Cultural sensitivity in the classroom In today?s society, it seems as if

In today's society, it seems as if everyone is concerned with being 'politically correct'. The media is always focusing on someone's slip of the tongue, whether it is a politician, athlete, or a star in Hollywood. People are offended when a neighbor calls them a name, cuts down a tree, or plays their music too loud. Courtroom calendars are filled with frivolous lawsuits from prisoners who feel their rights have been violated while in prison. If we are so caught up with being politically correct and not offending each other, why isn't more time spent on teaching cultural sensitivity in the classroom'

Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language exposes the teacher to cultures they may never have the opportunity to experience in a different career. That teacher should be expected to have some knowledge of the culture they will be dealing with, as well as sensitivity to how things may be done in the country where the students lived. According to Elizabeth Peterson and Bronwyn Coltrane, from the Center for Applied Linguistics, 'cultural information should be presented in a nonjudgmental fashion, in a way that does not place value or judgment distinctions between the students' native culture and the culture explored in the classroom.' Teachers not only have the responsibility to research the culture, but should also have enough integrity to accept the students, for who they are, no matter what culture they represent.

Understanding the culture is more than asking about the holidays observed or what foods they eat. It means knowing what is appropriate to say to whom and how to address a student, as well as knowing what to expect from the student in return. In some cultures, it is inappropriate for females to sit with males and interact. Direct eye contact with a student may be positive, but it may be interpreted as aggressive or humiliating; smiling may be positive, but it may be insolent; touching may be positive, but it may be embarrassing or offensive. Singling a student out for attention of any kind would not be considered a positive teacher response by a number of minority groups even in the United States. Other cultures may have strict dress codes that they adhere to. As a teacher, we could unknowingly offend a student in our manner of dress or action if we are not cognizant of areas of comfort or discomfort.

Cultural attitudes and values affect the way we teach. Stereotypes also affect our style of teaching, and at times we will develop a different attitude toward, or expectations from, our students based on what we think we know about that particular culture. Similarly, students may be thrown into confusion by facing ridicule or being penalized for continuing behaviors they are accustomed to, or for not participating in an activity due to cultural taboos.

Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, Kofi Annan, Secretary- General of the United Nations, stated in his Acceptance Speech, 'We understand, as never before, that each of us is fully worthy of the respect and dignity essential to our common humanity. We recognize that we are the products of many cultures, traditions and memories; that mutual respect allows us to study and learn from other cultures; and that we gain strength by combining the foreign with the familiar.'

Acquiring sensitivity requires stepping beyond our own comfort zone and exploring areas we dare to go beyond. Being exposed to a new culture is a learning experience, but we must remain open minded and teachable. It is important to remember that cultural sensitivity includes respect. Although we may have differences with or misunderstand another culture's religion or lifestyle, we are in the classroom to teach, not to judge or condemn. As teachers, we must know the vital questions to ask about cultures and then know how to get the answers, as well as know how to use the cultural information for instructional purposes.


Griggs, Shirley and Dunn, Rita. Hispanic-American Students and Learning Style (1996)

Peterson, Elizabeth and Coltrane, Bronwyn. Culture in Second Language Teaching. (2003). Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. Oslo, Norway. (2001).