Cultural Sensitivity in the ClassroomOften when we teach a class we have a group of students whose culture is very different to ours so cultural sensitivity is a very important issue. We must learn what things are sensitive, may offend or need addressing. By doing this, we will not create obstacles to their learning but rather make their learning journey a smoother, enjoyable one.
We must look at the make-up of our class and filter activities respectively. For example, it would be very insensitive if you had Muslim students in your class and you were doing the topic of the beach and you showed pictures of women in swimwear. Similarly, it would not be wise to discuss the Thai Royal Family in a negative way in a classroom in thailand
. The Thai people love their king and they would be most upset if you did this. You could even end up in jail! A friend of mine tells a story of a visiting Singaporean guest speaker at a seminar that had a Thai audience. The Singaporean man wanted to make the point that money is not the most important thing in life. He screwed up a 1000 baht note, threw it on the ground and stomped on it a few times. The Thai audience became annoyed and upset because he was stomping on a picture of the king! My friend had to stand in front of the audience, ‘wai’ respectfully and apologize on behalf of the Singaporean, explaining he didn’t understand what he was doing. So, as teachers, we need to think about what might be offensive and what you should avoid.
Sometimes cultural sensitivity means we must be more proactive and firm in our classroom discipline and practices. My sister-in-law teaches at a language school in Canberra, Australia. She was telling me how most of her students come from South Korea. Then, last year, she had a number of students from sub-Sahara Africa come. The students from sub-Sahara Africa were pushy and didn’t work very hard in class. They didn’t put effort into their assignments and they often asked for longer breaks and time off. Many did a poor job with presentations in class. This created disunity with the other mainly Korean students. My sister-in-law decided to confront, berate and threaten the sub-Sahara Africans with expulsion. This worked. They changed their attitudes and started to work much harder. Now that she has found out how many of these students think i.e. believing they can get by with little effort, she is much sterner with them at the beginning of a course. This has made a better learning environment for all. Therefore, as teachers, we need to try and understand the different cultural approaches to learning of our students so we can engineer a suitable learning environment.
The curriculum itself can be a major problem with regards to cultural sensitivity in the classroom. In an article by Emily Flanagan-Kanek, she states that:
‘Osburg insists that subtle language prejudices surface today because the curriculum, however accepting, is designed primarily for a homogenous group-the english
speaking, white, middle class. (qtd. in Hepp 23). This is why students from other cultures often may not make connections to the curriculum or text that doesn’t embrace their culture, thus disconnecting them further.’
This following experience comes from an educator who works in the Middle East:
One EFL materials writer detailed how he had to drop a chapter on bad luck because it implied that God wasn’t in control of events and might encourage superstitious thinking.
Consequently, it is important for the teacher to familiarize themselves with the course textbook beforehand and try to identify any parts that the text may be offensive or where the students will be disconnected.
Having said this, cultural sensitivity doesn’t always have to be about filtering. Teachers can use it to their advantage. If you know your students’ culture, you are able to create activities that are interesting and encourage learning. For example, Korean Pop Bands are very popular among the teenagers in thailand
at present. A reading activity on this topic would generate far more interest with your teenage Thai classroom students than say reading about double-decker buses in England.
In conclusion, even though TEFL students are in classrooms to learn english
, the way they view the world, their culture, is often different to the teachers’. We, as teachers, must therefore be sensitive to this issue otherwise we may hinder or miss opportunities to improve their learning.