Becoming a Friend and a Teacher: ELT is a “Non-Neutral” Practice

Becoming a Friend and a Teacher: ELT is a “Non-Neutral” Practice

By: Skye Playsted

Editor’s note: Skye, one of our frequent contributors, wrote a chapter for a Routledge book on autoethnography. Her chapter included this moving story about a refugee, Jaya. We were so touched by it that we asked her permission to share it with you.

From: The Routledge International Handbook of Autoethnography in Education Research, 2022, available here, with Skye’s chapter here (pp.317-325)

My introduction to AMEP was thanks to Jaya[1], who had lived with her family in Australia for nine years on a temporary visa. Jaya was an asylum seeker. When she was sixteen, the war in her homeland was at its peak. Jaya had completed high school and was hoping to begin studying at university the following year, but her parents feared for their daughter’s safety as the youngest girl in the family. Jaya was sent on a boat to another country, where she lived in a refugee camp for some years. She married there and left the camp with her husband and their two-year-old daughter to seek asylum in Australia. I met Jaya through a mutual friend who had given her my number to contact about English lessons. I helped her to enroll in the local AMEP and was subsequently offered teaching work there. Jaya was in my first AMEP class, and we have remained friends ever since.

[1] Pseudonyms are used throughout

When my friend Jaya asks for help, I gain much more than I give. I share a story and jokes with her son who is the same age as my son. She offers me homemade chai and several courses of food that she prepares while I am there. I offer to help, but she asks me to sit down at the table instead. I feel guilty enjoying the flavours on my own. She waits in the kitchen, and I eat and drink as her guest before she will join me at the table.

She hasn’t heard from immigration about the application to renew her temporary protection visa yet. I helped her with the application 18 months ago, but she is still waiting to hear. It’s always on her mind. They have lived here for nine years, and her husband works night shift six nights a week, even though it’s getting physically difficult for him to continue with the labour. He won’t risk leaving to look for another job. He needs the permanent work; it looks better on the visa application. The visa application is always on her mind. It’s on my mind too, but I try not to ask if she’s heard from immigration too often because I know it’s always on her mind.

They have lessons to teach me

Jaya needs work, so I help her with a resume. They came here on a boat, and it took two days in a rubber dinghy to get to Australia. Their eldest daughter was two years old on the boat. They ate raw rice for those days in the middle of the ocean. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and desperation, the determination to make a new life for my children and leave behind everyone and everything I had known and loved. That’s not on Jaya’s resume, of course. On Jaya’s resume, there are places, schools and jobs listed from her experiences overseas. An Australian employer might not even have heard of any of these places before. When Jaya lived in the refugee camp, she helped to teach children in the camp. I remember when she was in my AMEP class, and I invited her to share with the class about her homeland. She wrote the intricate alphabet of her home language on the board and taught us how her language worked – its history and sounds and sentence structures. She seemed so at ease in front of the class and was a natural teacher; but how can I help her to express that confidence on a single-page resume in English?

I take her to an aged care facility to ask about volunteer work. “If you are willing to volunteer now, maybe one day they will offer you a paid job there,” I suggest to her. Together, we take the resume to the counter. But when we get there, the receptionist speaks to me instead of to Jaya. “How long has she been here? Has she got a visa? Some of them just want a job so they can get a visa.” The receptionist’s voice is firm, and her gaze is cold and uninviting. I am too shocked to respond at the time. Jaya is standing right next to me, but she doesn’t respond, and I don’t know what to say. “Well, you could ask her yourself,” I want to say to the receptionist. “She can speak English, you know – she’s multilingual!” But I am silent. I’m afraid if I make a scene, Jaya could lose her chance of getting work here.

Jaya and I leave the resume on the counter and go back to my car. I am trying not to cry, but I’m still shaken by the incident with the receptionist. I am apologising, apologising for my country and for my part in the views of who belongs here, and who does not. Jaya smiles at me and brushes it off. “It’s OK,” she says. “Some people – kind. Some people – not.”

I have never experienced the kind of discrimination described in this incident. What upset me as much as the incident itself was Jaya’s resignation to it. It was clear that this was not a new experience for her. She was patient enough to guide me through my emotional response to it: this was simply the way things were for someone who lived as an outsider in a country still dominated by a white, monolingual mindset (Oliver et al., 2017). The experience with Jaya is one that has changed my perspective on my role as a teacher. In the courses I teach, and in my research with teachers, I have an opportunity to open the dialogue around challenging topics of race and language, rather than remain silent. Yes, I teach English and not political science, but I am learning to become comfortable with living in between “the pedagogical and political” (Denzin, 2006, p. 112) in my practice. Denzin (2006) was referring to the practice of ethnography but I wondered how a teacher’s work, like an autoethnographer’s, might be one that could “give voice to people and ideas that might otherwise be voiceless” (Stanley, 2019).


  • Denzin, N. K. (2006). Analytic autoethnography, or déjà vu all over again. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 419-428. 

  • Oliver, R., Rochecouste, J., & Nguyen, B. (2017). ESL in Australia-a chequered history. TESOL in Context, 26(1), 7. 

  • Playsted, S. (2022). They have lessons to teach me: Exploring critical reflection and autoethnography in an Australian adult migrant English program. In E. Anteliz, D. Mulligan & P. Danaher (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Autoethnography in Educational Research (pp. 317-325). Routledge.

  • Stanley, P. (2019). Autoethnography and ethnography in English language teaching. In X. Gao (Ed.), Second Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 1-20). Springer International Publishing.

Skye Playsted is a part time lecturer at the University of New England and a PhD researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. She has taught music, German and TESOL in schools, vocational colleges and universities for more than 20 years. Her research is in professional learning for teachers of preliterate adults who are learning English. 

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