April 10, 2020

Andy Curtis, Graduate School of Education, Anaheim University, CA, USA

One Thousand Days Later

When the call for featured articles for this issue of the TESOL Affiliate News was posted, there was one topic that stood out for me: “ensuring equity and diversity in leadership opportunities.” Having served, from 2015 to 2016, as the 50th President of TESOL International Association (henceforth, ‘the Association’), the topic of Leadership is close to my heart. Also, as the first (and so far, only) Brown-Person President in the Association in its more than half-century history, Diversity is a topic that I have been researching, writing about, publishing and presenting on for many years now (see, for example, Colour, Race and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning, Curtis & Romney, 2006). Also, in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion, as well as ethnicity and race, I was one of only a few Presidents of the Association not born in the USA and/or not living in the USA during my presidency. In addition, I was the first Association President of Indian origin (Patna, Bihar) and the first from an African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, known as the ACP [LINK 1], of which Guyana (previously British Guiana, where my parents were born) is a member. Also, I have chosen to focus on “ensuring equity and diversity in leadership opportunities” as I am now at around the 1,000 daymarks in my TESOL Association membership lifecycle, having spent three years in the presidential line, which I completed nearly three years – or about 1,000 days – ago. The passage of that much time helps to create the distance needed to reflect deeply on such intense leadership experiences. Based on my reflections on this topic over that time, here are five things I have learned about “equity and diversity in leadership.”

Reflecting on Leadership Diversity

My apologies for starting with a bit of bad news - equity and diversity cannot be ensured. They can be enabled, encouraged, supported, but they cannot be ensured. The point here is that many of us, in countries such as the USA, the UK, (other) countries in Europe and elsewhere, are living through a time when the assumption that equity and diversity are inherently good things is vigorously – and in some cases, even violently – resisted. My first point, then, is that we must be realistic about what can be ‘ensured’ versus what can be ‘enabled’ and ‘encouraged.’

My second learning point is: Define Your Terms. As language teaching professionals, we are experts at helping our learners understand what words mean. However, over the years, I have sat in so many meetings – long days in windowless sensory deprivation chamber-type rooms – in which impassioned speeches about the importance of equity and diversity were given. But without a clear, concise statement of what we meant by those terms, the discussions faltered, and a consensus was often unattainable. One of the challenges of talking about equity and diversity is the lexical density of such words, as they carry many different meanings. As a language teacher and learner, when faced with words that embody such complex and complicated meanings, I end up going back to basics, which in my case means consulting the dictionary. For example, the online Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives ten meanings of the word ‘equity,’ the most relevant of which is a “situation in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.” However, even with such relatively short and seemingly straightforward definitions, there are complications. For example, is treating everyone ‘fairly’ the same as treating everyone ‘equally’?

The same dictionary gives five definitions for ‘inclusion,’ including, under the sub-heading “Social Responsibility”: “the act of allowing many different types of people to do something and treating them fairly and equally.” Do ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ mean the same thing? And if so, why do we keep using two terms to mean the same thing? However, under the sub-heading “Education and Social Science,” ‘equity’ is defined as: “the idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences, including people who have a disability or other disadvantage.” Then there is ‘diversity,’ defined more generally as “the fact of many different types of things or people being included in something; a range of different things or people” and more specifically, under “Social Studies,” as “the mixture of races and religions that make up a group of people.” And this is not even getting into even more complex words and ideas such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity.’ So, to reiterate my second point, when we use words like ‘equity’ and ‘diversity,’ as well as ‘inclusion,’ ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity,’ we need to be clear what we mean.

My third reflective learning point in this area is: Recognize the Centrality of Context. In Methods and Methodologies in Language Teaching: The Centrality of Context (Curtis, 2017), I highlight the fact that language and context are inextricably bound. Therefore, when we talk about “equity and diversity in leadership,” we must consider the context in which that discussion is taking place, including how the past has shaped the present, as every situation and setting is different. Consequently, what may be seen, in one context, as positive equitable and diverse practices to be encouraged, maybe seen elsewhere negatively and as something to be resisted. For example, as we can see from the title of the 2017 book by New York Times best-selling author Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, there are some loud and influential voices that very strongly disagree with the idea that diversity is good, and that the more diverse, the better.

That resistance to notions of equity, diversity, and inclusion leads me to my fourth learning point: Why be Equitable and Diverse? It may seem like a no-brainer, but we are seeing world leaders in a number of different countries around the world “feed off the fear of the other” for their own political and financial gain (Curtis, 2020). As a result, rather than optimistically assuming that equity, diversity, and inclusion are generally understood to be desirable, the case may need to be made for that desirability. In the Fall 2017 issue of the newsletter of the Association’s Interest Section, TESOLers for Social Responsibility, I published an article titled ‘Diversity and Inclusion in Another World: Beyond Rhetoric to Reality.’ In that article, I made the fundamental biological case for diversity: “Drawing on my years working in hospitals in the U.K, as a Medical Science Officer, I was able to show that a 100% pure strain of any living thing has … Zero Environmental Adaptability. Consequently, even the smallest change in the environment – a cough or a sneeze, or a change in the room temperature, even of a small degree – results in death. The idea that ‘Purity is Death. Diversity is Life’ is not a political slogan, but a Fact of Life”(cite this).

Making the Most of Leadership Opportunities

As some readers may have noticed, I lopped off the last word in the list of items of interest in the call for contributions: “ensuring equity and diversity in leadership opportunities” (emphasis added). Now that we have considered the four points above, I can conclude with a fifth learning point and piece of advice: Always Be Looking for Leadership Opportunities. During my three years in the Association’s presidential line (2014-2017), I met one-to-one, and face-to-face with TESOL affiliate leaders all over the world, including some of whom I believe could one day be the first Association Presidents from, for example, the Middle East, and the first from Africa. But in order to reach that stage, leadership opportunities must be sought by those who could help to make the Association’s leadership more equitable, diverse, and inclusive.

To the Association’s credit, it has made resources and supports available for all TESOL members who wish to pursue a leadership pathway. For example, there is the ELT Leadership Management Certificate Program, which “provides leadership training for ELT professionals in various kinds of ELT organizations and institutions” and which “will be especially useful to those in leadership, administrative, or management roles.” You do not have to be a member of the Association to attend that program, which is offered two times online and in-person at the TESOL annual convention. However, the current cost of that program is 400 USD for TESOL members (and 500 USD for non-members). As that may be unaffordable for some members, the Association also offers the Leadership Development Certificate Program (LDCP), which is completely free-of-charge for TESOL members. The LDCP is a “40-hour self-paced online program [which] provides quality professional development and leadership training for current or future leaders within the TESOL International Association [and] current or future leaders of other English language teacher associations”. There are other leadership development opportunities as well, such as the Association’sLeadership Mentoring Program, which is specifically designed to support, enable and encourage “equity and diversity in leadership opportunities” as “Preference is given to individuals from underrepresented groups within TESOL.” In May 2017, I posted a blog on the Association’s website titled ‘Becoming a Leader in TESOL International Association,’ which summarizes all of these leadership development opportunities. I very much look forward to hearing from TESOL Affiliate leaders – past, present, and especially future!

Andy Curtis has (co)authored and (co)edited more than 150 articles, book chapters, and books, and has presented to 25,000 teachers in 50 countries. He is the editor of the upcoming book, Reflecting on Leadership in Language Education (Equinox, 2020), and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as a consultant for language education organizations worldwide.


Curtis, A. & Romney, R. (Eds.). (2006). Colour, race and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Curtis, A. (2017). Methods and methodologies for language teaching: The centrality of context. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Curtis, A. (2020). The new peace linguistics and the role of language in conflict. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press

Donald, H.M. (2017). The diversity delusion: How race and gender pandering corrupt the university and undermine our culture. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.