Addressing human trafficking and slavery in the classroom

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, over 40 million people are enslaved today, and of those, ten million are 17 years old or younger.

Judy Boyle

So, why focus on raising awareness of trafficking and slavery in our classrooms? Why is this relevant and important to the well-being of our teenage and young adult learners? Two reasons.

First, human traffickers target youth. Young people are vulnerable, easier to deceive and more willing to take risks. With smiling eyes, false promises and lies, human traffickers target vulnerable youths and recruit their victims. The opportunity to earn money – ‘It’s a chance of a lifetime’ and ‘There’s the perfect job waiting just for you’ – or the excitement of a romantic adventure – ‘Of course I love you, but let’s not call your parents until we reach our destination’ – are strategies so often used. Sadly, as you read this, traffickers, possibly in your own town or city, are grooming or recruiting young boys and girls, both face-to-face and online. Within days, those young people will likely experience threats, abuse and exploitation that we cannot begin to imagine – and their pain will generate profit for others. Trafficking is ‘just a business’.

Second, youths are the consumers of the future: our students will have buying power for the next 50–60 years. So, what’s this got to do with slavery in this century? Much of the slavery on the planet today lies in the ‘backstory’, or, in other words, the supply chain of our daily products. Chocolate, seafood, coffee, tea, sugar, clothing, carpets, cosmetics, the minerals in our smart devices, even the gold in a beautiful wedding ring. Only through a well-informed, proactive next generation of consumers, manufacturers, suppliers, CEOs and policy makers can change come about and the youth in our classes are those agents of change. Increasingly, people want to know where items come from and who made them. Knowledge of slavery leads to a demand for ethically sourced goods – which is why youth education is vital.

The good news is that already thousands of teachers, students and school directors around the world are confronting trafficking and slavery today. For many years, in collaboration with The NO Project, I have had the privilege of working with diverse groups of ELT learners, primarily 16–25 years old, and in many different settings. The bold, powerful, student-driven actions are inspirational. In fact, even today I received an email from a wonderful 18-year-old student, Nadeen, originally from Libya, currently based in Spain. She writes, ‘Ever since The NO Project came to my school, I never see daily items that I use the same ever again. Modern slavery is always at the back of my mind which makes me constantly question the origin and story behind every product and drives me to always go for the better option.’

Is such content appropriate for every class? No. Some teaching material on human trafficking, such as commercial sexual exploitation, is designed for young adult and adult learners.

Can I still meet exam needs, introduce rich meaningful vocabulary and consolidate grammar structures through more challenging topics? Absolutely.

Are there educational contexts or locations where addressing this theme could be unwise or unsafe? Yes.

Should human trafficking be included in every lesson? Absolutely not.

I’m afraid to touch sensitive topics. Does that make me a weak teacher? Of course not. Maybe another time, when you’re ready.


Bravo! – a word usually heard in the context of a live performance. ‘Bravo!’ shouts an appreciative and approving audience. Interestingly, in Greece (and quite likely in other countries), ‘Bravo!’ is also used in a much more gentle, intimate context. As a toddler takes their very first steps, we’ll hear a loving ‘Bravo!’ from the delighted parent. ‘Bravo!’ might begin the written feedback on a student’s homework from a supportive, encouraging teacher.

So, to those of you reading this who have already addressed or who would like to address relevant but challenging themes beyond the safe confines of the coursebook or syllabus, I say ‘Bravo!’ You are brave, dedicated individuals.

But there are some points I ask you to consider as you step out of the comfort zone – and for the purpose of this article they align with the letters in B-R-A-V-O in both spelling and meaning.

B – Believe in yourself … and Boundaries.

Bravo! Your courage, integrity and willingness to address challenging topics in your class will have remarkable outcomes that you cannot even predict. You are a gift to your students and a credit to our profession. Thousands of teachers are already doing this around the world. You are now one of them. Trust yourself and BELIEVE in what you are doing.

Boundaries. Some colleagues will shy away from such themes. That’s fine. They may argue that certain topics are too risky, inappropriate, not the place of an ELT teacher. But that is their story. That is not your story. Do not allow their hesitancy, reluctance or fears to dictate what you are capable of doing. Create respectful boundaries between your beliefs and theirs – but remember, there is no ‘right answer’.

R – Respect. Research. Reflection.

Respect. First and foremost, respect the millions of victims – past and present – who have suffered enslavement. Be careful not to re-exploit their pain just for the sake of a grammar syllabus. Do not turn the harm, violation and exploitation of enslaved human beings into a convenient tool to introduce the next grammar point. The trauma experienced by victims of human trafficking is not for our pedagogic use. Respect, empathy and justice come first – appropriate lexis, grammar and skills must arise from the theme. Discuss the concept of respect with your students, and do not feel afraid to explicitly reject clichéd sensationalist disrespectful victim-centred imagery, be it written or visual. Narratives or artwork that include beaten, bruised faces, chained hands, barcodes, duct tape over mouths, money symbols on torn skin are clichéd, sensationalist and do not address the scale or nature of this global crime. Discuss with your students why and how a proactive message of freedom, hope or change for the future is important.

Research the theme before introducing it to your students. This is essential so that you know that content is appropriate. Watch videos, films and read articles in preparation for your lessons. To support your classes, The NO Project is currently developing free online teaching material to facilitate this (see resources).

Reflection. As you discover more about trafficking, write down your own thoughts, emotions, questions. This will prepare you for similar reactions from your learners. It is a healthy, normal reaction to be appalled by slavery, because there is absolutely nothing that can justify such treatment of another human being. To develop autonomous study skills, the students themselves can initiate and take part in the research and reflection process. Reflection and shared discussion are important steps in coming to terms with the scale and horrific nature of slavery today.

A – Assumptions and Appropriacy.

We can never know what happens in our students’ lives beyond the classroom. This applies to students of all ages, including adults. We cannot know what trauma – either intentional or accidental – others have experienced, including both colleagues and students. For example, perhaps you will focus on slavery that still exists in the cocoa industry. You might make the assumption that your lesson plan examines something as ‘innocent’ as chocolate. However, the violence and cruelty experienced by trafficked children on cocoa plantations could possibly trigger a memory. Therefore, approach the theme, gradually and with sensitivity. Avoid confrontational, sensationalist imagery of explicit violence. Tread carefully. If at any time it becomes apparent that you have misjudged the maturity of the class, then perhaps it is better to stop. It might be a wise move to talk to your students before you even plan lessons around this theme and gauge their response.

V – Value.

Value your own courage and integrity as an educator. Value the responsibility you now have in opening the students’ eyes to this crime. Listen carefully to their reactions, their thoughts. They may be shocked, upset and angry. Questions they often ask are: ‘Why isn’t this in our schoolbooks?’, ‘Why weren’t we taught this sooner?’ Then onto action – What can we do about this? Which leads to the final point …

O – Opportunity.

You have provided an opportunity for possibly long-term, sustainable change beyond the class walls. How? One such example took place at a language school in Athens, Greece. The students, on finding out about cocoa slavery, decided to apply their knowledge of formal letter-writing skills in English. The teacher saw that there was a perfect opportunity for the learners to make an impact in the ‘real world’ beyond the class. Using respectful, appropriate, dignified language, the students wrote letters to the CEO of a leading chocolate company. They requested information about the source of the cocoa used and then asked that at least one ethically sourced product be made available to consumers. Another school in Spain, through the determination of a group of students, now provides ethically sourced coffee in the very busy school canteen. Every action makes a difference. Change is not radical, but gradual.

So, bearing these points in mind, BRAVO! to all teachers who believe that language skills are to be used for the betterment of this world.

Beginning in May 2019, The NO Project site will feature FREE downloadable lesson plans on diverse aspects of human trafficking and modern slavery. All material is based on true narratives, for teen/young adult/adult learners. Each teaching plan includes a detailed step-by-step teacher’s guide, slides, videos and extensive follow-up material to facilitate autonomous learning beyond the class. NOTE: Given the disturbing nature of this crime, the material is, in general, not appropriate for learners younger than 16, but, of course, this is at the discretion of you, their teacher.

Further resources:


Watch a recording of Judy Boyle's webinar 'Addressing human trafficking and modern slavery in the language classroom'.


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