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High School District Fires Teacher for Explaining Off-Color English


The Tamalpais Union High School District in California has fired an adult English-as-a-second-language teacher after he answered students' inquiries about some off-color English words, according to a story published this week in the Contra Costa Times. (Hat tip to TESOL in the News).

Jack Lieberman, the teacher in question who taught at an adult school run by the high school district, says that after students inquired about some bad words, he talked with them about how to be careful in using words like "sheet" and "beach," because they sound similar to other off-color words.

Reading this news story, I recalled how Peter Hessler in River Town, tells how he deliberately taught English swear words to his students in China who were preparing to be English teachers, and he didn't seem to think anything of it. The book is based on Hessler's experiences while teaching English for the Peace Corp in China. I'm not aware that the Peace Corps ever put out a statement condemning Hessler's action after the book was published.

I've taught adult ESL, and my students have occasionally asked me about bad words in English. I've always answered their questions. And usually I've elaborated by telling them a few additional words that are considered to be off-color or have a sexual connotation, adding that they probably want to avoid those words. I remember that once, when a woman told me that her hair color was "virgin hair color," I explained to her what a "virgin" is and advised that she might want to pick another word.

A new English dictionary designed for ELLs published last year by Merriam-Webster contains off-color words and expressions.

What do you think? Should ESL teachers be permitted to explain off-color words or expressions to their students in public schools, particularly if they are teenagers or older?


Obviously some discretion needs to be used by educators when a situation like this arises. This is especially true with teenagers, as things can often get out of hand.

However, since this was an adult class, and it appears that the students were simply asking questions about these particular words, I see nothing wrong and do not support the fact that this teacher was fired.

As a second language learner, of course one would want to know if they were using a word improperly or offensive (Mary Ann, I particularly liked your example of the woman who said she had "virgin hair color.")

An educator of a second language (especially of English, which has SO many slang words that do not translate well to other languages) has the responsibility of making sure that the ESL students are properly versed in the use of the second language, which includes off-color words some of the time.

Great article with many thought provoking questions. As for me, language is culture and culture is language. We must equip all learners, ESL and otherwise, with the necessary skills to understand the historical moment they are living in.

When teaching adults I always taught them the off-color words so they would understand what I knew they would hear. As a K-12 teacher I never taught these words in class but on occasion would provide clarification for ELLs on an individual level. Especially since their native English speaking colleagues were always trying to tell them that these words were okay to use with teachers! :) If you really want to have a laugh, check out the book, "English as a second f***ing language: How to swear effectively, explained in detail with numerous examples taken from everyday life" by Sterling Johnson. Yes, it's a real book! :)

I think that "bad" words don't exist in some cultures to the extent they do in America...for example there are no gay jokes in Korean culture but I do hear them talking about "being gay" in English.

After reading the report in the Contra Costa Times, I am saddened by this teacher's dismissal. He was teaching adults, and he was addressing a topic brought up by the students. Where is the error in this? I wonder if the administration (or a disgruntled student) was waiting for an opportunity to dismiss him, and this was it?

I think answering the questions of adult ELLs about off-color English words is a good idea. Knowing which words are inappropriate is as important as knowing the socially correct words. This may save adult ELLs from embarrassing situations at work or in social gatherings with native English speakers. I'm wondering why this adult ESL teacher was fired for doing this. Answering the questions of ELLs, under the age of 18, is tricky. We do not want our students to repeat the off-color language of their English speaking peers because it could get them in trouble at school. However, as educators, we have to adhere to our districts' policies on appropriate language. I think when teenagers ask questions about off-color English words, we need to tell them that those words are not appropriate for school or for most social situations, despite the fact that they hear them at school or when they watch American movies. So confusing for kids!

I agree with the other comments. I really find it unbelievable that someone would be fired for this. Isn't that the adult ed teacher's job, to fill in the gaps, help them understand what is going on in the culture they are trying to be a part of? I have been working on Spanish for some time and have often been told what certain words mean and not to use them in some circumstances. It sounds like someone had a hidden agenda here.

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