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!
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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Hi, Tommy. May I ask what age your students are? Giving and receiving small gifts is traditional and "normal" with elementary school age children because they're generally not thinking of anything like bribery; older students, regrettably, sometimes are and in fact may come from cultures where graft is the norm--which is why I put in my syllabus that teachers in the U.S. don't accept gifts from students. They shouldn't have to feel they need to buy their teacher gifts to get a good grade. I don't think any of my colleagues are nincompoops. Some are, however, quite young and inexperienced--may, in fact, be the same age or younger than their students and simply don't see the implications of some of their actions and don't have the knowledge base of 20+ years of experience to work out the rules for themselves--which is one of the reasons more senior teachers are here, to help them navigate the rules:) Thanks for sharing, Tommy. Keep teaching-- Stacia
I agree with almost everything on this list, but wonder if it is really necessary. I live and teach in Japan and often get gifts from my students and give gifts in return. I'm not talking about anything big, just souvenirs from trips or snacks and that kind of thing. I've been teaching for nearly a quarter century and can't remember ever having trouble becuase of presents. The rest of the list is fine, but what kind of nincompoops are you working with that don't have enought sense to work out these rules for themselves?
Hi, all! Great this article has inspired so much thoughtful commentary. What a great point, the principle that really ethical and professional teachers are in the field to serve and have acquired the skill to do so; unethical ones are there, not having acquired the needed skills, and put their own needs and egos first. Isn't this true of most professions, especially the helping ones--the service to the client comes first? Probably if this is kept as the overarching first "commandment," you almost don't need the others. Kobekat, I see your point that the religious are often there to help in time of crisis as are teachers--and in fact this service may be strongly grounded in one's religious perspective. I have no argument in this--indeed my own religious convictions of service to others motivates my behavior and is probably--I would hope--modeled to my students. There is a difference, however, in modeling a religious principle that is universal or near-universal--service, love, sharing, for example--and actually, verbally encouraging students to convert to a specific religious faith. It is the latter practice that I submit ethical educators should avoid--no matter how downtrodden their students may seem or how much a particular religious group may have to offer. Our service should come without strings attached for the students. Thanks for your views on this. Stacia
I believe that the most ethical teacher is one who can teach many points of view and leave their own bias out of their teaching. I would prefer to define "ethical" as a teacher who is prepared and skilled in teaching English and doesn't take advantage of their students or the school or group employing them, and submit to you that the "unethical" teachers are those that have no teaching skills whatever, have no interest in learning the skill or being properly trained to do what they think is a "cake" job, and believe that just because they grew up in an English speaking country, they deserve to paid inordinate amounts of money to "teach" English to non-native speakers.
Stacia's done a wonderful job by stating the 10 commandments which radiate prudence and experience on her part though some of her e-fans may find the taste slightly bitter- but medicines are bitter- owing to the differences in culture and customs that vary not only from country to country but also within the country. I'd prefer to share the same boat as hers as far as the journey to educate students continue, and ensure to blossom the lives of students to in-turn illuminate the lives of people they meet, through the knowledge they have possessed.
While I agree with many of the good points in this article, I strongly disagree with the implied assumption that the young woman who had given of her own time, energy, and probably money to assist people in need after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was in danger of "exploiting" the misfortunes of others simply because the author of this article happened to overhear her use the phrase a "unique opportunity" in regards to her being in a particular location at a particular time. Maybe if the author had eavesdropped a bit longer, she might have heard her talking about mucking out houses, or holding the hands of the those who had just lost everything they owned including friends or family members. Having a "job" as an English teacher, and using that as a springboard to share love and hope with others (even if motivated by one's particular religious beliefs) isn't exploitation. The reality of the recovery after the tsunami in Japan is that while most of the "just" English teachers and business people who had been earning a living in Japan ran as fast as they could the other way, it was largely the Christians who ran "toward" the people in need (and are continuing to do so) to help and share hope (some of them already there as missionaries or teachers who believed it was a "unique opportunity" to give back to their students and the country who was so openly hosting them and welcoming them. Many of these folks have purchased international plane tickets, and given up vacation time to go and work alongside people they've never met. Why do they do it? Because they are trying to live their lives as they believe Jesus would have lived his life if he were still here on earth.
In regards to points #2 & #3, I would have to disagree, although I do agree that it is wrong to use class time to promote your own position. I don't think avoiding it entirely is the answer, either. One of the many reasons people of other cultures want to learn from native teachers is because they want to not only learn good grammar and good pronunciation, but they want to learn about other cultures, so that they can enjoy travel and meeting new people or just to make the language study more interesting. Many of our students will become exchange students in foreign universities or will host students from other countries. If we avoid explaining why people in other countries celebrate certain holidays, we are doing our students a disservice. If we avoid discussing politics, and other often discussed "hot" topics, again, we are doing them a disservice. We are not helping them become the "international" people that they want to become.