A student of mine (a philosophy major) recently graduated and took a job teaching English for a year in South Korea. He is keeping a blog about his personal and pedagogical experiences and trying his best to analyze and understand them from a cross-cultural perspective (his main interests as a student lie in Asian philosophy). He put a post up today on his blog that I'm sure will be of interest to folks here. With his permission, I'm reproducing his post -- and the dilemma he poses for educators who are schooled in ethical theory -- below.
I have always held a particular fondness for the theoretical side of ethics: sitting in my ivory tower of philosophy and thinking about train-switches and bizzaro-Hitlers in parallel-worlds.
This week I found myself in a very obvious real-life moral dilemma, and although I firmly believe our moral selves don't just "swing in" at the point when when we need them to (morality as a way of life, not something that just happens here and there, occasionally), I did see a clear-cut difference between the situation at hand than the situations I find myself in everyday.
This is an interesting topic for all teachers and ivory-tower theorists-- the situation I found myself in really calls into question several different aspects: child abuse, suicide rates, cultural norms, personal duty and relational identity. Interested?
First, let me explain the situation itself. Before heading to class to teach on Friday, I ran into one of my students waiting for the elevator. I asked him how he was, to which he replied "Not good. I am afraid of the speaking test." As you can probably infer, I was to administer a test in order to determine the students' progress on their English speaking ability. I told him not to worry, the test was short and quite simple, and that I would see him in an hour.
As I entered the class an hour later I saw the student again. The student was clearly uncomfortable, sweating profusely and looking quite anxious. This concerned me, as this particular student is usually one that I get along with quite easily, and that I consider to be one of my brighter students. This student has never had a problem approaching me for any reason. Today was different though. Again, the student said he was afraid of the test. I reassured him, and began taking students out to the hall one-by-one in order to ask them a few simple questions and give them grades. The grades would later be entered into our website, where parents can easily check students' progress.
The student in question did very well on the test, and I told him so again, reassuring him as best I could. Within a few moments after the test, he regained his composure and looked much more relaxed. This is when he said "If I don't do well on the speaking test, my mother hits me." I didn't really know what to make of this comment, what truth was behind such a statement, and what exactly to do. I told him again he did very well on the test, and told him not to worry, his mother would be proud of him. These were all completely true statements.
My question is this: in the future, how will I balance my duty as a teacher to reflect the student's proficiency accurately in grades, knowing that this student may face abuse at home if I grade to harshly?
Conflict of interest, you can be sure.
Now for some background information: Students in South Korea face extremely stressful lives. They are in school or academy (private school) year round, and are tested every step of the way. Tests determine eligibility for middle school, high school, university and job-placement. The only way to assure a decent income later in life is to study and test well. Students are pressured to succeed by their teachers, their peers and their families.
Furthermore, South Korea boasts one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The youth are well aware of this problem. I've had more than a couple of my students mention the stress and suicide rates in their weekly writings.
Culturally (based on what I've seen in public, so far), the standard Confucian parent-child relationship is in play and bound to a fair degree of physical discipline--hitting, spanking, and so forth. Of course, this is completely circumstantial, and I have no idea what my student experiences when he gets home. This is almost a separate topic altogether.
The fact of the matter is that my situation is a false dilemma. I have no choice at all-I have to pad grades. As an English "teacher," I'm more of an English "presence" than anything else. Yes, I go through lessons, and the kids do learn. In the grand scheme of things, however, the grades I give mean nothing.
So, for you ivory tower theorists, lets alter this thought experiment a bit. What would you do if you had a choice? Is padding the grades to save the student's skin a wise decision? Or should you hold up your duty as a teacher and honestly reflect the skills of those you are testing? That is, do you worry about the circumstances at home when factoring grades?