ETHICAL DILEMMA: Should Foreign Teachers Challenge Local Values?

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“Isn’t it true that Americans have pre-marital sex all the time?” Jonu asked me disdainfully.

I was standing at the front of a classroom of 18- to 22-year-old girls at a pre-university school in Bangladesh, where I taught English. The girls were from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, and Pakistan, and were of many faiths, including Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Catholic. Our discussion had turned toward cultural beliefs about sex, when Jonu, a Christian from India, asked the question that left her classmates blushing.

She stared at me with a straight face, awaiting an answer. The tone of her question made me feel like she was accusing me of a crime. Despite my students’ diversity of backgrounds, they all shared relatively conservative social values, and, like Jonu, were piously against the notion of sex with anyone besides the man you have married.

I did not share my students’ disdain for premarital sex. I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, and in high school, teachers taught me to protect myself if I were to engage in sex. They even encouraged me to take advantage of the bowl of free condoms in the administrative offices.

But now I faced an interesting dilemma. How should I respond to this group of girls whose views were so different from my own? As a teacher and therefore someone in a position of power, did I have the right to question my students’ beliefs about sex?

I knew I needed to be careful—in South Asian cultures, teachers are regarded with the highest esteem. A Sri Lankan student once told me that her hierarchy of respect is as follows: God, teacher, parents. That’s a lot of responsibility for a volunteer teacher with no formal training.

I looked around the classroom, my mind racing. How should I respond? On the one hand, I felt compelled to challenge Jonu and the other students, and to push them to think more deeply about their assumptions regarding premarital sex. After all, they were attending an institution with a mission to grow students into critical thinkers.

On the other hand, I felt obligated to respect their religious and cultural beliefs, and to avoid offending them. Who was I to come here and tell them how to live?

“Let’s talk more about premarital sex, and some of the other issues surrounding sex, during another class period,” I finally said.

Over the next few weeks, I enlisted the help of a fellow American teacher who had training in sex education, and put together a rough lesson plan. Our school didn’t have a formal sex education policy, so much like the rest of the curriculum, we designed it as we went. Most of my students had received cursory lessons about sex from their conservative south Asian public schools, but understood little about the basic biology or psychology of the act. The lesson plan centered around the inner-workings of our bodies, the mechanics of sex, and theories on why we desire it. As I saw it, my responsibilities were first, to provide students with this basic knowledge, and second, to ask questions—questions that I didn’t necessarily have answers to.

“What motivates people to have sex? Is it better to wait until you are married to have sex? Where do your own beliefs about sex come from?”

To avoid creating a situation in which the students would feel pressure to provide the “right” answers, I simply encouraged Jonu and her classmates to think about these questions on their own time.

Throughout this process, I began to reevaluate the learning outcomes I wanted for my students. I realized that I didn’t need them to change their views, or to stop placing judgment on people who engaged in premarital sex—that was their right, even if I disagreed with it. I just wanted them to be educated about sex, period, and to use that knowledge to think more deeply about the moral issues surrounding it.

As a teacher, I have learned that we must take faith that our students are able to build from the foundation of ideas that we’ve presented—even if what they build does not look like what I would have built.


Posted on 10/20/2009 by

Amy Adoyzie Lam

Amy Adoyzie Lam

Posted on 3/03/2010 by

Michelle Neyland

Great story! Do you still have your lesson plan? I'd love to take a look.

Posted on 3/09/2010 by

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

Does living within the values of these other cultures challenge you to doubt the superiority of your own? You didn't mention at all that your western reasoning could need some adjustment (after all we learned it in public school it must be true!).

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