Where Will Your Conscience Let You Work?

Teaching overseas is certainly the experience of a lifetime. But, if that experience conflicts with your personal values it can turn out to be far more than you bargained for. ISR recently received a review for an International School in Myanmar (aka Burma), a country known for its human rights abuses. Here is an excerpt from that review:

“Perhaps what has been most disturbing for me has been the troubled conscience I live with since I arrived almost two months ago. It is well-known that there are over 2000 political prisoners in Burma’s jails, to whom the Red Cross has been denied access. The Burmese government has been carrying out ethnic cleansing campaigns involving systematic rape, looting, the use of forced labor and deployment of child soldiers against minority peoples…Over 90% of the children at our school are Burmese and probably over half of them are children or grandchildren of military personnel who have been destroying the country and oppressing the people of Burma for the past half century…..”

In response to this review, another teacher at the school posted with a very different point of view. Here is an excerpt:

“Part of being a teacher is educating your students so they can go on to do great things with their lives. Whoever their family happens to be should not influence how good a teacher you are to the student. If it does, you may want to think about a new career….”

Obviously, the teacher with the conscience-conflict should have done his/her homework before accepting the job. With that being said, what are your feelings on working in a country that abuses its people? What personal criteria do you have concerning where you will, and will not accept a teaching position?

22 thoughts on “Where Will Your Conscience Let You Work?

  1. As an international teacher working in Burma, I agree with the comments made by some other posters about leading by example and promoting change from within. I have my students regularly engage in community development activities and make them aware of those who are in need and how they can help them. Many give generously to fund-raising drives for books, supplies and food. I also donate my time to humanitarian causes outside school.

    Unfortunately, all the international schools here are heavily ‘for profit.’ Dealing with a money-hungry school owner with no conscience, education experience or morality is the hard part and that is when you have to ask do you want to stay in such a school and location. Many schools cut costs to the bone, with low salaries, inadequate teaching resources, unqualified teachers and dubious practices. They cheat the students, not all of whom are from rich military families and who deserve better when they are paying several thousand dollars a year. That is what is hard to live with. Before coming to such places, check out ISR, email other teachers, do your homework and find out who owns the school, read the small print in the contract before making a decision and determine what the management structure is.Ask what enforceable rights you would have if anything went wrong? In Burma, absolutely none!


  2. I’ve been an International School educator for more than 20 years. Most of those years were spent in countries with a wide range of “differences” between how I view the world and how host countries view and govern their unique country. There is seldom a “meeting of minds” and some places impact Americans more deeply than others.

    I taught in the Middle East for one year (stayed that long ONLY to honor my contract) and would never return. There was no way I could handle the facts as I encountered them. While I realize that teachers need to do research before going to a new country, recruiters often, if not always, paint a different picture of their school and its country from what the teachers find when they arrive.

    International teaching is not for the faint-hearted;.issues of conscience are not uncommon. I don’t believe the majority of international teachers are in it for the money, but I may be naive in this regard. When one loves children and loves teaching, we do what we do anywhere we can. If you have the “gift” you are blessed. Each of us needs to determine what we can and cannot abide with. Unfortunately, it is all too common for us not to really “get” what we have signed on for until we have left home and hearth. Once the school year has begun it’s too late to change one’s mind…the contract has too much power. I’ve known people who faced extreme hardship when they needed to get out of a contract. Little leeway is given to teachers who find that they cannot cope.

    The adage “buyer beware” is as pertinent to international teaching positions as it is to any other situation. I hope we can all learn to be kinder and more understanding to each other. Other than ISR, I know of no other place where we can support each other.


  3. Back to the original blog post, which is tremendously relevant and I applaud ISR for publishing it. I think teachers, no matter where they are teaching, fall into two camps: those who see themselves as ethical actors and those who don’t. Those who are conscious of their ethical purpose would obviously raise an eyebrow at teaching in a place like Burma. Those who are not, would not lose any sleep over it.

    What I think it’s important to realize–and the original quote seems poorly chosen in this aspect–is that no child is responsible for their life circumstances. A 14-year-old can’t help being born into poverty in some American or European ghetto any more than a Burmese kid can’t help being born into a ruling class family in which the father may or may not be committing war crimes. The disagreement here is not about the kinds of families a student comes from, it’s about how those families influence the pedagogical environment.

    If the school, and I think we can readily acknowledge the poster is referring to the International School of Yangoon, establishes itself in such as way that the curriculum disallows teaching on tolerance, equality, minority rights, etc, then you have a school, and a teaching job, that is in direct conflict with the most fundamental aspects of human rights. I’m not saying this is the case, but if a teacher is curtailed in what they can utter in the way of democratic values then they are not working in any context we can safely call a western liberal education.

    I suspect the first poster did not do their homework, and I think it’s pretty ridiculous to move to the other side of the planet without doing so. At the same time, I acknowledge that detecting what a school’s culture is like can be difficult if not impossible without experiencing it first-hand. This is where the fairs have an immense responsibility. If there is a school in which the school culture is so beholden to parents’ ethics, or lack thereof, that the curriculum is limited in any way, the fairs HAVE A MORAL DUTY TO INFORM CANDIDATES OF THIS. Let candidates make there own choices, and their own mistakes, but in the interests of fair play, well, the fairs need to play fair.

    Unfortunately it is hit or miss with this. I have first-hand experience of fair representatives not relaying ESSENTIAL information about the way a school operates and much more anecdotal evidence from colleagues of the same. This is self-defeating in so many ways it boggles the mind. I would love to hear what others have to say about this.


  4. I agree with much of what Eric has written. This means that I will not change grades, I will not play favorites because of how “important” some child’s father may be. I will point out hypocrisy – first of all in the U.S. – and compare it to what our values and ideals in the U.S. are based on the greatest documents ever written by humans – the Declaration of independence, The U.S. Constitution and the Bill Of Rights. I will not work in China, as much as I want to, as much as I want to go and make an impact, because in the end I figure I will end up being thrown out or worse, in prison. I will not lie to my students, I will not teach them WHAT to think, but rather HOW to think.

    I taught in the UAE for 4 months in a school not critiqued here. A school where the nannies do the students’ homework, where you can’t give homework during week long EID holidays (so the kids can spend 10 more hours each day at the freeking malls or with video games!!!) and where the homework I gave my Hmong or Albanian students was too much for the little rich brats of the Gulf. Worse yet, the poor “slaves” from Pakistan and Bangladesh are over worked, under paid and poorly treated AND they are Muslim working at a Muslim school but can not read and write!! AND no one cares or will do anything, even when pushed! I lasted 4 months.

    What is most distressing is the recruiters for these jobs. Read Teach-Away’s description of what to do and survive as a teacher in the GCC areas; basically keep your mouth shut, eyes closed and ears stuffed. Just take the salary, party with the rich and tough if the kids don’t behave or want to learn.

    Unfortunately, or fortunately, this website has scared the living bijeebbers out of me! Where are the good schools? The good administrators??
    * I have taught in Pakistan for a school where the kids were great but the owner said, in front of all the teachers, that monkeys could do our jobs, but he had to hire teachers.
    * I taught in Greece, again great kids, where the school was only about money.
    * I taught in Albania, with a great director but having to still follow Commie bureaucracy ala Hoxa times! If you do not use the right colored pen to fill a ridiculous daily log that has nothing to do with International teaching standards or methods/practices and if your hand writing is not perfect, the Albanian supervisor sent from the Ministry of Ed – who does not read nor write nor speak one word of English and has NEVER been in one of your classrooms – says you are a bad teacher and fines the school.

    The U.S. is no better with its politics and b.s. Don’t rock the boat, don’t excel, don’t work too hard or do too much or you are on the skata list with the other teachers, especially the Union thugs.

    In the end, education has nothing to do with teaching students. It is all about power and politics and trying some new fad. The only ones are who hurt are the children, who then grow up to be the miserable leaders and the destroyers of true capitalism through greed and dishonesty. And they then continue the cycle, which is why the world is where it is today.

    But carry on idealists and to hell with the rationalists and those just in it for adventure and money. If we idealists do not keep trying we will never win. Who knows who you influence and in what way when you teach!

    Sorry, BAD year and turning 50!


  5. I agree with you there. By American values, I mean freedom, liberty, value of personal choice of religion – sexual preference – etc. equality, equity, personal rights. I have one classroom rule – You may do anything you like in my room as long as your actions don’t infringe upon the rights of others. My students respond well to that. Instead of telling them what they can’t do, it tells them what they can do, and think before you act.

    I think American Education is way off base for the most part, and there are other places we could learn from if we would just open our eyes and see the benefits of others ideas and way. Education started as a way to improve the workforce. We are no longer about that. We have not kept with the workforce. We have gone to deciding all must be the same. That is insane.


  6. @china: I mean the reality of america is not the same as the ideals we strive for. American educational pedogogies and best practices are the best I have seen in all my travels. The reality of american ed in many places in the USA depending on where of course, can appear contrary to our ideals.


    1. Yes and No. Best practices are swell but you can’t separate them from how they are implemented. Half of America wants science teachers to teach magical, non-scientific versions of creation, for instance, and I would say that persistent struggle is what defines the American ideal, not some best practice sitting in a curriculum document which half the nation strives against.

      Another example is the ongoing competition between the IB (invented in Europe) and AP (invented in America) curricula in high school. I would argue that teachers who have taught both consider the IB curriculum heads and tails better, pedagogically, than the AP curriculum. It is entertaining to watch the College Board scrambling to catch up.

      American has the education system it wants. At the university level, the world worships it. At the lower levels, not so much.


  7. I turned down teaching work (as a subcontractor) with Halliburton in Kuwait in 2007 and was then laid off. My decision had to do with conscience–as Halliburton is Dick Cheney’s war-profiteering firm.

    However, I would consider work in Burma (Myanmar) if it had to do with multicultural education and cross-cultural understanding–or if it was in a refugee camp or for monks.


  8. We all work at the pleasure of our host countries. We have a government work/residence visa which says in effect, “The government wants you to work here.” It follows, then, that we are serving the host government’s purpose is some way. These ways are many and complex. We are providing the children of the upper/ruling classes a path to western universities. We are allowing foreign business and government executives to live here with their families. We have a positive economic impact. etc.

    If you object to the host government’s way of doing things, there is a decision tree to follow. Do I object so strongly I have to take action? (This is where your own moral judgment operates.) The answer could very well be No. After all, I can come up with substantial objections to every government on Earth, but I have to work somewhere. If the answer is Yes, the question becomes, Can I be most effective in my actions by leaving (and depriving the government of the benefits of my work) or by staying (assured that my work results will correct the practices I object to in some way)?

    Well, these decisions obviously depend a lot on context and circumstance, and require careful thought including moral introspection. Nobody else can make the right decision for you. But if you do this critical examination for yourself, the decision you make will be the right one.


    1. how true that is – I can object in some way to any government, but I have to work somewhere!! Personally since the travesty of the 2000 US elections, I have generally chosen to work in other locations


  9. Sorry, Don….in the end you are doing it for the money…it’s not VSO, is it? Leaving it to the “Almighty” is the biggest copout and always used by those who can’t come to terms with the oppressive regimes they support by giving their tacit approval by teaching there. Pretending to change the personal lives of those in your charge is just putting a “Band-Aid” over a gaping wound. If you did have personal integrity, you wouldn’t be giving international credibility to murderers and rapists.


    1. No, Anon, but we are GUESTS in the country in which our school is located. We should try to be the best people we can be, and hopefully be kind, and the kids may CHOOSE to adopt some of our opinions and values, or to think of our way of life in the future when they are continuing their education. My college professors definitely influenced my thinking! I grew up climbing trees, not wearing Louis Vuitton shoes… but this is their way of life and we merely teach our subject and reflect our values


  10. I never had any ethical conflicts or concerns at a personal level as I always tried to respect my personal integrity and values. Leading by example was far more productive and responsible than whining about or criticizing the ¨system¨ or the ¨culture¨ that pervaded the school, the citizens and the country in general. If there was a serious ethical issue that came to my attention (cheating, plagiarism, quirky owner’s self-interest, child abuse or whatever) I would notify the competent authorities and if they refused to act, the parents or their representatives and if that didn’t work, a discrete letter to the editor might. This was the option of last resort and rarely had any effect. In fact, in my role as counselor and advisor, I believe I did more to help the kids or victims of the unethical practices by supporting and guiding them towards a fuller understanding of how to manage their feelings and fears in a proactive way. Turning them from helpless victims into empowered individuals was my best bet in winning the battle against the dark side of International schools. I did what was possible and left the rest to the Almighty.


  11. Just the fact that you are contemplating whether it is ethical to work in a place like Myanmar is exactly why you should work there. If you don’t work there, it is very likely that someone else will in your place, and your replacement might not have the same level of ethical concerns – thus, he or she may not hesitate to financially support government run ventures, he or she may not feel a duty to instill a conscience in the children of the ruling elites who will probably be the next class of ruling elites as well, etc. Be a force for change as much as you can without being deported or arrested (unless, of course, you STRONGLY want to draw international attention to the human rights abuses.)


  12. Persian Gulf states are awful and many others, arguably MOST in latin america serve the rich and shameless. That is International education! Can we, as thoughtful and committed educators combat economic inequity, racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other forms of ignorance and oppression? Should we? My experience with ISS and other folks is that this is not a concern. Money trumps ethics in the clutch. However, I believe we can and have a duty as Americans to spread the ideals of America (not the reality mind you.. haha) But the promise…the promise of freedom, equality, justice, responsibility, work ethic, problem solving, etc. That is why they hire us isn´t it? Or is it just for our pretty blue eyes? (No offense to our Australian and Kiwi brothers and sisters, they are great educators too maybe the best generally speaking.)


    1. “…spread the ideals of America (not the reality mind you.. haha)”

      Wow, I hope the laughter indicates you’re not serious about this point of view. I can’t think of a more destructive thing a teacher could do than to favor myth at the expense of reality. As an American teacher I have zero duty to spread the ideals of America. Rather, I have a duty to teach reality alongside ideals and let my students decide where the truth lies. (pun intended)


    2. I think that you confuse mythology with idealism. American ideals are sound, the corruption around the world is what that idealism is against. If we can’t teach our students to see the reality is killing humanity, then we have not done our jobs. Our jobs are to teach curriculum AND to teach human values that will help promote a better world. After all, these students are the future of our world. Do we want them to believe they can do nothing about the world as it is? Do we want them to go along with the ARE and not see what the world could be. We select literature that points out where we, as humans, have come from, and other literature that shows where we could be. These might be legends, myths, fables, fiction, non-fiction, etc. but they are the tools of our trade. Successful teachers use these tools to paint the picture of a better future for ALL. And if we are teaching to the rich and powerful, then we have the audience with the best tools for change, if we can affect their minds and consciences.


    3. Please enlighten me as to how reality is not killing humanity. The reality of global warming and the way the “reality” of how we have treated our planet is not killing our humanity is staring us in the face. The reality of the corruption of every government in the face of this planet is killing the humanity of our future generations. The financial corruption of our corporations around the world is killing the hopes of our future. We are not powerless against it, we have just chosen to let the reality continue to dictate what our future will be.

      Please enlighten me as to your views.


    4. I think we are simply misunderstanding each other. I completely agree with you that we owe students a heavy dose of reality, ideals and personal values in the classroom. I thought you were arguing the opposite; my apologies for the mistake.

      My whole point in commenting on this thread is to say the de facto assumption that American ideals and values should have a favored place in the classroom, especially an international classroom, is erroneous and not good teaching.

      Signing off now.


  13. I am teaching in Egypt. I teach kindness to animals, equality for all, no matter the “social level”, the concept that it is okay to stand up for oneself, and other topics as they arise.

    Human rights, animal rights and overall respect for life is very minimal here. I know I can (and have been able to) get into these students’ heads and at least make them think, if not consider there is a different way than what they’ve been shown. If this generation continues down the same path as their parents, they’re setting themselves up for another dictatorship.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.