High School District Fires Teacher for Explaining Off-Color English

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 28, 2009 1 min read
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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?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.