The Cambridge online dictionary defines culture as ?the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time?. Education, and thus teaching, are widely believed to one of the most fundamental and essential elements in human life. Therefore cultural awareness in the education environment is of paramount importance.
To effectively communicate in any classroom, the students must feel both at ease with, and a sense of respect for, their teacher. To achieve this, the teacher must be aware of the norms, customs and beliefs which have nurtured the minds and personalities of those he or she intends to educate. Any offence or disrespect caused would be of detriment to the crucial rapport building and mutual respect. As a western nurtured and educated EFL teacher, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the differences in culture between the place you learned about teaching (in the western classroom), and the place in which you are teaching now. For example, in Thailand it is considered rude to point and of great indignity to publicly show anger. These are both common actions of western teachers. The subject matter of worksheets, reading practice texts and spoken word conversations should also be considered carefully. Particularly in contrast with Britain, the King and the royal family are held in massively high regard in Thailand, and by everybody. It would be very easy to offend the whole class by generating ignorant dialogue about their King.
The family make-up and its role in society can also vary a lot. In most of South-East Asia, many young people will live with their family until they are married; some continue to even as man and wife. This and the obvious socio-economic differences between a western and a developing country should be in the mind of a good teacher when choosing teaching materials and when lesson planning. A culturally aware teacher would not use the question ?Where do you go on holiday?? to prompt naming countries, as the majority of a Thai class, for example, would have never left their homeland. Equally, asking students to describe their house could cause segregation in the classroom, as well as maybe not eliciting the vocabulary initially expected.
As well as understanding how to treat and teach the students, it is also important to understand how the culture of the country in which you work expects students to treat and learn from their teacher. The social order in Thailand places teachers second only to monks, who in turn come just below the King. Students in a school must wai at their teacher upon entering and leaving the classroom. The teacher is always right and must not be questioned (thought this is starting to change). Richard Barrow is his article ?Thai Manners at School? argues that although this more strict approach can seem too much to a western teacher, (especially looking at how badly behaved many American and British school children are) its is important to accept and appreciate the way the education system works where you are teaching. As with the absolute respect for the monarchy, it may be difficult to wrap the western mind around some of these different sensitivities; however they are the norm, irrefutable and therefore demand proper appreciation.
To conclude, cultural sensitivity is very important to effectively, and respectfully teach in a non-native classroom. An EFL teacher should research the culture of the country in which they wish to teach, and appropriately tune their approach in the classroom. He or she must look and act dutifully respected, respectful and dignified.
Author: Edward Guertin
Date of post: 2007-03-29