Cultural Awareness in classroom management

A brief intro

Skip to The importance of cultural awareness in the classroom

My first experience ever in a language school was as a novice teacher. Actually, it was more as a Journalism student who needed a part-time job and happened to speak good English than as a teacher per se. This was over 20 years ago.

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I went through a knowledge test, interview and training without ever having attended an EFL/ESL class. I literally had no idea what a teacher was supposed to do in a language school. Sure I had had English in school as part of my Middle and High School programs, but the teachers barely spoke any English in class and my performance had always been subpar.

The tables turned when I was sent to a year-long exchange program in a town a couple of hundred kilometres off the outback in Australia. Survival mode plus the plasticity of the teenage brain – and, arguably, a knack for languages – ensured I became a competent user of English.

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Back home, with an abundance of time in my hands, I decided to give teaching English a go as a means of occupying my time and starting a tiny savings. And this was my very first experience in a language school.

I must have done relatively well as I got the job. Perhaps it was an innate ability. Perhaps I was just good at reading people. Or perhaps nobody knew much about what a teacher should know and do.

Between then and now there is a world of difference. I gave up on Journalism and embraced education, worked at a number of different schools, went from teaching to coordinating to developing textbooks and back to teaching, learnt from my peers, from mentors and from courses. I took an IELTS and a CPE and a CELTA – which, by the way, was a life changing experience.

There you have it: 13 years of experience in a monolingual, culturally homogeneous environment. And then I moved to Canada, one of the most multicultural countries in the world.

Not only did I move to a culturally diverse country, I found a job in the most diverse school in its most diverse city, Toronto. And it was then when I understood the importance of CULTURAL AWARENESS in classroom management.

The importance of cultural awareness in classroom management

Skip to What is classroom management?

At a first glance, it is easy to find that a lot has been written with focus on the role of the North-American and British culture in learning English. It is almost as if there was a target culture as well as a target language.

While it is undoubtedly important to understand that a language is part of a culture and that it affects and is affected by it, it is also important to acknowledge the fact that English is widely spoken around the world by people whose first language is not English.

Again, cultural awareness may not be a novel idea to those who teach abroad – in non-English-speaking countries – as they need to take the local culture into consideration. However, in most cases, it is still a monolingual, culturally homogeneous classroom, even though the teacher may belong to a different cultural background altogether.

When you take a language classroom in a country such as Canada into consideration, where immigration is championed by the government and largely embraced by society, the situation is a completely different one. Oftentimes the ESL classroom consists of students from several different countries and a teacher who may or may not have a different background themselves.

With one of my groups celebrating a graduation – Toronto, Canada

According to the definition found in the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Advanced English, cultural awareness is “Someone’s (…) understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially differences in attitudes and values.”

While teachers may be – or should be – prepared to deal with cultural diversity, students usually are not. And a successful class depends on expertly managing cultural micro-clashes so that a broader understanding and comradery – rather than disagreement – is achieved.

Therefore, cultural differences must be taken into consideration every step of the way: from needs’ analysis to lesson planning to classroom management to building rapport.

“Cross-cultural misunderstandings result when speakers assume that members of another culture share the same frames of reference and norms of social and communicative interaction. To be effective cross-cultural communicators, speakers must be aware of the relationship between culture and language.” Crossing Cultures in the Language Classroom Andrea DeCapua and Ann C. Wintergerst – University of Michigan Press 2019

What is classroom management?

Skip to Lessons learnt

“Classroom management can be explained as the actions and directions that teachers use to create a successful learning environment; indeed, having a positive impact on students achieving given learning requirements and goals (Soheili, Alizadeh, Murphy, Bajestani, Ferguson and Dreikurs).”

Scrivener, in his book Learning Teaching, says, “The skills of creating and managing a successful class may be the key to the whole success of a course”. (p79)

Classroom management encompasses everything from seating arrangement to stages of a lesson to types of correction and feedback. Every choice you make in the classroom is part of your management.

Lessons learnt

On my personal and professional journey as a newcomer, ESL teacher and, later on, Director of Studies (DOS), I quickly learnt that I had a lot of work to do on myself and on the way I managed my classes, my students and my teams.

Student graduates and shows her certificates

Lesson 1 – The sounds of (the many) English(es)

Generally, Canadians are quite polite, open to conversation and patient, which definitely make things a lot easier for a newcomer or international student. In the larger cities, dwellers are used to a variety of accents and make an effort to understand and be understood.

I, as a newcomer, however, was not as prepared to hear so many different “Englishes” both in the city and in the classroom itself. More than once I caught myself nodding along to sentences I couldn’t make out simply because I was too embarrassed to ask my interlocutor to repeat it a third or fourth time.

Now, if I, an experienced competent speaker, had a hard time at first, what about the students? As teachers, it is our role to help students understand one another and communicate competently.

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With that in mind, when planning pair and group work, for example, it is important to make sure students of different backgrounds have the opportunity to interact and learn from their differences and similarities.

Speakers of certain languages may exchange P for B, for instance, while others switch F for P or even R for L. The book Learner English, by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith, CUP, is a good step towards helping teachers to anticipate the characteristic difficulties speakers of other languages might face while learning English.

Lesson 2 – personal space

Certain cultures favour closer contact, including hugging and touching. Others don’t. In some cultures it is common for women to lock arms and keep in close proximity while in others, this behaviour will be seen among men instead. Whether to greet others with a kiss, a hug, a handshake or a nod also depends on factors such as culture, age and gender.

In order to avoid creating uncomfortable situations, it is important that the teacher know where to draw the line. It may be wise to ask students if it is OK for them to shake hands or high five their classmates before starting an activity that might involve any sort of physical contact.

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Body language and gestures might also cause awkwardness and misunderstandings as, much like words themselves, they are decoded based on cultural cues. The universal OK sign is offensive to Brazilians while ‘thumbs up’ is insulting to Middle Easterns.

Since talking with my hands seems to be stronger than me, I made it a habit to always check with students that none of my gestures was offensive. For me, personally, there is no way of knowing every aspect of every culture that there is in the world, that’s why establishing good communication channels with the students is always vital.

Lesson 3 – peacekeeping

Opinions, beliefs and social behaviour are largely influenced by one’s cultural background, therefore, disagreements are bound to happen in any classroom, let alone a multicultural one.

What is clearly chauvinism in the views of one culture, is the norm in another’s. What men and women can and cannot do vary greatly from one country to another and this can lead to heated disagreements in class – I know it did in mine. As a teacher, how do you ensure conflict resolution? Or even, how do you prevent conflict from arising?

There are other instances as well: students mocking others for chewing with their mouths open, students asking others about their marital status, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Curiosity regarding what is different from ourselves is inherent to human nature and questions will pop up; it’s up to the teacher to mediate communication and handle conflict in class.

Lesson 4 – cheating and plagiarism

Who knew plagiarism was not a universally accepted concept? As Director of Studies I had to support teachers in explaining what plagiarism is and its consequences to students. It wasn’t rare for students to claim not to understand why copying another person’s work without citing them was not fair game in academic writing.

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Most issues can and should be prevented rather than remedied and plagiarism is no different. What has always worked best is to set the rules of the game at the beginning. Oh, and there is a huge difference between mentioning and explaining something.

In many teens classes, teachers and students come up with classroom rules. It turns out every class can benefit from having clear rules laid out at the very beginning of the term, EAP inclusive.

“Lesson Next”

There will always be another lesson to learn.

We’ll continue to discuss cultural awareness in classroom management in the weeks to come. Meanwhile we would really like to encourage you to share with us your experience with culturally homogeneous or diverse groups and how you get around to managing it all.

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