As foreigners teaching in a foreign country, what are the expectations and where are the boundaries?
Most modern educators seem to agree the role of the teacher includes more than just teaching the subject matter. For example, these days in academia there is a push towards working on improving the students' soft skills, e.g. reading, speaking, and critical thinking, along with teaching the subject matter. But how far can one go teaching outside the topic before the charge of cultural imperialism is leveled?
Language and culture are intertwined and an English teacher quite naturally often becomes a teacher of western culture as well as a language. But is there a difference between teaching about western culture and promoting personal values based on western cultural ideas? This would appear to be a very tricky line to straddle and an area that appears to often trip up foreign teachers in Thailand and throughout Asia.
Most people would appear to agree that the classroom is generally not the most appropriate place to advocate one's religious beliefs.
Likewise most educational professionals would also agree the classroom it not the place for an individual to stand on his or her soapbox and promote specific political candidates or movements.
Is the principle of advocating western cultural values any different than advocating religious or political viewpoints? All of us think our personal viewpoints are "right", otherwise we would change our opinions, but of course all viewpoints are based on underlying assumptions that may or may not be different from the underlying assumptions of other individuals. Also one's cultural background has a significant impact on one's underlying assumptions.
Let us take the perennial complaint of foreign teachers against the "everyone passes" policy in Thai high schools. Most complaints about this policy are based on assumptions based on individualist, competitive and egalitarian western values. It would appear it is assumed by those making the complaints the primary goals of education are the increasing of skills within individuals and the creation of a hierarchy based on individual achievement. One the other hand Thailand is a more collectivist and hierarchical country (At least if we believe Hofstede's research) and therefore cooperation often replaces competition in order of priority in education.
If one uses the western values as the benchmark to judge the Thai educational system, the Thai system will always fall short. But is it possibility for a foreign teacher to teach in Thailand without placing judgments on every aspect of the Thai educational system? Is it the western teacher's responsibility to attempt to promote practices and values on western cultural assumptions?
I am currently teaching a course for an American university on business ethics in China, which many westerners claim, unfairly in my view, is an oxymoron. Therefore I am confronted daily with the dilemma of balancing the views of the American textbook and the cultural context I work in. While doing case studies, my students routinely came up with conclusions that according to western values would be the unethical choice. Does that imply the Chinese are unethical? Yes if we use underlying assumptions based on western values but I am not convinced Chinese students are less (or more) ethical than any other nationality. But the underlying assumptions and priorities are often different than one would expect with western students.
Instead of advocating any specific values and trying to impose cultural values upon our students, maybe it would be a better idea to respect the intelligence and decision making ability of our students (even the young ones) and expose students to values, practices and ideas based on different cultural values than their own without implying these ideas are better than the ideas from the student's own culture. Exposure to different ideas and allowing individuals to think for themselves and choose for themselves what ideas, practices and principles to adsorb and which to reject may be closer to the true spirit of education than would be expecting students to accept and take onboard all ideas and values from any individual teacher.
Growing up in a rural Midwestern US environment and having lived in Thailand for over a decade (A still make my home between semesters in Thailand) and Asia in general for over 15 years, I feel my life has been greatly enhanced by the exposure to different ways of thinking and living. However I have not abandoned all of my rural American cultural values, instead I have adjusted and expanded my values due to being exposed to so many different ideas and ways of living. The same principle applies to our students. Our students do not have to accept all American, British or Canadian values to benefit from exposure to teachers and new ideas from different cultures.
A teacher in Thailand does not have to become Thai or adapt Thai values to be an effective teacher in Thailand. However a teacher should respect the culture of the country he or she works in and accept the fact that students will not automatically want to adapt all of the teacher's values as their own.
Being a foreign English teacher involves more than teaching grammar and English vocabulary, but acting as if one were a missionary for western cultural values will normally result in dissatisfaction for the teacher, students, and school.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.
The author has also written about entrepreneurship in the book, Contemporary Microenterprise: Concepts and cases publish by Edward Elgar