Consciousness on Classroom Sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity is important to bear in mind as we all face situations daily: whether in our working environment or on a personal level. Within the Western English speaking world, we can see that there is the presence of a dominant culture (such as European American, or Western Culture) and a secondary culture (such as African, Chinese, or Eastern European culture). It is always important to bear in mind that while the English language may be widespread over the globe, the differences in culture even between people living within the same country has a profound effect on how interactions take place. In the environment of the classroom, the same examples can be seen. Whether the students are of the same age group or live in the same area, there can be vast differences between cultural practices that can hinder the desired free-flowing nature of teaching English as a foreign language course.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sascha J. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Knowing Multicultural Signs
In the developing countries that have not had as much exposure to Western culture, such as parts of central Africa, something as simple as making eye contact can be seen as being taboo. Even with the advances in modern technology, as well as social media connecting more of the world than ever before, it can be difficult for students of any age to feel they have the ability to “let go” of behaviors that are so entrenched in their everyday lives, especially if the new behavior conflicts with their belief system.
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The classroom setting in and of itself is more formal than what a conversation visiting a friend in a house would be. In most cultures older people are treated with a respect that can be reflected in certain titles being used, such as “Sir” or “Madam”, and in the classroom, the teacher is generally referred to as “Mister” or “Miss”, or simply “Teacher” as this title denotes a term of respect. In certain cultures, it might seem disrespectful to call upon the teacher by their first name, whether they are of the same age as the students or older. It denotes a sense of familiarity that might be seen as being inappropriate in the classroom setting. Each culture has a different view of titles when referring to someone. In Japan, for example, it is possible to use the first name of a Westerner provided that it is followed by “San”. In the United States, it is seen as acceptable and even the norm to address someone by their first name, even in a formal setting. It would be detrimental to the lesson, the student, as well as the teacher if one enters into an environment unprepared or uninformed as to what they should or should not do. This is one of the first boundaries to be established between the teacher and the student and works both ways. It may be best to find out from the students through an icebreaker how they would like to introduce themselves, both to the teacher and to their classmates, and then within the context of the class find an appropriate way to introduce themselves.
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Gestures that might seem non-threatening to someone with a Western background could be highly offensive to others. It might feel like second nature to the teacher when calling upon a student to use their index finger. Pointing is generally seen as rude in most cultures across the globe, while in certain cultures it is seen as taboo or offensive to gesture to someone with your left hand opened (the alternative to pointing with a finger). Whilst physical gestures may seem normal within the context of the cultural norms of the person generating the movement, other people who have not been exposed to these ways may interpret it differently – possibly negatively. The directional kiss used in Italian and Latin American culture, for example, could be interpreted as the intention to kiss someone and be deemed as sexual harassment. It is therefore important to bear in mind that while gesturing with the hands or the body may be helpful in the explanation of new vocabulary it may also be offensive depending on the context you find yourself in.
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Observation of Miscommunication
Cultural sensitivity should be observed in the classroom to avoid misunderstandings that can not only hinder the development of the language but create an uncomfortable environment that the student no longer feels safe in. The appearance or dress-code of the teacher is a good example of this. A provocative outfit is normally frowned upon, but even a close-fitting shirt or shorts are worn to avoid the heat in hotter climates might be seen as offensive and disrespectful in certain cultures and religions.
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Course content and teaching materials also need to be sensitive to the cultural context of the students. Socio-political topics have an obvious taboo attached to them so are easier to avoid, but simpler conversations such as livestock or things you eat at home or household chores can create instances of tension in the classroom as students might feel judged, prejudiced against, or shy due to financial differences or constraints.
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In conclusion, it is never beneficial to the learning or the development of the student to challenge their cultural beliefs in a negative or abrasive way, whether consciously or unconsciously. The best way to avoid any awkward moments is by entering into the teaching environment informed and prepared – both about the national cultural norms as well as the regional cultural norms of the environment one finds themselves teaching in. Not only is the classroom an environment for the student to learn from the teacher, but also for the teacher to learn from their students – creating an enriching environment for all involved.
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