Advice needed for an agnostic ESL teacher at a very very Christian school
December 14, 2009 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Help me not get fired from a Seventh Day Adventist School...

I've just signed a contract with a private Seventh Day Adventist middle school in Asia. The teachers seem great, the students are smart, the school is loaded, the pay is great....but....well, let's see, I was raised catholic, and now I'm a meat eating, drinking, chain smokin homo.

Now, they're well aware I'm not SDA, and many foreign English teachers who work there aren't. But it is still quite a conservative school, no doubt. I'm not allowed to smoke at school, or drink or do narcotics on campus (which...uhm, yea, the smoking thing I get, but is it really necessary to have a clause in my contract that says don't show up to work drunk?).

The honest truth is, I respect their beliefs. I've told them as much, and also made them aware that I am not going to convert but understand that I need to keep my beliefs to myself. But I'm still really worried about doing something horribly offensive.

Any advice from SDA members or former SDA school teachers would be greatly appreciated.
posted by MostHolyPorcine to Education (18 answers total)
I worked a few years through college as a janitor in a church. I'm not a religious person -- in fact, my wife calls my brand of Atheism "Asshole Majora."

Basically, it was decent work for my age and pay scale, and gave me great amounts of time by myself to study for school. I made an attempt to avoid discussions of religion, and just stuck to doing the job. Sure, it limited the friendships that I made on the job, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

My advice is to just keep your head down, do the job, and ignore the peripheral stuff.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:09 PM on December 14, 2009

I don't know about SDA in particular in this context, BUT, two of my very good friends work at a very conservative Christian school 'round these parts. The biggest thing that they have to remind people of all the time is pictures, pictures, pictures. You will be photographed drinking, smoking, dancing dirty, whatever - people have GOT to know not to put them on Facebook or post them in some way that you do not say is okay. It sounds really elementary, but my observation of this issue has taught me that you really do have to remind people of this, if for no other reason than they are/were drunk.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:10 PM on December 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

MostHolyPorcine: "is it really necessary to have a clause in my contract that says don't show up to work drunk?"

Would you prefer to be fired one day because, while nobody ever told you in as many words, everyone thought it was pretty much self-evident you shouldn't do XYZ in a school? Because I've met people to whom it is not self-evident that teachers should not keep sex toys in their desks, or mention which local bars don't really card, or any number of things a very conservative principal might consider grounds for termination.

Also, pure speculation, but I suspect your contract doesn't just prohibit coming to work too drunk to hold onto the floor with both hands, but also, say, having a drink with lunch across the street and coming back with a whiff of alcohol on your breath.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:23 PM on December 14, 2009

One of my friends taught at an Adventist school somewhere in Micronesia. She is not any kind of Christian, nor was she raised that way. She said it was just like any other foreign teaching job. You show up, do your job, and when you go home at night, you're back in your private life. She still went out to bars and ate meat (although she usually had lunch in the school caf which was free for her, and that was vegetarian). She also dated another ex-pat while over there. She didn't have any problems, and is still friends with some of her co-teachers from that time.

She did say that a lot of young people show up at these english teaching jobs, and just party a lot, and some can be a bit irresponsible. Maybe the school has been burned before which is why they are so explicit about drinking in their contracts.
posted by bluefly at 1:44 PM on December 14, 2009

Response by poster: Hell, If I came back from lunch with a whiff of beef on my breath, I'd be in hot water. But you're right about the alcohol thing...Don't touch the stuff within a certain buffer zone of school.

Still, the 'no illegal drugs' thing is a little redundant when the next clause says you'll be terminated for committing any illegal act...I think I need to make sure that that actually translates to "illegal" drug and not "illicit" or "narcotic" or something like that that could cover pretty much any medication...

As for facebook...well, for unrelated reasons, I'm dropping my last name and taking my middle name/mom's maiden name. So I think I'll just have two accounts, one for friends and one for...uh...friends in christ?

I forgot to mention in my original question...I'll also be helping run saturday english sabbath twice a month. I've told them I won't preach about things I don't believe in, and only want to take an assistant role, like helping with translations and the grammar/comprehension aspect of it all. But, really, fact is, even if they did make me run it, it would be like asking me to teach a class in Swahili...My only "sabbath" school experience was with the Catholic church during communion and conformation. Somehow I doubt they'd like it if I started teaching the kids about catholicism....can anyone tell me what they heck sabbath school would even entail? doesn't have to be in an Asian setting, but if anyone has gone to one anywhere, I'd like to hear what to expect.
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 1:59 PM on December 14, 2009

I had a relative who worked at a SDA hospital. I don't know if this will apply in Asia, but according to him SDAs do not use or appreciate holiday decorations (e.g. Christmas wreaths, and especially anything Halloween-related).
posted by ollyolly at 2:38 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: I attended a Seventh-day Adventist school in Southeast Asia, and so did my parents, and all my neighbors and friends, blah blah... and the majority of my high school classmates are now teachers and administrators in SDA schools, colleges, and hospitals all over Asia. Send me a MeFi mail if you have any specific questions ... location-specific and whatnot. I'll casually ask my classmates the questions, and don't worry, they'll just think it's me asking, not me asking for someone else.

Hmm, lets see what general things I can recall. Adventists in Asia are a lot more conservative than they are in the Western world. I'd say they're something like fundies, only with less crazy, more "The Pope will kill us all, the remnant church!" and end-times talk. There will be weekly chapel in school, AND weekly dorm chapel, AND you, as a teacher, will be expected to lead out. If this gives you an idea of the community. Also - countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines may seem more liberal than the other Asian countries - and they are - but not the Adventist community.

Vegetarianism is encouraged, but don't worry - you won't get stoned for eating meat. I'd say only about 25% of Adventists really do the vegetarian thing. In Asia, it's just not natural to be a vegetarian. They'll probably be shocked that you drink coffee, but it's okay. Students drink it to stay up and study, though it comes with a "GASP! Coffee!?! But Ellen G. White says...!" stigma. Just don't bring a cuppa to work. Get your fix at home. And don't be seen buying coffee grounds.

Yes, the smoking, drinking, and drugs is a BIG deal. Even sexin' it up in Patpong is a big no - but as long as you're sure nobody recognizes you or sees you, then no worries. The problem lies with the whole "saving face" culture. If anyone even hears a rumor of you doing such things, you're basically screwed. It has to do with carrying the school's image, and not tarnishing it. Things that happen in Asia last longer than they do in the Western world, thanks to gossipy people not having much else to distract themselves with. Be seen with a cigarette once, and you'll always be "that bad teacher who smokes".

So if you want to misbehave, you can. You just have to do it somewhere that you're absolutely sure that you won't be recognized. I was a fairly liberal kid growing up, and there was no way I could have bought a beer without someone catching wind of it, and there would have been hell to pay. So I had to pay off a completely-unrelated-to-Adventist-community friend in the city to buy booze for me, and then I had to hide the booze.

As for being gay - I'm sorry, but you will have to be semi-closeted. Don't ask, don't tell. They'll probably suspect you for being gay, but as long as you don't say anything about it, you're okay. Yes, this can get you fired. I know it's ridiculous, but that's the way it is. I had gay classmates, but they were just labeled "girly" (they were very flamboyant and effeminate), and everyone would kind of giggle, "Ooh, maybe they're gay", but that was it. Nobody will go after you with a pitchfork, as long as you keep them guessing.

And yes, pictures. People in Asia take pictures like no other. Do NOT get photographed in a job-jeopardizing situation.

Sorry for the novel-length answer. This is fun, it's like a trip down memory lane. I'm amazed I lasted in that community for as long as I did.

In short, yes, just keep your head down, do your job, ignore the peripheral stuff. And hey, don't completely blow off the whole no drinking, no smoking, vegetarian stuff just yet. It's actually kind of good for you. I keep trying every now and then (permanent brainwashing damage, I guess...), but I like meat and alcohol too much to completely give them up. =)
posted by Xere at 3:10 PM on December 14, 2009

Yes, nthing the "keep your head down" and "don't be photographed" advice. I had the misfortune to attend Adventist high school and college (in the USA Bible Belt...I can't imagine Asia is really too much more conservative). Additional advice would be to never, ever, ever talk about your personal life with the students, because once they suspect that you are different, they'll pepper you with questions in an attempt to "save" you. So avoid all talk of an outside life and religion (to the extent possible) or else you'll just arouse well-intentioned attempts to out you, feed you tofu, stick a nicotine patch on you, and convert you.

I don't know about all Adventist communities (but I am very familiar with several in the US & Europe) but coffee and meat can actually get you into trouble in some of the more conservative compounds (oops, I mean communities). They'd probably be more willing to let it slide than smoking, drinking, or being gay. I know students and / or teachers expelled or fired from Adventist schools for all three.

My utterly cynical and unasked for advice is to get another job before you are driven out of your mind by Seventh Day Adventists. I was raised as one, so I feel entitled to say that an Adventists school can be a depressing, soul-crushing environment if you aren't an Ellen-loving, haystack-eating automaton with no intention of enjoying life on this earth because Jesus is coming tomorrow.

But since that's not what you asked .... GOOD LUCK.
posted by motsque at 4:23 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: OK, I realize that I was perhaps unnecessarily harsh about Adventists. I admit I am very bitter about my life growing up in the church. I'm just saying that the environment can be extraordinarily demanding, even on people who devoutly wish to follow the faith & practices. I would recommend that anyone think twice before taking a job that requires constant vigilance and the effacement of one's own personality and lifestyle.
posted by motsque at 5:02 PM on December 14, 2009

Response by poster: Motsque- "I would recommend that anyone think twice before taking a job that requires constant vigilance and the effacement of one's own personality and lifestyle."

This kind of goes hand in hand with working in Asia. When I was in my small Japanese mountain town, for instance, I didn't need to get a doctors not when I was sick, because I could be sure that my principal would just run into the doc and get my full medical record. I know A LOT of people who've been let go from secular schools for equally asinine reasons, so the way I look at it, this is just a different flavor of crazy. And I'd rather take religious crazy and get paid than beaucratic crazy and work 4 months without getting paid and then having the school close.

I'll be in a huge city, and I already told the principal and english teachers that I smoke and drink, but would never let them know about it otherwise. Being gay, I'm already pretty careful about letting people take my picture, and I never let myself get drunk enough that I could be within the radius of a fight that the foreigner would surely take blame for.

I guess the head down advice is the best, which shouldn't be too hard. I mean, if it were a secular school, I still wouldn't smoke on campus or talk about my sex life with 13 year olds....
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 5:26 PM on December 14, 2009

Back in the day I very much lived the SDA life. I don't know how many things have changed in the last 20 odd years.

We had a few issues with a teachers that spoke about evolution. They weren't teaching it, they were just acknowledging it. Times may have changed theology wise, but it's something to be mindful of.

Caffeine was pretty out, which included the coke/pepsi varieties. I remember being shocked when I saw my Sabbath School teacher trying to hide her can of coke. Yes, I was quite sheltered.

Nobody went to the movies, or clubs or pubs or anywhere fun. Nobody bought or paid for anything during the Sabbath (including Friday night). No eating out, no buying fuel, no shopping. Unless times have changed, if you do these things fri night/sat day, don't mention them. Saturdays were for church, socialising and nature.

I've been to many many Sabbath Schools. When I was a kid they all involved singing, prayers and some type of lesson. Bible stories for the littlies, and stories with morals for older kids. Interesting life stories with 'lessons learned'. Not everything needs to be about doctrine, especially for kids. I think most of the stuff for us was really geared to keep us entertained and coming back.

And finally, in my day, people who were obviously gay didn't have too many issues, There was talk and speculation but nobody seemed to care too much. Once it was confirmed however, I remember things getting a bit ugly.
posted by bingoes at 7:13 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: I also was raised Adventist and quite frankly, I would not work for the church for anything. No, really. The burden that comes from hiding your life from public scrutiny and criticism is not worth it. The paranoia of being discovered takes a lot of pleasure out of life (looking over your shoulder before buying coffee beans is crazy-making).

It's great that the administrators know that you smoke and drink--frankly, I'm surprised that they agreed to allow you to work there knowing that, but keep in mind that if your students don't know this they will be shocked and offended if they find out, particularly if you are involved in religious discussions at Sabbath School. I think in addition to worrying about being fired, you should think about the example that you're setting.

Adventists rely on a saying (I don't remember if it's Biblical or from Ellen White, which is a little disturbing) that you should not cause your brothers to stumble from the light. And if you're preaching one thing and acting another, that's exactly what you're doing. It will affect the students if or when they find out--hypocrisy is a huge problem in any religion, but I think Adventism and other superfundamental religions have it even harder because of their lifestyle restrictions. A big part of the reason I lost my faith was because I found out that some people I looked up to didn't practice what they were preaching. It was much easier to assimilate the idea that someone just didn't agree with something and owned up to it, but to find out that someone drank caffeine or went to the movies on Friday nights when I thought they didn't because they told ME not to--that was really tough. While I'm very glad to be free from the church now, the transition was tough on me and I lost a lot of faith in people, in general and in particular.

Perhaps you can discuss with the administrators how best to be a role model (which you are, as a teacher) given your different views. Emphasize that you do not want to lie to the students either outright or by omission, which encompasses much more than not smoking on campus. I really think you should not participate in the religious aspects if you don't agree with or believe in it. I had non-Adventist teachers in Adventist schools who taught classes and participated in everything but the religious part, which I was fine with. But anyone who participated in the religious services I held to a different standard of behavior and belief, since they were now responsible for shaping my spiritual outlook.

As for the contract, many contracts state that you shouldn't show up to work drunk, not just Adventist ones (all of my secular, corporate world job contracts have had similar clauses regarding drugs and illegal behavior). You'd be surprised at what gets put into those contracts simply because someone's done it before. And I think more Adventists eat meat than not, although many of the meat-eaters do not eat "unclean" meats.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:30 AM on December 15, 2009

Response by poster: This is actually a relatively prestigious school (academic wise, not necessarily in the church), not just an SDA run english school, so it's kind of a weird mix....I believe only about 50-60% of the students are SDA, and there doesn't appear to be a huge religious emphasis on campus. I think they're more worried about me offending the staff than the students (Like, I asked if I could drink coffee and the head english teacher said it was fine in my classroom, but hide it from the older staff members). Point being, with the high academic standards, they're looking for qualified ESL teachers who aren't satanists, rather than SDA missionaries. I believe there will be around 8 native english speakers at the school next semester, and not one is SDA.

To clear something up with those that are saying SDA schools are soul crushing: this is Asia. ALL schools are soul crushing. I'm not teaching anything but conversational english, so I don't need to worry about evolution or 'the world is 10,000 years old!' Yea, it sucks that I'll be working for people who believe stuff like that, but, hey, I worked for a Japanese school district for 2 years that denied any war crimes took place during WWII (except the a-bomb, of course), so my moral standing is pretty shaky to begin with.

During the initial interview, I made my religious views fairly clear. I told them I respected aspects of their church, but I wasn't looking to convert, I was raised catholic and am now a Unitarian/Agnostic, that I wasn't planning on quitting booze, smokes, or meat, etc. Obviously I wasn't the first person to say something, because they said that's fine and we agreed on a sort of don't ask don't tell policy. But the hypocrisy does bother me...I'm not sure if the kids will assume I'm SDA or what....That's why I'm interested in what Sabbath School is like. I've made it clear to them that I'll go twice a month, but only to aid with the English, not to preach or teach any doctrine. They said that's fine, but is such a thing even possible? What's the best way to make it clear to the kids that are SDA that I respect their beliefs, but I don't hold them without actually saying so?

As for the gay thing...I'm always extremely hesitant to let any boss in Asia know about my personal life. It's really none of their business, and would just cause a hard time, since gay + american = target for xenophobes. But, just as I'm going to make a serious effort to never even smell the slightest bit of smoke, so too will I try to remember to wipe the cum stains off my face.
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 9:16 AM on December 15, 2009

Response by poster: PS: Just to clear things up....20% real unemployment in the US, no marketable skills besides ESL teaching, and an ESL market flooded with recent grads willing to take huge pay cuts while trying to find a job that pays a bit more than my current position...well, it makes turning this job down pretty much impossible. For the money they're offering in this market, I'd work at a friggen Fred Phelps ESL/Lynching House. It's...strange that I was offered the job, really, but I guess the English department is more progressive than the school itself and lobbied for me, so I'll have SOME allies and it won't be total alienation.
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 9:24 AM on December 15, 2009

It's hard to say what Sabbath School will be like, since I haven't attended it in over a decade. Even when I went to church I quit going to Sabbath School because it seemed like a kids thing. From what I remember, there was singing and a discussion on a topic that was in a "quarterly" which we were supposed to have studied during the week. We talked about it and sometimes memorized verses from the Bible ("memory verses") and at the end we got a magazine called "Insight".

I think if you can make your position as translator very clear, that's helpful. At one church we attended, there was an ASL translator who translated the entire service for a few congregants, and if I remember correctly she was not Adventist but it wasn't a big deal because she was clearly just translating. I'd be honest with the kids if they ask you about your beliefs or lifestyle (non-Adventist that is; I firmly believe sexuality is your own business and no one else's). That makes it so you don't have to look over your shoulder while buying a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes, at least, since it's out in the open.

For what it's worth, your school sounds a LOT more lenient than my SDA-run university and I managed to be a jewelry-wearing, movie-attending smoker, drinker and non-virgin during my undergraduate career without getting caught--and I was well known on campus by students and faculty alike. It's really quite easy to fly under the radar if you make an effort to keep your private life private. It was crazy-making for me, but not all that difficult.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:44 PM on December 15, 2009

Response by poster: Everyone who said don't sign the contract: I owe you an apology. You were right.

Since it doesn't matter any more, and I'd like people to know about this for future reference, the school I signed a contract with (one that would be binding anywhere but in "foreign people are scum" land) is Hankook Sahmyook Middle School, on the same campus as Sahmyook University in Seoul South Korea. I was also recruited by and encouraged to turn to other offers by Ben from Korean Linx. Anyone looking for a job, avoid these two.

I was told I had the job two weeks ago, and signed the contract a couple days ago, and now I just find out that they are rescinding the offer. Nothing changed during those two weeks, I didn't give them any information, I've talked to all my references and they were never contacted. They refuse to tell my why they are rescinding the offer, but they are, even though I accepted every single provision in the contract, even the ones that went beyond asinine, without complaint.

I turned down four jobs that were as good if not better than this one, but I accepted the job with these assholes because I thought I was being given some respect, and it was going to be an interesting experience. I never did anything to alienate them. They essentially pulled a midnight runner. Didn't know Ellen White said it was OK to lie and string people along before screwing them over. Too bad the SDA folk don't believe in hell, because if there is one, there's a place waiting for these people.

Anyone able to find me a job in Seoul in the next...oh...4 days? Not that it would help a whole lot, since they have my diploma and have cut off contact with me.
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 5:09 PM on December 16, 2009

I'm sorry to hear that. Any chance they traced this thread to you? That's the kind of surveillance I would expect to be under working for them.

It so sucks for them to do this to you, but I hope it helps to realize that you dodged a bullet.

Somehow I missed it in my two previous comments but in response to ollyolly, but in my extensive experience Adventists have no problem with holiday decorations. We always had Christmas trees and other decorations in churches and on campuses. Most of the decorations leaned more spiritual (angels rather than santa claus) but they were certainly there. Halloween is frowned upon because of its association with the supernatural, but even then, I went trick-or-treating every year and my parents are pretty strict and traditional. Perhaps your friend is thinking of Jehovah's Witnesses, who don't even celebrate birthdays?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:32 PM on December 16, 2009

Response by poster: Oh christ, yea, I'm well aware that I wouldn't have lasted a week with people like that. Doesn't make it any better though...there was absolutely no reason for them to string me along like that. They stole two weeks of my life (and I had to take a day off work without pay to go and observe classes and sign the how the cowards made me go through that charade when they knew damn well they were going to fuck me over). If you have ANY doubts about hiring someone, you do NOT tell them to stop looking for other positions and to turn down other offers because you're a lock. You don't have someone sign three contract, tell them to purchase a ticket right away, and welcome them to your school when you know you're going to break the contract. a complete fluke, I was offered an SMOE job at a public middle school, long after applications had closed, which I turned down because I wanted to teach by myself and was told I had a job that would let me do just that. I turned down a western run immersion elementary school because i wanted to teach older kids and I was told I had a job that would pay more. Most sickeningly of all, I had an offer to work as a curriculum developer/text book writer for a midsized hagwon chain, but I turned it down (oh so stupidly) because it was in Bundang and not the city proper, where I was told I had a job. Seeing as I want to get into editing, writing, publishing, etc. that was a dream job, considering I was woefully under-qualified for it (I would have kicked ass at the job, but I don't have any formal experience with curriculum development and ESL text editing and writing), and it would have been a foot in the door of an industry that's just insanely difficult to get into. There was also a well paying job as head teacher at a small hagwon that I turned down largely because I hate head teachers and really don't want to ever be one, but still....a job like that would be much more preferable to the no job I have now.

Honestly, I'm glad I won't be working for them. I wouldn't have been able to handle it. But to be specifically told that i had the job and needed to stop interviewing and turn down all other offers because they wanted me that badly...that's just beyond the pale.

(also...yea, I don't think 60 year old technophobic SDA Koreans are trolling AskMeFi....I found out that they offered the job to two people, an SDA and myself. They told her she had time to think about it, and used that time to lie to me to keep me from finding a different job in case she said no. The whole place is disgusting, I'm glad I won't be working there, but I want my money spent back (got my diploma fedexed over night, missed out on work, bought a nonrefundable ticket, spent way to much on a book on how to run SDA sabbath school, etc), I want my wasted time back (they really don't understand the concept of opportunity cost here) and I want an apology. Instead they won't talk to me and the recruiter is threatening to put me on the recruiter black list and keeps on sending me threatening text messages about how I'll never be able to work in Korea again because I let him know I'd be speaking to the labor board and ESL teachers unions, and asked him to tell the school as much so they could have a chance to give their side of the story, which I thought was fair. Evidently that's instead the equivalent of killing the baby jesus. Who knew? I can't post a follow up question on how to deal with this issue yet [damn question limit, grrr], so until then, if there are any seoul folk who know anything about contract law or anyway I could get the word out about this school that says it will hire non SDAs when then won't....yea, that would be keen if you could PM me. Or if anyone knows of any jobs that aren't crap hagwon and will pay a salary commensurate with three years of professional ESL work....Please please Please I pray to whatever god the SDA don't worship that you'll PM me)
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 7:21 AM on December 17, 2009

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