Truthtelling and the global EFL teacher

Catching up on current articles in the blogosphere I came across two which were very similar and I had a strong reaction as I flashed back to a question I was asked twice in my life and the consequences of telling the truth and not telling the truth.  

I used to teach teens and I really, really, miss them - of all the types of students I've ever had over the years these were my absolute favorite: teens push you, challenge you to rethink and find new ways to make their lessons interesting -  their music, their interests becomes yours as you  hunt for ways to make the class content all about them...

Anyhoo, I've made a vow to keep my posts short so on to my stories:

Hong Kong
Me: 27 years old
Student: 16 years old.

She corners me as I'm leaving the classroom.

"Miss Karenne, can I ask you a question?"
The Filipina cleaning lady was coming into the room at the same time.  She glances at her.
"In private?"
I look at the cleaning lady and she walks back out.

"Yes, Jenny, what is it?"
"How do you stop yourself from getting pregnant?"

Instant panic set in but I sat down.   I looked at her eyes - saw the worry, the fear and the bravery in them - knew that it took guts to wait for me like this and knew that it was not easy to ask a grown-up such a grown-up question.

I told her.

The next day I was called into the headmistress' office and immediately fired.  The cleaning lady hadn't completely left and had reported me.   It was a good job which paid well and I was gutted: stupid me for telling the truth. Luckily, very soon after that I got an even better job being Director running a charity.

Me: 32 years old
Student: 16 years old

They cornered me as I was leaving.

Angie and her sister,  two of my absolute favourites but I was always careful not to let this show.

"Karenne, if someone wants to sleep with their boyfriend, what do you do to not get pregnant?"

Angie was taking part in our year-long cultural exchange program and would be leaving for the US in six weeks.  I had heard that partners of these teens often put a lot of pressure on them to prove that their love, confirm their relationships were serious...

"Don't they teach this at school?"

Angie's sister rolled her eyes.   It was a dumb question, I knew that when they weren't with me learning English, they were taught by nuns.

"Oh girls, I'm so sorry - I think you need to ask your mother that question."
 I'd learned my lesson and I didn't want to lose my job.

"NO - my father would kill me.  I have to be a virgin - please.  My boyfriend, he doesn't want to use a..."

Her voice trailed off, there were tears in her eyes.  I saw the same bravery I saw in Hong Kong.   I remembered the consequences of crossing the cultural border of what is deemed appropriate information for a 16 year old.

"Sorry, Angie, I can't tell you.  I'm so sorry."

Five months later Angie was sent back from Colorado.

A brilliant, A+ student on a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity was sent home because she was pregnant.

A job is a job and that is easily replaceable. 

The truth is the truth and that is never replaceable.

I have never forgotten those lessons.  Has anything similar ever happened to you?

As ambassadors, as global rovers trotting throughout this planet we TEFL teachers will be faced with questions and cultures which easily clash.

We teach real people not machines - sometimes they will come to us with  problems they want honest opinions on/ situations they want to receive real solutions for - they look for real, alternative ears to listen to their thoughts and they want real voices to answer them.

History has been littered by those who are afraid of speaking out honestly: small crimes committed and world-changing evil perpetuated, allowed even, all because people protect themselves and don't express their yeys and nays.

Who are you - who will you be?

*names and some locations changed to protect the innocent.

The two posts which inspired this piece:
Sometimes Less is More by Anita Kwiatkowska
How open is too open? by Eisensei

21 Responses to “Truthtelling and the global EFL teacher”

  • Anonymous says:
    March 19, 2010


    and it takes a lot of courage to share such a story! thank you.

  • Richard says:
    March 19, 2010

    Wow. Those are pretty powerful experiences, certainly something to think about.

    March 19, 2010

    Richard, Yisham, thank you -

    I've never ever stopped regretting not being truthful to "Angie" - her life was irreparably damaged - her boyfriend did not stand by her: her parents were livid and wanted to throw her out (but didn't in the end) her studies put on hold (she ended up working in a shop and to this day, never married).

    She was brilliant, beautiful and I know I did the wrong thing by not simply answering.

  • David says:
    March 19, 2010


    Wonderous thought provoking, sparking post!

    However much I agree with the main sentiment, I have to protest though about your arguement,

    "History has been littered by those who are afraid of speaking out honestly: small crimes committed and world-changing evil perpetuated, allowed even, all because people protect themselves and don't express their yeys and nays."

    History has been littered by the converse too. Those who spoke out and dragged so many to their end. I really do think it is a bit more complicated. Evil is definitely banal - it happens also when people don't protect themselves and express their yeys and nays.

    I'm sure not many people understand what I'm saying and how I urge people to go beyond the romantic notion that the truth is magnificent and pure. But I'm digressing .....

    But I do think you speak to the dilema a teacher faces. The dilema of seemingly having the world in one's hand, so much personal responsibility -- but on the other hand, being a bit part in so many people's lives. A false kind of relationship. It is a tension we all have to figure out. I'd ask (seriously), did you really cause her to get pregnant? How much responsibility must the teacher carry on her/his shoulder? I'm just wondering about that.

    Sorry to ask so piquant questions. My nature. Further, could you share with us what that great truth was! I'm a simple man after all.

    I hope it was Shakespearian, "get thy to a nunnery". That's about all I can think of....


    March 19, 2010

    David, you're naughty - I know you know better advice regarding contraception than "get thee to a nunnery" - are you a father of a teen girl per chance? :)

    I understand what you're saying but -thing is, you know, isn't it funny how things and events happen in batches - yesterday prior to reading both blog posts, in one of my conversation classes we talked about Hitler and Hitler's actions - who was for him and who against him prior to the darkness...

    and the thing is that so many Germans and so many in the world saw, knew what was happening before and during and after and there were grave consequences - they always are when people stand by idly and don't speak out.

    I agree that the issue of truth, the definition of truth is so much more complex than "speak the truth" but both have ramifications so I'm in the camp that favours the consequences of speaking over the consequences of silence.

    Did I cause Angie to get pregnant?
    My silence did.

    As an adult I knew full well how to avoid getting pregnant, practiced it and could have shared that information.

    I think... part of growth as human beings is the acceptance of responsibility -

    Accepting a part of the responsibility in this situation with Angie is important to me because I know that when and if I am ever in the same situation again, I can choose which consequence and hopefully choose more wisely.

    :-) K

  • Nick Jaworski says:
    March 19, 2010

    Powerful message Karenne, I always try to give my opinion these days. I have never had a student situation like yours, but it's happened to me a number of times on the street in Turkey because they feel safer talking to a foreigner about taboo issues.

    Inspiring post!

  • Catherine says:
    March 19, 2010

    What a great post.
    I totally agree with you about jobs being replaceable while the truth isn't.
    If a student reaches out to you and you don't respond, then you're failing them, both as a teacher and as a human being.
    I've never been fired but I have been told off (more than once) for honestly answering students questions and then got into even more trouble trying to defend my position.
    When I was regularly teaching teens I made a list of L1 websites that dealt responsably with issues such as reproductive health, homosexuality, bullying, etc. and if I knew I could be overheard I used to, loudly, tell students that they should talk to their parents while, quietly, slipping them the addresses.
    Even teaching adults, I've had my fair share of ethical dielemnas and tricky moments.
    I've been disappointed that these sensistive issues have never been addressed in any of the TEFL training (CELTA, MA, conferences)that I've attended. Maybe it's time that training providers include something on the reality of the EFL world where foreign teachers are often approached for help or advice with personal and very sensitive matters.

  • Barbara Sakamoto says:
    March 20, 2010

    Great examples, Karenne. I can see why you reacted so strongly to Anita's post.

    I still think there's a difference between answering a student's private question honestly (which yes, I 100% agree with) and feeling obligated to give my opinion in a class debate when my teacher-sense tells me doing so will interrupt the flow of a good discussion.

    The first is in that outside-of-class time that Einsensei referred to, and the other is part of a lesson. If I think it's better to hold off on participating in a student discussion, I'll just say, "I'd rather hear what you think" or ask questions to encourage students to flesh out their own opinions.

    I hope I will always have the courage to answer these life questions honestly.

    Jason Renshaw addressed another one of these tough topics in a post awhile back, about reporting child abuse we suspect in our classes. It's worth a read, too:

    Thanks for sharing these stories.

    March 20, 2010

    Re Anita's post, yes & no, Barbara :-)

    Thing is I think, as you mentioned on Eisensei's blog "sharing" is the key and my impression was that the discussion was nearing a close and they wanted Anita's opinion as a fellow human being and external observer so she missed a natural-language-giving opportunity and in order not to offend, became the same thing as "all-2-very-safe-textbooks" but we have many ways, as human beings, to remain diplomatic while participating and so my strong reaction is not only passed on the above but also the idea that the classroom should exclude the taboo.

    As I mentioned on Eisensei's post, sometimes we push the no TeacherTalkingTime too far and forget that our own speech is one of the most important things we bring into the classroom with us.

    In the case of Anita (sorry, sweetheart, am really not picking on you just the situation and methodology practice) she could have grasped that moment as a way to teach (dogme-style-emergent-language-opportunity) to not only give her honest answer but how to discuss without "arguing" or even how to argue in English...

    (Now, how many of our students learning through textbooks ever know how to do this? ... and how important is it to know this skill? - in my mind, you can't ever achieve fluency if you're unable to rebut someone's opinion! and know this all-to-well from dealing with a difficult German neighbour who has blocked our garbage bins from the main entry with his caravan causing us to drag them through the cellar... now if only I had the right vocabulary... LOL)


    March 20, 2010

    Hi Catherine,

    Yes! I think so too. I'm often amazed by how little is discussed about dealing with adults and with real-life issues.

    Barbara mentioned Jason's blog post on child-abuse issues and it is an incredible read.

    I think.. really, that we have been burying our noses and pretending that English = Utopia and all things are going to nice and safe for our students and difficult subjects don't ever need to be broached...

    But, okay, and this is not scientifically based and I don't have the linguistics background to be an authority, my opinion is solely based only on observation...

    but what I have noticed is honest feelings arise in a classroom environment and that "lying" is a very high-order skill.

    I have been told some incredibly deep and personal information throughout my teaching career, especially with lower levels of English - I have found myself in positions where I have been a grief counselor, marriage counselor and a variety of other functions - like Nick, sometimes randomly approached for an opinion but there is no training on this aspect or even discussion about it.

    I've also noticed that there is very little cross-cultural training in things like the CELTA/C.TESOL - yet often the main point of studying to become a English teacher is to go have an adventure in another land - why is there no section on dealing with cross-cultural issues - as the teacher rather than how to instruct students on how to deal with these?

    So, anyway, I join you in the call-out for this Real-Life/cultural topics and training on how to deal with them.

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    March 20, 2010

    Karenne, did that girl really not know about condoms? Come on. What she lacked was a community, not an individual telling her anything.

    I think David's point about the limits to a teacher's personal responsibility is well-taken, particularly given both of your very active roles in trying to improve the world and the situation of the people you teach.

    The dillemma you and Jason have pointed out is that of a courageous, "real world" teacher working in a school that lacks that courage and sense of responsibility.

    Building a basic code of ethics across the school and into the community is what's needed.

    To share a similar story: I did an after school youth project at a museum where we worked with refugees and migrants. One of our projects was drawing a memory from home in ink. One of my participants from Srilanka (he'd been a political prisoner) drew a machine gun. It was perfect. He worked on it for hours, and when the other children went home, he went on drawing it, silently. And then he opened a bottle of red ink and started dripping it all over the page. I just sat with him, quietly. He didn't want to talk. When he was ready to go, I asked him if he'd be ok going home, and he said yes. I asked again, "Are you sure?" He said yes.

    The next day I got a furious call from his psychologist. "How could you let him leave? He could have killed himself." I was out of my depth and felt terrible. The psychologist wasn't interested in collaborating with us, she was the expert, and we were amateurs. But he kept coming back to our workshops, so it can't have been completely wrong.

    I don't know how far our responsibility goes. All I can do as a teacher is give emotional support, encourage a student to find his or her own solution, point out that they know what they need if they will just focus on it, and offer an open door to both the student and the community.

  • CarolKW says:
    March 20, 2010

    Zamora, Spain - just post Franco
    Carol aged 21

    The mother of one of my students came to me to ask me how to make sure she didn't have any more children. Her husband refused to use a condom and she asked me what she could do. I told her about different options for a woman that were not sure but could help - she looked blank. So, on the next trip back home I filled up my rucksack with various supplies from Boots chemist and took them back to Spain.

  • little_miss_bossy says:
    March 20, 2010

    Let me start with a smile :)

    To begin with, I'm pretty surprised that my very short post created such a storm of responses.

    I do hope you're not picking on me Karenne but I guess what I wrote was partially misunderstood. Or maybe it was meant to be :)

    I never said I denied participating in the debate so as not to offend the students - that's how it has been interpreted. My aim was totally different (see my reply on Barbara's blog).

    Sure I could have taught them many other things on the spot but we're not here to discuss that.

    Although your post was inspired by mine and presents (I gather) a kind of critique of my way of thinking/ acting - I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written.

    Back in Poland, I always spoke my mind whether in the classroom or outside.
    In Turkey,I became a conformist. There are certain issues (Kurds, Armenian genocide, speaking negatively of Turkey or Ataturk) that you should never let your students touch upon in class. If you allow that and, what is even worse, if you do it yourself, you will be fired instantly and might never have the chance to work in this country again.

    Imagine the students ask me what I think of the Armenian genocide in class. What can I say? We're not allowed to discuss that.

    Honestly speaking I don't know what I'd do if they asked me in a different place. My students are not adults and I teach in a private primary school btw.

    Would they benefit from learning my point of view? Absolutely.
    Does it piss me off that I cannot share my ideas? Sure!
    Do my Turkish friends know my what I think of the issue? Of course!

    I simply cannot afford losing my job. There are hundreds of people like me here.

    On the whole, it's an interesting experience though, needless to say, very frustrating.

    In my post, the key words would be 'sometimes', 'responsibility' and 'spoon feeding'. I don't approve of spoon feeding, being a teacher means undertaking responsibility and sometimes... A teacher can refrain from answering students' questions for so many different reasons. Not to offend them, not to take sides, to let them reach conclusions on their own. S/he might ask question to guide them to certain conclusions or refuse to speak because s/he's not allowed to.

    The only thing I'm afraid of is having portrayed myself or being portrayed as a stiff, old fashioned type of a teacher for whom students are not humans and who does the job to get paid. And I don't think I am like that :)

    Even though we teach only EFL/ESL, we never stop being teachers in a broader meaning of this word. We're also humans as are our students. We all make mistakes; they learn and so do we.

    I became philosophical so it's time to quit ;) No offence taken Karenne, it's just my attempt to clarify things :)

    March 21, 2010

    Hi Anne, I think in many ways your comment directly reflects why she and I both believe that cultural clashes and differences should really be taught when someone is doing a teaching English as a foreign language certificate/dip / masters... the non-western world is a distinctly different place!

    Not only would Angie have only mildly had contact with condoms (perhaps heard about them in the school yard but not been entirely sure of the function and purpose) but the boy she was with would have associated them with something belonging to the seedier side of relationships and not with loving ones.

    It is so incredibly complicated - our westernized worlds have made things like this so "normal" that we have little chance of understanding what is not normal in other cultures.

    And... just talking about this post with a friend of mine who was also in Ecuador, and mentioning your comment to him about community - he said: a teacher is part of a students' community, isn't she?

    Which I think, you showed in your own painful student-story. (Thank you for sharing that).

    Teaching is a major responsibility and often we lead only through our examples and our caring.


    March 21, 2010

    :-) No, Anita, not picking on you - it's been a great catharsis to talk about the issue of truth-telling and to see more about cultural differences and how these exist in our classrooms.

    Often EFL teachers teach in isolated situations and we can never really know what other teachers in similar boats go through and how they cope with them.

    Hi English Team - thanks for your comment, I can only barely imagine what it must have been like going through customs with your boots bag! What a crazy world we all live in - and you're in a European country!

    March 21, 2010

    Clicked too quickly, Anne - the 'she' I'm referring to was Catherine re her

    I've been disappointed that these sensistive issues have never been addressed in any of the TEFL training (CELTA, MA, conferences)that I've attended.

  • Anonymous says:
    March 24, 2010

    goodness, crazy stories Karenne. and Im pretty sure you have countless of these types of eye openers.from tiff

    March 24, 2010

    Hey Tiff,

    Too many, too many... I gotta write that book someday, eh?


  • David says:
    March 26, 2010

    Karenne and others,

    Yes, I was being naughty and my comment was meant in jest. I've learned and grown by reading others opinions on this very important idea -- which in essence is "Praxis" the teacher as an agent of social change. I'll leave my own views on this to another time (got a presentation tomorrow and still haven't started thinking about what I'll tell a few hundred teachers!).

    However, I will add Karenne that I don't think the analogy with Hitler nor Pastor Niemoller's words are appropriate in this case. For me, the analogy doesn't work.

    I do remember though, a moment in my own life. I was 16, intelligent but a smart a** Wanted to get out of the farm where my father beat me and made me work 16 hours a day. (think the movie SHINE). So I signed up for the army. Passed all the tests and was going for a final physical in a few days. Anyways, I was hitchiking home to the farm, under the light on the highway (gets dark early in winter in Canada1). Out of the dark came my French teacher Mr. Desjardins out for his jog. He stopped and had heard from a student who had heard from a student about my pending bon voyage. He had a really tete a tete with me and I came out of it with a sense that he was right. I didn't join the military and became quite the passifist, Tolstoyan. How life takes twists - because of a teacher....


  • Alex Case says:
    April 22, 2010

    This is why you're the best Karenne- much experience and much thought put into it. A nice turn of phrase doesn't hurt either!

    April 22, 2010

    Hi ya, Alex - have missed you! Thanks for your kind words, have been a flat out recently, out getting experience :-)... and it's meant haven't had a second to breathe!



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