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Teachers and values

June 12, 2007

Hello again,

English language teachers occupy a very sensitive cultural space. Most teachers come ...

...from democratic societies, where human rights are protected by law and where gender equality, respect for others’ beliefs, freedom of worship and freedom of speech are the norm. These norms and values are deeply ingrained and, despite the political differences that such societies experience, my guess would be that we hold these fundamentals very dear.

Yet English is a highly desired export all over the world, with demand often coming from societies whose regimes are dictatorial, repressive and far from welcoming of free speech. Part of the attraction for English teachers is the opportunity to travel and experience different countries and gain greater knowledge of the world at large. So how can teachers keep their values intact when they enter areas whose entire governmental systems are at odds with all they believe to be right?

Each one of us must make a choice. Personally I would not wish to deal with regimes that have scant regard for basic freedoms and human rights. Yet it could be said that such regimes are more likely to soften if they have contact with people from more open cultures. For those teachers who take the risk, there must be many uncomfortable experiences. Not least are the restrictions on free discussion in the classroom But it seems to me that if teachers accept a post in foreign country, they are then bound to abide by that country’s rules. And hard though it may be, they are there to teach a language, not proselytize.

However, having to betray one’s own inner beliefs, having to go along with rules one abhors is stressful and may trigger depression and a sense of lost identity. I would advise such teachers,
therefore, to make sure they have a circle of compatriots whom they can meet regularly and discuss feelings and attitudes. This is like letting off steam and can provide an outlet for all the pent-up feelings you cannot display to the host population.

Of course, it goes without saying that teachers should gather full information about a country before accepting a contract. All too often we read forum posts by teachers who seem perplexed by the strange, often quite offensive attitudes they have come across. Travel is exciting but travel for work is not like being a tourist. Teachers have to merge into the host society to some degree and it is no use complaining that they do things differently!

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