Hanging on Every Word: The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in the EFL Classroom
The student sitting in front of his teacher was upset, unwilling-- perhaps unable-- to engage in the classroom activity taking place around him. The task seemed harmless enough-- a simple game of hangman to solidify vocabulary retention-- but had left this student paralyzed. The student's teacher, my friend Tom, did not press the issue but rather waited to have a conversation with his student until after class when all of the other students had left for the day. “Teacher, my brother died. The army hangs him.” Tom was devastated. In his attempt to provide a playful opportunity for learning, he had forced a student to relive a trauma that had forever altered his life. While no one could accuse Tom of being thoughtless in his activity selection, this incident demonstrates the necessity of cultural sensitivity in the ESOL classroom.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Megan F. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Course Materials and Topics
One manner in which ESOL teachers must exercise particular cultural care and competence is in the selection of course materials and lesson topics. Certainly, not all language students have the same needs or the same language backgrounds, and course materials should reflect the needs of each particular group of students, whenever possible. In my previous position as an ESOL instructor at a local refugee resettlement agency, I found that the topics presented in the available curricula felt childish and insignificant to many of my students. Having been raised in the brutal environment of a refugee camp or having had to flee for their lives from gang members, lessons about shopping at a mall or eating in a fancy restaurant did not compute or, at the very least, did not seem worthy of the students' focus and attention. Whenever possible, I tried to create exercises with familiar names and that acknowledged the struggle of adjusting to a new culture.
Similarly, an ESOL teacher must bear in mind the students' cultural backgrounds when selecting classroom activities. Any exercises that allude to violence (such as the example provided earlier in this essay) should be avoided as well as any topics that may lead to exacerbating the trauma of already-afflicted populations. The teacher should also be flexible in recognizing that students from some cultures may be less comfortable than others in openly sharing their opinions or engaging in discussions with their teacher or classmates. Teachers should select a range of exercises that allow students to work individually, in pairs, and with the class as a whole, so that each student has the opportunity to work in a situation that feels the most comfortable.
Perhaps most importantly, the ESOL teacher is responsible for setting the tone of the classroom and for establishing an atmosphere of warmth and safety. No teacher could anticipate every trigger for every student, but by practicing a humble attitude and willingness to learn, a teacher can use past mistakes as an opportunity to grow through meaningful conversation and questions. For example, my friend Tom was sensitive enough to notice that one of his students was struggling with classroom activity. Instead of assuming the student was refusing to participate, Tom waited until after class to meet individually with the student and to ask questions to better understand the student's perspective. Tom did not come into the conversation feeling offended or assuming his position was “correct,” and his willingness to be a learner as well as a teacher-created an environment that felt safe enough that his student felt able to share about the reason for his actions.
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The student left Tom's class that day, knowing that if he ever felt uncomfortable with a task, his teacher would understand and accommodate his needs. As ESOL teachers strive to choose course materials and activities that are culturally sensitive and work to develop an environment that feels safe and conducive to learning, the students will similarly be comfortable enough to share and to progress in their language learning.
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