Self-preservation often takes precedence over duty and obligation in teacher relationships and it would be wise for teachers thinking about teaching abroad to understand this. I think this is the key difference I have found between teaching at home and teaching overseas. Perhaps our international relationships are not as deeply rooted in longevity. Perhaps situations seem more dangerous because we are far away from the safety of our homes and so we enter the self-preservation mode more quickly and are able to turn a blind eye to fairness and justice issues more easily.
For whatever reason, international teachers on the international scene should remember that when making an ethical decision, they must do so because it is what they alone can live with. Do not expect others to support you. The world is a big place; that’s why you went abroad. The chances of you meeting the teachers you worked with at an international school again are slim. As such, there are no personal long-term connections and commitments that exist that will force others to support your moral perspective. After you go, there is always someone else to take your place. International school organizations have revolving doors with teachers going in and teachers coming out.
Each international teaching experience I have had has been memorable, often because of the stories I have lived. Sometimes it has been those stories of injustice and conflict that have helped me to .build my .strongest bonds with other teachers I have met along the way. Many of those bonds remain across space, place and time. As I sit here recalling the many international experiences I have had, I am amazed to discover that it is those very few close relationships created during times of extreme conflict regarding ethical decision-making that seem to have made the journey most worthwhile. I believe that strong feelings between people often lead us towards stronger commitments to each other, and when all is said and done, I have found that it is the relationships I have come away with from my international school experiences that are the most important treasures I am left with. For in depth reviews of international schools and to read about other teacher’s international experiences please see our reviews section.
In our exploration of what’s possible, we are led to search for new and different partners. Who we become together will always be different than who we were alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join others. New relationships create new possibilities.
Lessons Learned along the Road • Clearly, international school organizations are first and foremost businesses that are concerned with making money regardless of the philosophic positions they espouse. From that perspective, an ethical conundrum is founded because teachers believe that schools should be about the people in the organization and the relationships between those people, not about money. When a teacher is faced with a policy or procedure that runs contrary to personal beliefs about people and relationships, cognitive dissonance occurs and the teacher may be faced with having to make an ethical decision about whether or not to accept or reject the organizational belief.
I have been at this moral crossroads in education on several occasions. As I gazed at the two roads leading right and left, I was left to ponder the question: ‘Should I stay silent as a form of self-preservation within the organization even if the silence means accepting unfair or unjust treatment of self or others? Or should I speak up, thereby laying myself open to organizational punishment?’ This question becomes even more pressing for international teachers because they are far from home, often without the support of family and friends.
In my experience, encounters with administrative policies and procedures that run contrary to a teacher’s developed sense of fairness and justice become the most serious problems an international teacher can face, particularly those who are traveling alone. I admit I am not one to remain silent. I have spoken up on more than one occasion. And, as a result, my conscious led me to end my contract due to observed injustice towards teachers and students alike who were caught in the gristmill of paper policy and procedure!
In 1999, I left an International Ship School in Australia the day before we were scheduled to set sail for Bali. The situation had been building for some time as practices I believed to be unethical were perpetrated against the students, both in the educational program and in the punishment procedures dictated to me from the owner living abroad. I had practiced quiet disobedience and had angered the owner in doing so. In response, he wanted the school to save face and surprisingly, offered to trade my silence in exchange for a ride to Bali, while my assistant took over my duties. I, however, chose to walk rather than offer the school or myself a face-saving mechanism. I had come to the decision crossroads. Yes, I would be missing the opportunity to visit the Seychelles and Madagascar, but I said to myself, “Self, both are only a plane ride away. Can you live on a 160 foot ship at sea for the next month and a half with the same situation at hand?” I could not! So I presented the legal facts of breached employment to administration, requested a return ticket to Canada and a full month’s salary as a going away present. I then left the ship after affirming a strong relationship with my assistant, a relationship that continues today. I left the organization carrying my story with me into the outback of Australia and into my future.
In 2003, I was at the end of a contract with an international educational organization when I was confronted with an unethical situation. A teacher I had recruited to work in the program was being subjected to isolationist and bullying tactics by local people in this Chinese organization. Why? Because she would not and could not accept some of the behaviors and practices of the school administration. As I awaited my return flight to Canada, she called me in tears, explaining her situation. How could I leave without supporting her? I called the Canadian Embassy, reported the incident, ensured that a caseworker was assigned to her and then waited for the fallout. It didn’t take long before representatives of the company contacted me insisting that both the teacher and I were over-reacting. I had seen, first hand, some of the tactics used so I insisted that the company bring the teacher to me in Beijing to stay for several nights so I could discuss the situation with her. I also contacted the parent company in Canada and assured them I would do everything in my power to assist this teacher, including going to court to protect her Canadian labor and human rights. The result was that things improved for that teacher and I made my break with the company.
Most recently, I abruptly left a principal position in Kuwait following a frustrating several months trying to adjust to the director at that school. The person in question was ineffective and inactive in serious situations such as following-up on a harassment incident that involved a female Western teacher and a male Arabic teacher. This incident occurred early in September. By mid-October, when I left the school, it had still not been dealt with, but surprisingly enough the director insisted upon becoming involved in less important issues such as student registrations and my morning welcoming ritual at the school entrance. This dichotomy confused me as to why she had not played a role in supporting both the school and me?
The situation finally became unbearable when one of my teachers, a Bedoon lady, was clearly discriminated against by the director and upper management of the school. My husband asked me, “Has this situation become personal? What is the percentage that it will not work?” I responded, “Yes, I believe it has. I also believe that if I stay, there is a 99.9% chance that this work situation will not improve. There are too many things that I have seen in this short time that tell me that this is not a place where I can work comfortably and with peace of mind.”
I met with the director and owners shortly thereafter, made my position clear on all counts, and then listened to the director’s rant. My course was now even clearer. Even though it was a difficult break for me, as the owners had been very fair in many other respects, I chose to leave because this was a Kuwaiti problem in a Kuwaiti School that required a Kuwaiti solution. Fortunately, I had a walkout clause in my contract that ensured the organization would be responsible for returning me safely, at their expense and without penalty, to Canada. I left because my stories of organizational malignancies learned over time have informed me that once a situation begins rolling downhill, it is virtually impossible to defy gravity.
Reflecting • Moving on is a difficult road to walk, but I have walked it because it would be more difficult for me to stay and say or do nothing. What I have done in these situations is not what every teacher should do. Each of us is unique. We must do what our heart and mind dictates is right for each of us in any given circumstance. Nor should any teacher be disappointed by the actions or inactions of others in these types of scenarios. We each have a life to live and we must all live our lives the way we believe we should. My personal belief is that when one door closes, another door opens and so I leave the situations I believe I cannot support, knowing that there is always another opportunity around the next corner.
Post Script • Life is a journey. In January my husband and I will travel to Cambodia and Vietnam and we will be tourists. We will take pictures of the people and eat the food and see the sights and we will travel with light backpacks. We will return with our packs filled with stories about what we saw and what we ate. Our stories will not be about the deep conflicts between and among people in any organization. We will not be trying to right any wrongs. We will be just living in the moment.
Ethical Management Practices in Developing Human Relations EMP Consulting
Dr. Barbara Spilchuk teaches at a Canadian University in the areas of “Teaching, Ethics and the Law”, “Classroom Management Practices” and “Language Learning”. Dr. Spilchuk has been a teacher, principal and director both abroad and in Canada. She also does contract work in ESL/EFL and in other curriculum areas for educational institutions both in Canada and abroad through her business, EMP Consulting.
Dr. Spilchuk offers free advice to international teachers on how to avoid or navigate through legal situations. She is also prepared to offer assistance, advice and advocacy for international teachers caught in difficult situations abroad. Dr. Spilchuk can be contacted through her business email at Dr. Spilchuk She invites teachers who need assistance to contact her. She would also appreciate hearing from teachers who already have navigated through difficult International teaching situations so that she can continue to learn in order to help others who request her assistance.