Cross-Cultural Communication in the Classroom
A monkey was at a high and safe tree branch watching the beautiful and agitated river flowing below him. The monkey spotted a fish swimming against the current and seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance, so the monkey decided to act. The kind and brave monkey risks himself to finally reach out and snatch the fish from the threatening waters, placing the fish in a safe and dry place. The monkey immediately got back to his tree branch and full of joy observed the fish jumping up and down of excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. The monkey couldn’t be happier, he had helped another creature!
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Leonardo R. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Lack of Understanding
This well known eastern parable is a powerful illustration of how cultural sensitivity is an indispensable tool for those who are involved in any cross-cultural task. Any classroom would serve as a great example of a place where cultural sensitivity is required, but a classroom where students are learning English as a second language and where the teacher and students come from a different cultural background, this is an environment where cultural sensitivity would be placed amongst the top skills needed.
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Thinking back about the parable, the teacher could be an example of a “fish", but picturing a classroom, most commonly we would approach this comparison putting the teacher as the kind and brave "monkey" and the students as the poor “fish”. Like the monkey, most teachers will be acting toward his students out of good intentions, but as the story shows, good intentions without the right approach can lead to a catastrophic outcome. Students will always be swimming against the current during their language journey, and the teacher should always be willing to assist, but without becoming aware of the students' cultural values, beliefs and perceptions, the assistance from the teacher can put students in an awkward or embarrassing situation which is never desirable. Even worse, the teacher could place one student or the class in a scary, dry land. But how to avoid the "monkey's" approach? Of course there is no easy answer, even so, looks like basic attitudes could help in this matter, such as basic cultural awareness, apprentice mindset, facilitator approach and a good sense of humor.
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Basic Cultural Awareness is Cultural Sensitivity
Even two people from the same family would have their own different response to the same situation. When it comes to people from different cultures, the reactions, concepts, way of life and beliefs will be very diverse, not better or worse, just diverse. So, researching about basic cultural points of a culture like dress code, major religion, does and do, etc. is obviously very helpful. With this in mind the next step is to recognize that in order to communicate (teach) effectively, the teacher will need to constantly learn about his/her students' cultural backgrounds, an apprentice mindset. A good apprentice will always be observing, asking and learning. An example could be a teacher that is always seeking advice from experienced teachers, local teachers, friends or even talking with his students about some matters that could be clarified with their insights. Asking for help or clarifications from the students will always be more natural or organic if the teacher avoids the traditional role of an instructor, instead, the teacher could keep in mind that the role of a facilitator tends to make students more relaxed and easy to talk about matters that would be sensitive or embarrassing. Asking questions around, and learning about another culture will lead to unavoidable mistakes or funny situations when it happens there is not much to do but to have a good sense of humor and laugh about it. Mistakes are part of life, and with the right attitude, these mistakes are most likely to do not lead to an extremely bad outcome like what happened in the parable of the monkey and the fish, so a good laugh would be welcomed to keep things simple and real.
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There is no doubt that cultural sensitivity is a basic requirement for a good teacher and at the same time there is no formula or easy way to develop it, however, with the right attitude, the help from people around and a willingness to learn, the teacher could not just avoid the monkey attitude, but to help his/her students to become those that will follow his/her example and cultivate the same good heart showed by the monkey, but with a way better approach toward the fishes around us.
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