Cultural differences in the classroom

October 29 2020 - Living the expat life, Exploring different Cultures, Serious Business

Who would have ever thought that I would get back into a classroom? After my internship at my previous High School back in 2000, I kind of swore I would never do that again. Keeping 25+ teens engaged and motivated to study history….surely I had to be able to find something less draining. And so while Hendrik Willem has ever since happily taught all sorts of teens from different backgrounds, levels and curricula, I withdrew myself from the educational system completely. Corporate life, Human Resources….that was an area I felt more at home.

Till now. As recently I faced a class with 48 (!) Chinese students, all eager to be taught by this international lady who they keep calling Mrs Teacher or Mrs Professor. Which is after all much easier than pronouncing “Mirjam” or even worse, “Buitelaar”.
Names are the first hurdle that I encounter. Being unfamiliar with their language it’s hard to remember their names. How to distinguish Xing Li Yue from Xu Ying Xue? Some Chinese take on English names to make it easier in international life. But even then I still find it difficult to recognise Lucy from Crystal in a class with 48 students.

The first hurdle the students encounter is the huge cultural difference in the way I teach. Out of no-where they are suddenly expected to be engaged, asked questions, appointed to stand up and speak out their opinion on something, or asked to come forward for a role-play. It’s all very new and uncomfortable to them and so I see 48 pair of eyes scan their shoes desperately whenever I pose a question. And since I cannot recall any of their names, we find ourselves in this awkward limbo where I start tapping someone on the shoulder to get their engagement.
Compared to the outspoken way I behaved in school myself I notice that they are shy and hesitant to speak out, and the fact that they need to speak in a foreign language, of which some of them are still learning to master, does not ease their confidence. So I wonder how can I, being a foreign teacher, help them with that?

While it’s hard work for both parties to understand each other and to get used to the different cultural styles in teaching & learning, they do make me smile often and teach me so much in return. In one of my smaller classes I am teaching Interpersonal Communication Skills, to prepare the students for an exchange to the US later in 2021. And both of us encounter new learnings and insights. When instructed to form pairs of 2 and write their learning needs for the Communication class on a sticky note and present these to the rest of the group, they started scribbling tons of text on a tiny little sticky note. It’s only then that I realize this is new to them. And they on the other hand are probably wondering why I gave them such a small piece of paper to write on. But after some additional explanation and practice they happily went along with it, deciding to take the most out of this “strange” learning experience. And so it happens that one of them wrote down: “ I want to learn more about talking to a girl and make her my girlfriend”. And yes, we actually did spend some time on that!

Moving abroad means getting out of your comfort zone and be prepared to make many mistakes and learn from them. Just like we have done in the past few years. And so the biggest learning we can give each other as student and teacher, is to both get out of our comfort zone. And to widen our lens on education, communication and culture. So we are a little bit more prepared to embrace the Big Uncomfortableness that comes with relocations and living the international life. And you know what? I’m loving it!

See y'all!


My classroom at CIT Campus