Teaching in a Cultural Setting

My life as an English teacher living abroad seems to most of my friends and family to be a leisurely activity, something I do in between travel excursions. In reality, my travel excursions are only a minor component of my time.

It is true that I do not keep a 9-5 schedule; however, despite my evening and weekend work schedule, my mornings and afternoons are dedicated to running errands, grading lots of papers, and preparing for my next set of classes. When most of my friends are gearing up for their winter and summer holiday vacations, I am beginning to prep for an intensive schedule of classes that run morning until night.

The schedule is not the only difference between teaching abroad versus teaching at home; there is also the issue of cultural differences. On any given day, I am confronted with conflicting cultures between teacher-to-student as well as student-to-student interaction. And my students definitely know how to get me to look absolutely stunned.

National Chengchi University, Taiwan, backpacksandblackboards.com
National Chengchi University, Taiwan, backpacksandblackboards.com

I have received the following questions and then some:

  • Teacher, are you married? (I’m 24 and tend to look a bit younger. So this always shocks me)
  • Miss, how many children do you have (What!)
  • Um, are you a good Christian or one of those bad Christians? (Considering I don’t even know where the line is drawn, I think it’s best I change the subject on this one. Plus, my name is Christian so is this a compliment?)
  • And my personal favorite: You’re from Texas; do you ride a horse and wear cowboy boots? (Well I love horses and have ridden a horse many times before. I also have cowboy boots safely back home in the States, but I don’t go to a saloon on the weekends and decorate with tumbleweed!)

For those wondering if they should teach abroad, my advice would be to consider your own personality traits. Are you quick on your feet or do you get easily thrown off? I tend to make a stunned face that my students normally laugh at and then I can easily change the subject. Is it hard for you to walk away from an opinion that goes against everything you stand for? There are many times when I have to bite my tongue on a sensitive subject or even mitigate the opinions of several students.

When picking materials, I also have to consider how they will be perceived from the cultural viewpoints of my students. Not every article found in a standardized English prep book will be valuable for my students. This is especially true for articles on history or even on “common teenager problems” that my students may not necessarily face on a daily basis. Further, parents are usually watchful of their son or daughter’s class materials and I have to keep that in mind when picking certain classroom activities.

Taiwanese Students, backpacksandblackboards.com
Taiwanese Students, backpacksandblackboards.com

Either way, each day worth of lesson plans requires that I do more than establish effective learning methods but that I can also successfully analyze the cultural impact a lesson might have in my classroom. Below are my top 4 tips for selecting culturally appropriate lesson materials:

  1. Pick issues that relate to the everyday culture of your students. For example, most students in Taiwan are required to wear uniforms. This issue makes for great reading passages and in-class debates.
  2. Stay away from materials using cartoon or movie characters unless you know that the majority of your class has probably seen them. Half of my witty pop-culture references result in my students giggling at my attempts to demonstrate what I am talking about.
  3. Watch your reading material for clichés and common English phrases. Most students do not understand the underlying meanings of these phrases which can result in confusion in reading comprehension.
  4. Be prepared to educate yourself in the teenage culture of your specific region. I have already heard enough KPop and Justin Bieber to last a lifetime! However, I get to use this knowledge as references or connections to link ideas between what my students may be reading and what they know from their own experiences. (Plus, my students laugh when I start asking them all sorts of clarification questions about KPop, KTVs, and certain holiday traditions)

 These four tips barely begin the process of preparing effective learning material for connecting your native language with the cultural context of the learners in your classroom.  If all else fails, find a way to sing and dance and draw so that your students laugh at your pathetic attempts to make class fun!

Children in Edinburgh, Scotland, backpacksandblackboards.com
Children in Edinburgh, Scotland, backpacksandblackboards.com

9 thoughts on “Teaching in a Cultural Setting”

  1. I related to this from my own teaching experience. Even as a European having taught other Europeans, there are still cultural inflences to be aware of. It works both ways as well, I get sick of being asked about the Queen – yes, I am from the UK, no I don’t know what the Winsors have for breakfast! 🙂

    1. I think that you’d be fine with your international background. It would be harder for someone with little international exposure. Or someone who is looking for a quick money maker for travel. I do have time to travel and explore but I’m not bouncing around every month. Although, being abroad, exploring my new city counts as travel experience to me.

  2. I know what you mean, Christian. Living in France I have to listen the unending sterotypes of my French students. I try to expose a different way of looking at the subject as a means of opening their minds to the idea that not everyone looks at the world through a French lense.

  3. Reblogged this on Teaching Wanderlust and commented:
    Great insights in this post. I especially like the notes regarding culturally relevant materials. Even though I teach for an “American school”, I live in Venezuela and teach kids who have grown up mostly in Venezuela and I need to think about what is most relevant to them.

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