Not long ago, I was having lunch at a local cafe, and I witnessed an interesting conversation between a woman and her parents.
In all fairness, I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping—the other party was quite loud, and at one point, the daughter even pulled out a small laptop to demonstrate a musical performance on You-Tube for her parents. This show was the topic of their conversation. This woman had recently returned from a visit to Japan, having taken this music—and her religious beliefs—to the Japanese people. In fact, she blithely told her parents, the earthquake a year ago in Japan presented “a unique opportunity” to her organization and their outreach efforts, an opportunity missed six years ago in the wake of the flood in New Orleans. Appalled if oddly fascinated by this perspective—another group of people’s tragedy your own “unique opportunity”—I shifted to a table across the room. However, the conversation haunted me for the rest of the day. Although the woman said nothing about being a teacher—she seemed to be involved in missionary work for a religious organization—I think the dilemma shown here, namely the possibility of exploiting the misfortunes of others, can apply to ESL instructors. In fact the spread of English has itself been connected with imperialism, the domination of people from developing countries by those from developed. While of course the actual practice of ESL instruction by most of us is far removed from this historic context, there are still implications of abuse of authority in this kind of imbalance of power. What are some ways to minimize these possibilities if not eliminate them entirely? I think it lies in a series of key principles or “commandments,” if you will, to borrow the language (if not the ideology) from religion.
The 10 Commandments of Ethics and the ESL Teacher
You will not preach to your students. You will not share your religious beliefs or otherwise “witness.”
This should seem obvious, but I have seen it happen. Especially around the time of religious holidays, the impulse to tell religious stories seems strong. Resist it, please. Not all students—indeed sometimes none of your students—will be of your religious background. In addition, for those of us raised in a Western European context, there is a tendency to think of holidays like Christmas or Easter as “universal.” They really aren’t.
Nor will you preach your political beliefs.
I’ve seen this happen at the university level in particular—instructors taking class time to share their political convictions. Even if I happened to share those beliefs, the practice always left me with negative impression, my trust in the instructor diminished, as I saw him turn on students who challenged these politics. I was always afraid I would be next. To this day, largely because of experiences in classes like that, I won’t state which side I am on in a class debate on some issue like stem cell research. Indeed, one exasperated student at the end of a debate recently said, “And when will you tell us about your position, Dr. Levy? We’ve told you ours!” Fair enough—because the debate was over, I calmly gave my “side” on the issue, conceding points to the other side as appropriate. But this was after students had had the chance to develop their own opinions on the matter.
Neither will you sell material goods to your students, including your written works.
Class is neither a place for selling your child’s Girl Scout cookies nor a place to promote your latest book. Students’ wallets should be kept out of sight for the duration of the class so that they can focus on their work—not on how they will pay for these increasingly expensive sessions.
You will not accept gifts from your students.
Not only should you not solicit goods from students, but you shouldn’t accept them. Because of the imbalance of power between student and teacher, money and clothing or food items all carry implications of coercion that doesn’t exist in most relationships, and teachers should be wary of accepting gifts from students. I’ve at times put a brief statement in my syllabus that teachers at the college level generally don’t accept gifts from students and that the best “gift” students could give a teacher is to study hard.
You will not establish a cash fund or otherwise collect money in class, however noble the purpose.
Another “no brainer,” you would think—however, I have seen teachers set up a class “piggy bank” and “charge” students a quarter every time a language other than English was spoken in class. No matter that students seemed to appreciate the strategy and that the money would go to classroom items at the end of the term—there are just too many negative implications here for actual money to be used in the classroom. Play money would be more appropriate in this case, with the individual with the most “cash” at the end of the term winning some token prize.
You will not practice therapy on your students.
Once a student came to me about being in an emotionally abusive relationship with her American boyfriend. Shocked, I helped and listened to her as much as I could. A large mistake—because when, predictably, her grades began to suffer, she expected me to understand and make concessions because she had confided in me—an ethical dilemma I could have avoided had I stuck with what I’m trained to do, teach English, and referred her to counseling services for her relationship troubles. Of course we want to help our students—teachers by nature help. There can, however, be a fine line between helping and hurting.
Nor will you force students to practice therapy on you.
I was once in a class where the instructor was going through a messy divorce—the details of which I knew well by the end of the term. I can recount those details thirty years after the fact--although I don’t remember the course content. Enough said? Class should be seen as a temporary and intellectual sanctuary from both student and instructor personal problems.
You will not befriend your students.
This seems strange as we are trained to be friendly with our students and establish a comfortable class atmosphere. A friendly demeanor is fine, but when the instructors crosses the line and befriends students she may find herself in a situation like that of my colleague “Deborah”: at a club late at night, comforting one sobbing student because the student’s date—Deborah’s other student—had abandoned her. Teachers shouldn’t get into situations like this. You are not your students’ peer, so don’t cross that line!
You will, however, treat your students and their families with respect and not play favorites.
Enough on what you can’t do! So what can you do? You can welcome your students with joy every morning, teach them to the best of your ability, never show disrespect even if their behavior might be earning it, and extend that same respect to their families when you meet.
You will issue grades based on student work, not on your relationship with the student.
And finally, really what it comes down to is to always grade your student based on their work. If you have avoided establishing a material or personal relationship with your students, you can do that!
So there you have it, the Ten Commandments of the ethical ESL teacher!
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