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Changing TESOL from Within with 30@30 English Language Specialist Deborah Healey

“Because so many of us deal with inappropriate language with our students, it seemed good to give audience members ideas on how to deal with it.”

During her tenure as president of TESOL International Association in 2019-2020, and especially while
overseeing the annual convention, Dr. Deborah Healey knew to be prepared for the unexpected. But a
certain Teaching Tip session at the 2019 Atlanta conference resulted in an unforeseen catalyst for a
major change in the organization. The session was titled “The N-Word: How to Engage ELLs’ Sociocultural
The session topic was accepted by the conference committee and was very well attended “because so
many of us deal with inappropriate language with our students,” Healey said. “It seemed good to give
audience members ideas on how to deal with it.” But she found out later that the presenter used the
actual N-word several times. “She was not trying to do harm,” Healey pointed out, “but that doesn’t
mean that harm was not done.”
Healey said the presenter had some good ideas about how to deal with inappropriate language among
her Latin American students, but as she continued using the N-word, the audience grew increasingly
angry and upset. As complaints mounted, Healey and John Segota (then TESOL’s associate director) set
up a meeting with eight Georgia TESOLers and other Black members to investigate diversity in the
organization. Healey explained, “That meeting made it clear that the N-word session was the tip of the
iceberg.” Other issues were raised such as lack of inclusivity in TESOL and diversity among its leadership.
That initial meeting galvanized Healey into calling for a task force – the Diverse Voices Task Force – to
recommend improvements on diversity, equity, and inclusion for TESOL International Association.
The first step was to take stock of the diversity among members now. “We don’t track much of anything,”
said Healey. “We track gender, geography, where you work. That’s it. That’s one thing that’s changing.”
She added that it will be optional for members to respond to the new questions.
The Diverse Voices Task Force co-chairs Kisha Bryan and Eric Dwyer will report out its findings in March
2021. “I believe we will be a better association and influence on the field as a result,” concluded Healey.

30@30 Specialist Deborah Healey

Dr. Deborah Healey was the 2019-2020 President of the Board of Directors of TESOL International Association. She has been an online and face-to-face teacher educator focusing on technology in education. She has also taught ESL and EFL at community colleges and language institutes. She is a contributor to two TESOL Technology Standards publications, the TESOL Encyclopedia of ELT, the Routledge Handbook of Language Learning and Technology, and more. She has presented extensively internationally (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America). Her first Academic Specialist assignment was in 1996 in Austria, on the topic of using the (new! exciting!) World Wide Web in language teaching. Her more recent talks have been on gamification. Her doctorate is in Computers in Education. More about Dr. Healey is at

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