Ann is a teacher from England. She teaches her native language at a primary school in Tunisia. She loves Tunisia, she loves her job, but she does run into some cultural conflicts every now and then.
One example: cheating.
Ahmed is one of Ann’s smartest and most diligent students. He has a cousin, Khalid, in the same class, who is a little less diligent. He doesn’t often study for his exams and, during one of these exams, Ahmed slips the answers to his cousin.
Ann catches him.
What Did Ann Do?
She did what she would have done in England: raised the issue with Ahmed’s parents at a parent-teacher conference. She wanted Ahmed’s parents to know he hadn’t obeyed school rules. He’d cheated. And by passing Khalid the answers, Ahmed was enabling Khalid’s lack of motivation and impeding his learning.
In Ann’s point of view, Khalid should learn to stand on his own two feet.
Ann assumed Ahmed’s parents would understand and agree that he’d done wrong. Ann assumed they’d support her as a teacher and would reprimand Ahmed for his actions.
How Did Ahmed’s Parents React?
“What is wrong with this?” Ahmed’s father asked Ann. “Ahmed helped his cousin. That’s what we do in our family. Someone will always be there to help Khalid. We are an important family in the village.”
Ahmed’s parents did not support Ann. In fact, they were offended by her reprimanding Ahmed for something they saw as not only right, but commendable. They stormed out of Ann’s classroom.
And Ahmed continued to pass Khalid the answers during exams – or “cheat,” as Ann saw it – leaving Ann in an ethical dilemma.
Who is “Right”?
Ann is right, according to her primary socialization and cultural conditioning. Cheating is morally wrong in England so, as a teacher, correcting the discretion and disciplining those concerned was the proper thing to do…in England.
Ahmed and his parents are right, according to their primary socialization and cultural conditioning. If one child can help another, he will, and his parents will expect him to. Doing so is seen as helping, not cheating.
Whereas learning and succeeding is often an individual effort in Britain, it’s a communal effort in Tunisia.
What Should Ann Have Done?
While Ann is in her right to approach cheating however she wishes in her own classroom, being that she is an ESL teacher in a foreign country, she should consider the cultural value differences between her own culture and Tunisia’s.
In a TESOL Quarterly article, entitled, “Attitudes toward ‘Cheating’ Behaviors in the ESL Classroom,” the authors write:
“When ESL teachers encounter behaviors reflecting cultural value differences that they do not recognize, their most likely tendency is to judge those behaviors – and to characterize the students who engage in them – in terms of their own cultural value system.”
This is what you should try not to do: don’t frame others in terms of your own cultural value system.
The article goes on to say that “Bagnole (1977), writing about the Arab kinship culture, stated that ‘cheating which does occur may contain additional cultural influences, not least of which is the compelling desire to help a friend’ (p.39).”
Instead of coming down hard on cheating, as she would in her home country, Ann might look at the positive Tunisian values that justify this behavior. Though she should still teach her own cultural values of integrity to her students, she must also take a step back and understand that the yarns that weave the tapestry of Tunisian culture are different than her own. That doesn’t make these yarns any less beautiful or these values any less “right.”