Importance of Cultural Awareness for Teachers and Staff

If you were teaching a class and your students did not look at you when you were speaking, how would you interpret this?  Might you react differently if you knew that in Chinese culture, not looking at an authority figure who is speaking shows that you are listening respectfully?

As if teaching teenagers from one’s own culture and language weren’t enough of a challenge, throw in a mix of international students from different cultures, language backgrounds, and levels of English proficiency. Are your teachers and staff adequately prepared?

Language proficiency is a significant barrier, but it is only part of the picture – classroom expectations of student and teacher roles, body language, ways of approaching and solving problems, and students’ base of knowledge are also often vastly different in students’ home countries. Because cultural differences can cause unintended offense, misunderstandings, stress and ill feelings on both sides, it is important for teachers to be aware of these differences so they can better interpret international students’ behavior and learning difficulties and find more successful ways to address these.  

Awareness of Own Culture

Most cultural awareness training begins with consciousness raising to make participants more aware of the different social and cultural group markers that make up their own identity, such as race, gender, religion, class, age, ability, country, employed-unemployed, etc.  Often at least some of these are invisible to us until we find ourselves in a new setting where we are a minority, such as when we work, study, or vacation in a foreign country or even a different city or region of the US, or when we become disabled. Becoming aware of how our own culture affects our behavior, values, expectations, and interpretations is step one to realizing that people from other cultures will see and define these things differently, and it is essential to opening eyes to different possible interpretations of international students’ behaviors.

Different Education Systems, Different Expectations

Western countries and the US and Canada in particular have very different educational philosophies and pedagogical approaches than many other cultures, and our classrooms, as a result, have a different environment and different behavioral expectations for students and teachers. Some of these differences are overt, such as whether or not students are accustomed to changing classrooms during the day, whether they are expected to stand when the teacher enters the room, or whether students can ask questions or contribute their own knowledge and insights in class. Other things are more subtle, such as young people showing respect by not looking authority figures in the eye when they are speaking, or, for example, the expectation that teachers are the ultimate authority and may not be questioned. Mismatched expectations of roles and so, miscommunication and judgement, take place among both teachers and students.

Some students will be more aware of and open to the different Western approach to education and will be in the US or Canada for this very reason. Others may not be so well-versed, and have come for high school study primarily with the goal of getting into an American university. Still others may be in the US for the social experience, language and cultural immersion, but be in for a surprise in the classroom. Whatever the situation, cultural habits are deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, so every international student is bound to have a learning curve when it comes to adaptation to our education system.

Student Expectations of Teachers

The relative informality of US classrooms often causes confusion, as students accustomed to a more formal and rigid classroom environment can associate the informality with lack of order and respect. Western teachers’ friendly interactions with students and the openness of student-centered, communicative and constructivist teaching can initially be off-putting for many students from more authoritarian educational systems.

Similarly, alien and questionable to many newcomer international students is that US teachers (ideally!) model lifelong learning, curiosity, and their own questioning and thinking process, and we are also open to admitting when we make mistakes or are uncertain. To Chinese students and students from some other cultures that hold teachers as highly trained experts and the ultimate authorities, these behaviors can signify a teacher’s lack of expertise and authority. They may take the lessons and teacher less seriously, and feel they can break the rules. This, and all of the following differences, are important topics to discuss in international students’ orientation    

To students from cultures which emphasize memorization of facts, open-ended discussions, questions with no provided answers, and anything that will not be on a test may not considered worth attention or learning. For this reason, expressing their own ideas and listening to other students’ ideas may be seen as a waste of class time.

Even when students appreciate interactive and student-centered teaching, these new approaches are alien to them, and on some level, they do not understand how these activities can be beneficial and actually help them learn. They may even feel that the teacher who does not lecture is unprepared and unprofessional. For this reason, when working with international students, it’s especially important that teachers take the time to explain the purpose of interactive, creative, and “fun” activities, and explicitly express how these tie in to course objectives and grade-level standards.  

Teaching Students About Our Expectations

It is not unusual for new international students to come to class without notebooks, pens and pencils, and if they bring them, to leave them in their backpacks. A surprising number of young students will have no experience taking notes during class. Teachers may need to explicitly direct them to take notes, explaining that information discussed in class may be on the exam, and that the physical act of writing down new words and information helps them commit the new information to memory. Open-note quizzes and pop quizzes based on class discussions are a great way to drive this point home in the first several weeks of class.    

As for formulating and expressing one’s own ideas in writing and class discussions, many high school age international students will not have developed a habit of critical thinking, analyzing texts, connecting and synthesizing, explaining and supporting their ideas, or many of the other higher order skills on Bloom’s taxonomy that we begin teaching in the lower grades. So, aside from language difficulties, international students may struggle to understand academic expectations and need explicit teaching and support in learning these.

Similarly, math teachers may find that students don’t show their work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the student cheated, as in some educational cultures, having the correct answer is what is important, and how they think about problems and solve problems is not. If they do show their work, they often have an entirely different approach to solving problems, and the symbols used are entirely different.

It can take an academic quarter or two and a few poor report cards for international students to truly understand that class participation, attendance, homework, and writing assignments affect their grades. Many are accustomed to course grades being based entirely on exams. Academically strong students may believe that they can do just fine studying independently, and less-strong students may not realize that they can improve and do all right in a class if they make a day-to-day effort to learn by doing assignments and participating, so this difference in grading needs to be explained – often.

The concepts of academic integrity and plagiarism and how to avoid them will need to be explicitly taught to international students, and more than once.  Academic Honesty is such a huge topic that it merits its own post. Briefly, the confusion and lack of importance many international students place on these is not (necessarily) due to moral faults, but to cultural background and emphasis on different core values. Some students’ parents may even encourage them to do whatever it takes to achieve good grades and reach the end goal, not of personal development and learning for learning’s sake, but of getting into and graduating from a top college so that they can have a well-paying career and secure, good life. Dealing successfully with plagiarism and cheating requires an ongoing and thorough exploration and explanation of our values, as well as specific lessons on study and writing skills so that students know how to avoid any manner of cheating.  

Stereotypes and Lack of Knowledge of Students’ Home Countries

Many Americans have outdated and wrong notions about many students’ homelands and daily lives there. If we haven’t traveled to students’ home countries, it’s only natural. Just as many international students imagine that all Americans have blond hair and blue eyes and live in large, beautiful houses in modern, tidy cities and neighborhoods, so too do many of our ideas about their homelands and compatriots miss the mark. The best thing we can do is not to assume, but to listen and learn from our students. Give them opportunities in writing and speaking projects as well as in class discussions to share about aspects of their countries.

The Individual is Not the Nationality: Individuals are Diverse

If you get to know your international students as individuals, it is glaringly obvious that individuals from other cultures are as diverse as American students. They do not share unanimous strengths and weaknesses, interests, backgrounds, characters or opinions. Neither do they represent their governments.

Culturally Sensitive Speech

No one ever, from any cultural background, takes kindly to being told that their culture, country, and government are wrong or inferior. We all might have our own criticisms of our homelands, but when we find ourselves as inevitable representatives of our homelands abroad, we do not appreciate unsolicited criticism of our homelands, nor being judged for our homelands.

That said, although teachers should focus on and emphasize similarities rather than contrasts, they absolutely should encourage international students to share their different knowledge and perspectives in class discussions and projects. All students can learn from this. Social studies and history teachers may find that their international students have very different views of economic issues, the role of government, authority, privacy, and limits to dissent and freedom of expression. If ways to respectfully disagree are pre-taught, students are given sensitive, inquisitive guiding questions and time to pre-think and organize their ideas, with discussions perhaps initially held in smaller groups, inviting international viewpoints. This method can lead to more fruitful discussion and in-depth understanding of democracy, checks and balances, separation of powers, social and economic problems, and cultural values.  

Get the Names Right

As dozens of articles from the NEA to Education Week have extolled, the importance of pronouncing students’ names correctly, or at least trying your best, can be overestimated. Making no effort to get them right, though, sends an instant signal to students that they are an outsider and that their name – and they –are alien to you and not worthy of your full attention.

Make the effort also, especially if you have several students from the same cultural background, to learn about their culture’s naming conventions. For instance, in the case of Chinese names, the family name comes first. Take for example, a famous name, Mao Zedong. “Mao” is the family name. There is a reason he was referred to as Chairman Mao and not Chairman Zedong.  Or in the case of Spanish-heritage students’ names, they may have one or two given names, but always have at least two family names, or surnames. Women do not take their husband’s surnames, and the children take the surnames of both parents, beginning with the father’s and followed by the mother’s. So, if a student’s name is Juan Jose Rodriguez Romero, Rodriguez is the paternal surname and Romero would be the maternal surname, and the name you would use if addressing him formally would be Mr. Rodriguez. As for the first name, it’s best to ask. He could go by either name, a combination, or a nickname that bears no resemblance to his given name. For example, the common nickname for Francisco is Paco, and Pepe, believe it or not, is the nickname for José.  

You need not be an expert, of course, but it’s important to know that names in other cultures follow different conventions. If you aren’t sure what to call a student, ask.  If you aren’t sure of your pronunciation, ask. If you need to practice, pull out your smartphone and record the student saying his or her name, then listen and practice at home. That effort will almost always be repaid by the student’s effort in your class.

Recommended for Further Learning:  

Students at University of Buffalo helped to develop a workshop for faculty and staff on Classroom Culture in their countries, China and India. The University has made these available to educators everywhere, so have a look and consider sharing these presentations with your faculty and staff, and perhaps inviting some of your returning international students to participate in a panel Q & A session. The slides from these presentations can also be downloaded.

Perhaps you have a program for orienting and preparing international students for the adjustment, but inevitably, only so much of the lessons and information will sink in and there will no doubt be unanticipated situations.   

As teachers and staff are the face and feeling of your school,  much of students’ adjustment and success will depend on how welcome they feel and how well they can transition to the school culture and classroom expectations. Your teachers and staff, too, will have a better experience with the international students in your school if they have some understanding of the cultural background of your international students and are open to learning more about them, especially as it relates to classroom expectations.

Another key goal of raising awareness of one’s own culture is to build empathy for international students (and any immigrants), who are usually experiencing being a minority and an outsider for the first time in their lives. Suddenly they are not seen as “normal” – but as “foreign,” and before they are seen as individuals, they are seen as “not-American” or, for example, as “Chinese,” and many stereotypical ideas are applied to them.

 “Teachers need targeted professional learning to create and foster a positive, cohesive learning environment for culturally diverse classes. Teachers also need background information related to the student cohort they will be teaching so as to be able to respond appropriately and tailor course content.” (Tran, Ly; Le, Truc 2018)

Tran, Ly and Le, Truc. Teacher Development Is Neglected in Internationalisation. University World News: Issue No. 506, 15 May 2018. 

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