senseless rules
September 7, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a basically useless rule that I am supposed to enforce (at work)?

I work within the administration for a language program for American students, in the country where the language is spoken. I am American, but the in-country director and other staff are all natives of the country.

The director made a rule that the American students must speak the language they are learning "at all program activities, events, in classrooms, and offices". Okay, seems somewhat reasonable (students have advanced language skills).

She reads this rule to them at orientation, but does not talk about it. They continue to speak English at orientation. She says nothing. I work in the office where students come most often, and she is next door. Therefore, I see the students the most. Last semester I started speaking English with them part of the time, because she didn't seem to be enforcing the rule at all. She then told me that I, and they, were speaking English too much and that I need to enforce the rule. So this semester I have told them when they arrive that they must speak in language in the office, and I have not been speaking with them in English while in the office. (the office is kind of a communal space where they spend a lot of time).

Most of the students will speak in language most of the time. When they haven't, I've been reminding them to, but then I notice that I am the only one doing so, which seems strange since I am the only non-native language speaking staff member. The director will stand right in front of them, smiling, while they break the rule, and say nothing. I have asked her to say something and she says she will but I haven't heard her say anything yet. None of the other staff say anything. So I feel like I look like a jerk to the students.

Frankly, I hate being the only one to enforce this rule and I don't undestand why it's a rule if it is not enforced by the director. Further, if the director is not enforcing it then of course the students are not going to take me seriously. Moreso because I am not a native speaker.

So my question is, how should I deal with this? I already told the students to speak in language in the office so I feel if I stop holding them to that I look like an idiot with no authority. At the same time, it is also idiotic to be the only one to enforce the rule and I can't force the director to enforce it.

This is driving me somewhat crazy. I am thinking that now I should speak to them in language, but not really enforce the rule. If the director says something I will then tel her I cannot be the only one to enforce the rule- that won't work.

However the students are in the office a lot and I find the whole situation awkward. There are other staff in the office but they do not enforce the rule.

Any thoughts would be helpful!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You've no way to enforce it. You have no way to punish them, so you can't police it. All you can do is speak only in the langauge requested by your boss and be a gentle reminder to speak this language only.

And it's a reasonable request, I think. I'd have to imagine that language immersion is part of the reason why these students leave America and it is likely part of your school's mission.
posted by inturnaround at 10:59 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Next time the students start using English in front of the director, try putting her on the spot so she owns the requirement and can help the students (and other staff) buy into it. Say something like, "Everyone, you know I always remind you that program policy requires us all to speak [Language] while here at [Facility/Program]. Since today [Director] has joined us, perhaps she can address why this requirement is an important part of [the experience]. [Director]?" Then look expectantly at her. If you think its necessary, after she's finished her spiel you can round off the discussion with something like, "So can we all agree to remind each other to speak [Language] when we find ourselves slipping into English? Great!"
posted by carmicha at 11:02 AM on September 7, 2011 [22 favorites]

I think you need to bring this up at the next staff meeting. it's a good rule* and one everyone should follow. maybe start the conversation by asking for clarification of the rule, saying that you notice when you slip into english, the students do as well and ask if the other staff/director notices this as well and how you guys can help each other to remember and enforce the rule.

*in high school i walked into french I and our teacher informed us that unless she was teaching grammar, she would only speak to us in french. by french II, absolutely no english was allowed, even in casual conversations between students. then i moved to a school where no one conversed in french in french class and the differences between my level of fluency and theirs was striking.
posted by nadawi at 11:04 AM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

then i moved to a school where no one conversed in french in french class and the differences between my level of fluency and theirs was striking.

That was my experience as well with college-level intro German; one professor had a German-only approach, and the other allowed English. The all-German class was significantly better off than the class that used English.

which seems strange since I am the only non-native language speaking staff member.
I think your status as a non-native speaker is precisely why they want you to enforce the rule.

In any event, I'd just put a simple sign (in language X) on your desk that says "All conversations must be in Language X" with a smiley face or something or a phony "Fine: $10" or whatever. If students want to engage you formally in English in your office, smile and wink and point to the sign. If students are talking privately in English in the hall, can you just walk by and pretend not to hear them? Can you wear a button saying "Sorry, I don't speak English" or similar?

I agree that this is frustrating--and that you don't have any real way to enforce the rule. Just be good natured (but firm) about not speaking in English, and people will get the picture.

Such is the way of jobs.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:18 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the immersion program I went to in Mexico, there was a similar rule. Pretty much after the first day it was understood that Spanish was the only language to be spoken on campus. Some students would attempt to speak English but were met with "¿mande?" or "español, por favor" until they spoke the language. The faculty and staff all understood and spoke English but it was not allowed. Even if it meant taking more time than it would in English. As a student, I preferred this as that was what immersion was all about and part of what I was paying for. If I wanted to speak English, I'd stay in gringolandia. Most students felt the same way and we carried little dictionaries around and even spoke Spanish while off campus. We did have an English hour during our afternoon happy hour where English was allowed, but the other 23 hours a day were in Spanish. I lived with a Mexican family that happened to be faculty at the university (and taught English), but the rule in their house was no English even if the house is on fire. As a result, I learned more in that one month than I did in 4 years of high school Spanish.

Perhaps the director sees allowing English as a shortcut instead of having the student stumble through trying to use the language. (On my second day I had to talk to the administrator's assistant and wrote down in Spanish what I needed to say: I was expecting a package from FedEx and asked her to sign it for me. Using my dictionary I found "embarazar" as the verb for expecting. So I proudly told the administrator I was pregnant from FedEx. She laughed so hard she started to cry but figured out what I meant. I never make that mistake now.

on preview: nadawi's high school experience was the same as mine. I thought this was normal.
posted by birdherder at 11:23 AM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd add a note of caution to the advice above to put your director on the spot. Depending on the culture within which you're working, that could go very badly south on you.

I'd do what Admiral Haddock suggests. If it's really getting your goat, speak privately to the director, and ask that she back you up with a notice on the bulletin board, or a mention of it at the next assembly, etc. Otherwise, you can argue that you are presenting a divided front to the students, and they may infer that while you're the hard-ass, they can speak English in front of her, thereby undermining all the work they're putting in.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 11:27 AM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah...this is probably a cultural thing where the Director believes that since you are a native speaker it is not rude or will 'save face' for you to ask the students whereas if she does it she may 'lose face' or feel that it will be received with indignation.
posted by spicynuts at 11:31 AM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Could she be asking you because you are the only worker-non-native speaker of the language? She may think it will go over better coming from you, since you understand/speak English natively, and maybe she doesn't want it to appear that the native-speakers don't want to be bothered speaking English.
posted by kellyblah at 11:35 AM on September 7, 2011

Make it fun. Set out a "swear jar" for when people don't speak the language. Encourage tattling with the promise that when the jar hits a certain amount you will all go out for pizza or something.
posted by SassHat at 11:52 AM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Tell country director that, as an American, you know how American young adults work. And they need constant reminders from authority figures that this is an important rule.
posted by k8t at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Don't speak English to them, in the office remind them to speak the language, otherwise ignore enforcement. You can't enforce it anyway, not by yourself and no way to incentivize or punish.

If Director asks why you aren't otherwise "enforcing the rule", tell her that you have reminded the students but you feel that it would be helpful for her to remind the students and explain to them the importance.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure what it means that you are the only who enforces it. Do the other employees speak in English to the students or do they just not comment to the students when they overhear them? The first is a major problem, the second less so, and there are different answers.
posted by jeather at 12:00 PM on September 7, 2011

It sounds like you dislike standing out as the "bad guy", which is understandable.

Maybe just hand out candy or do something else to make yourself popular, and then don't worry about your role as enforcer.

There are probably students who appreciate your enforcement of the rules, by the way--they might not want to say anything to their peers but want to get a lot out of the language program.

I imagine you have many fans among the more serious students!
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:26 PM on September 7, 2011

I think you should light-heartedly yet firmly remind them of the rule. "Hey guys, I know it's easier to speak English but you're here to learn Spanish so let's try to keep everything in Spanish, mkay? Otherwise you're not getting what you came for."

I know it's difficult when the Directir isn't enforcing it, but the Director has made it clear it's up to YOU to enforce it, so either you do your job or you don't. You might say to the Director, "I'm trying to enforce this but the students keep lapsing back into English. Any suggestions for keeping them on track?"
posted by jayder at 12:42 PM on September 7, 2011

There are other staff in the office but they do not enforce the rule.

Do your job and don't worry about what coworkers do, whether it be filling out their TPS reports or speaking the local language. It sucks when your boss manages other people to different standards than yourself but it's beyond your control and not something you can complain about without seeming childish. "Sign all my expense reports? JIM doesn't have to do that!"

Beyond that, you can guarantee 100% enforcement of this rule in one person: yourself. Don't speak English to the students, ever. Period. They speak to you in English, you answer in the proper language. It's unlikely they're going to continue the conversation speaking an entirely different language than you are.

If they do continue past another exchange you say "Tsk, Director X wants you all practicing your language at all times with us staff" and "just because I'm not a native speaker either doesn't mean we don't have to keep practicing at all times!"

Honestly, if you think you're being singled out here... you're probably right. Look at it from the director's perspective - you're the one person on staff who stands out as an easy fallback to the student's native language. It's far more likely that they're going to take the easy path with you than with folks for who English is a second language. She has a good motivation to be more particular with you than anyone else.

If this goes beyond when you are interacting with the students, if your director wants you to actually stop and interrupt two students having a conversation in English, well, I think that's extreme but some folks above pointed out there's very good reasons for it. Once you're completely enforcing this in your own conversations you'll have some grounds to say "boss, it's really uncomfortable for me to interrupt a conversation and insist they change languages. Can you help me figure out ways to do it politely, maybe give me an example?"

But at the moment you're the past scofflaw. Making excuses about why you don't want to do this makes you look like a bad employee. Start being the example.
posted by phearlez at 12:48 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, you can't change behaviour overnight. You also can't do it alone. You also need to "manage" your supervisor.

Create a plan about how to encourage (enforce is just not the right word) students to speak in the target language. The plan should state that it will take time to change behaviour.

Document strategies for getting other staff to help encourage students to speak in the target language.

Present plan to your supervisor. Ask for her opinion - if there is anything she would like to see changed. Get her to sign off.

Hopefully this exercise will help set and manage expectations. If your supervisor (who, let's face it, seems pretty dim, but that's hardly unusual for management in language acquistion) gives you grief, just ask to review the plan and request for her help doing a "course correct." It's important to involve this slug in the planning process.

And, most importantly, hopefully the students will use more of the target language!

BTW, I like phearlez's idea of being more of a leader.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:16 PM on September 7, 2011

I studied abroad while in college, and our program also had this rule.

One of the things we discovered was that unless we made conscious decisions about what language we'd speak, some part of our subconscious decided this for us based on contextual cues like location and audience. Sometimes, we wouldn't mean to speak in English, but we lapsed into it by habit. So reminders from the program staff for us to speak French were extremely helpful and appreciated. We did not think of these people as bad guys. All of us became more fluent because of them.

This rule strikes me as reasonable and beneficent. Try to find a way to offer reminders that fit with your personality. Everyone will be better off.
posted by whimwit at 2:11 PM on September 7, 2011

Put up a sign you can smile and point to and either don't reply unless they ask in the right language or answer in it anyway. Conversations not involving you I would ignore, you really cannot police those, just look preoccupied in your work and ignore. If you are at a front desk you could greet everyone in the language and sometimes ask them how they are etc.
posted by meepmeow at 2:47 PM on September 7, 2011

Rather than rely on its status as a rule, just don't respond in English. You can't control how the students respond or enforce the rule, especially since there's essentially no punishment. Whenever you can, if you see a student, you should initiate the conversation in the appropriate language, possibly making it awkward for them to switch to English.

This does not sound like a business decision.. it's more like a cultural problem. I think it would be a mistake to bring this up in a meeting, put anyone else on the spot, or otherwise manipulate them into treating this more like a real business or organizational decision. They'll resent it and probably wonder why you're resisting.
posted by Hylas at 2:56 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since it is such a beneficial teaching tool, why not just adopt it as your personal credo and to hell with what other people are doing.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:12 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I thought this question seemed familiar! At least you know you're not alone in your struggles.
posted by davey_darling at 3:31 PM on September 7, 2011

You're stuck on "the director should enforce the rule, not criticize me for not enforcing it". I suggest you speak the L2 all the time, remind students to use it, and if the director complains, insist that you are doing your best to enforce the rule. I like the idea of a placard on your desk "enforcing" the rule.

Maybe I'm jaded, but in my school I'm so used to telling my bosses what they want to hear I don't even bat an eye. This sounds like one of those situations.

She is not concerned about *really* enforcing the rule, she just wants to feel like the boss making sure the rule is being enforced.
posted by Locochona at 4:27 PM on September 7, 2011

is it possible that the director is actually more concerned that you follow the rule than the students or the other teachers?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:12 PM on September 7, 2011

From the OP:
Thanks for all the responses.

I want to note that I only speak to the students in language at all times and there are several signs in the office. THe other staff and drector also only speak to them in-language but do not remind them not to speak English if they are speaking English in the office. I don't think the rule is senseless, per se, I think it has value, BUT I think if I am the only one enforcing it then this is senseless and it won't work. THere are periods when I am not in the office and I am sure that they just speak English then; when I come back, it's language time. This feels false and awkward, but I guess if it's enhancing the language process it's ok. I just don't want to be the only one reminding students, if everyone is reminding them as well, then it's fine. I already talked to the director about it but I can do so again.

I think some of you are right also that the director might be more worried about ME speaking English to them (which I've stopped the office)
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 PM on September 7, 2011

For what it's worth, your director is being a poor leader and maybe kind of a wuss. But you may as well take your lemons and make lemonade and turn this into a demonstration of YOUR more persuasive leadership talents.

People don't like being told what to do and inconvenienced, but they do like feeling important, right? How many ways can you make students feel more clever and more empowered through their improved language skills?

It's an opportunity to set good example and lead the new students. It's a safe space for students to teach each other how to communicate in-language. It's an opportunity to show the native speakers that Americans really will learn their language. It's an opportunity to understand dirty jokes in-language that make no sense in translation. Heck, it betters your language skills so that you can get more out of your professional experience in this position.
posted by desuetude at 9:31 PM on September 7, 2011

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