ^ Borg, Simon. (2003). “Teacher cognition in language teaching: A review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do.” Language Teaching, 36, 81–109.
  3. ^ Johnston, Bill. (2003). Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 101.
Image courtesy of a ChinaSource reader. 
Share to Social Media

Bradley Baurain

Now at Moody Theological Seminary and Graduate School in Chicago, Bradley Baurain has taught for more than 25 years in the United States, Canada, China, and Vietnam. He has published articles in journals including ELT Journal, TESOL Journal, and the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, as well as authoring …View Full Bio