Cultural Sensitivity When Teaching Abroad
By Neil Root
Neil Root is a writer and London based English Language teacher with 10 years experience.
When teaching in another country EFL teachers are the guest of that culture, and no matter where it is there will be different customs, beliefs and cultural expectations. This varies greatly – in most European countries the change won’t be so defined, but in the Middle East and Asia the differences are very striking. Part of your job is to meet that culture halfway and to adapt your sensibilities in line with that of your students. This is a lesson quickly learnt by many teachers working worldwide.
Be careful with your class content
In Western Europe, the adaptation required is less sharp and it will be only in the realm of social customs on the whole. For instance, in Spain, people go out to eat at 10pm, when we are thinking about making our way home. These are changes where you can fit in quite easily, and there is little chance of offending anyone – although in strongly Catholic countries such as Italy and South and Central America it’s worth being careful with your class content regarding subjects such as abortion, etc. Some people take such issues very seriously, and it’s best to avoid conflict. In Eastern Europe, the sensitivity can be political, due to the upheaval in those countries regarding Communism in the last decades. Asking questions is fine, but be careful giving strong opinions. You want to build a good rapport with your students, so show respect and they will in turn show it to you.
In the Middle East and parts of Asia, the Muslim culture is very strong and teachers need to be very sensitive. Being too liberal in class is not a good idea, and is a risk not worth taking. Students might seem open and receptive in class, but this doesn’t mean they are not offended. Such societies are deeply moral and stringent sometimes, and even if you have taught Muslim students in the UK and had no problem, remember that those students were in your culture and meeting it halfway. In their country, it’s wise and proper to do the same.
So enjoy your teaching abroad, but remember to tailor your sensibilities to the culture you are in, whether social, political or religious. Don’t lose your sense of humour or deliver boring lessons, but just be more conscious of differences and that offense can be caused more easily than you think. It’s common sense really.