Cultural Sensitivity in the classroomPart of the reason that anyone would take a TEFL course is because they envision themselves teaching english
to people of another culture or background. As teachers, we have a responsibility to adequately prepare ourselves as best as we possibly can for our students, whether we are preparing to teach an elementary class, or preparing to teach to adults, it is vital that a teacher know a little bit about the culture that he or she is going to be teaching.
I have been teaching in South Korea for around one year now, and I was lucky enough to be given an orientation into the customs, expectations and faux pas that exist within the Korean classroom. I was told that for Korean students not to maintain eye-contact is a sign of respect, I was told to only gesture to an individual or a group using my full hand (all of my fingers), and not to point as this was considered belittling or demeaning. I was also told to be very firm with them and “not smile until December” (keeping in mind that the school semester starts in March and finishes in December, this makes up the entire academic year). Like with any advice, I took this all with a grain of salt and maintained a sense of mindfulness of these rules, while assessing the situation for myself, and asking my co-teachers for their input.
I was given a new set of expectations and rules to follow from my co-teachers, and quickly found out that, while I wasn’t entirely misinformed, the “social rules” I was taught are a little on the archaic side and don’t really apply to the modern classroom environment. I was told to expect students to bow to me before the beginning of class and at the end, and not to bow back. I was told that it is perfectly okay for me to smile, and they even encouraged it! They were a little shocked to hear that the (government sponsored) training course had informed new teachers of this. I was told that punishment with a ruler or a shoe is frowned upon by the Ministry of Education, but is still carried out by a number of the teachers. I can happily report that I have never seen one of my teacher hit anybody, but it is certainly a cultural difference that I would have struggled to be sensitive towards if it were presented to me.
Korea’s emphasis on testing, results and studying has definitely taken me by surprise. I am a little off-put to hear teachers calling out test scores to Grade 3 students (who are about 7 years old), and reprimanding those that did poorly in front of their peers. I don’t believe it promotes success and in fact think that it teaches students to accept their low-status in the class at a very young age. By doing this, the teacher is advocating the mistreatment of those that do poorly by reprimanding them, and it can be incredibly embarrassing and demeaning for the child who is suffering from the teacher’s scorn.
While there are a number of questionable practices that take place in the Korean classroom, some of which are unusual, others of which are down right cruel, I have had to maintain a semblance of sensitivity to all these practices due to the nature of my position in my school and in this society. The only time I have ever mentioned something I don’t like taking place is when a co-teacher asked me what I thought about a particular situation where a student was crying in the middle of class and she ignored her and passed off her emotions as “she does this all the time”. I responded by saying that in the one year I had been teaching this student I had never seen her cry in class and felt that we, as teachers, had a responsibility to assist the student in distress. She eventually agreed, and the issue was resolved.
One thing that I have learnt a lot about regarding “cultural sensitivity”, is that there is a big difference between someone acting a particular way as a result of their culture, and someone acting a particular way as a result of their own beliefs. I believe that I have a responsibility to know the difference between the two, and to be honest about the difference to myself and to the teachers in question.