Teachers' Tales

Diversity in the classroom: Celebrating culture shock

by Jennifer Murray
on December 10, 2015


Professional culture shock is a common topic of discussion in our staffroom. The general consensus is that no matter your prior teaching experience, the number of stamps in your passport or the number of languages in which you can greet someone, you can never be entirely prepared for your first job at an international school. You’re in at the deep end.

So, how do you teach a class that includes children of 19 different nationalities? Try focusing on these three areas:

Talk, talk, talk

A single person cannot be expected to know about all the nationalities and cultures represented in an international classroom, but you will be expected to show an interest. Acknowledging the diversity in your class is as important as learning the names of your students.

In my classroom, we start every year by talking about where we’re from and recognising that, although we don’t know everything about each other, we’re here to learn. This doesn’t need to be a big or dramatic project – little moments matter. Ask young children to count their peers at register time in their mother tongue (your students will be able to count to 25 in multiple languages by the end of the year). Have older students add to a celebrations board when special events happen in their home country. Engage in discussions with parents and colleagues, too. These tactics will invariably lead to class conversations that focus on similarities, rather than differences.

Accept that you will make mistakes

Even with the best of intentions, it is inevitable that at some stage you will make mistakes: demanding eye contact from the child whose cultural experience tells them that avoiding eye contact is the ultimate symbol of respect; trying to shake hands with the parent whose cultural comfort zone doesn’t extend to physical contact with a relative stranger.

Reflect on your mistakes and talk to colleagues. Sharing experiences is key to building a community of culturally competent teachers. Speak to more experienced members of staff before a parents’ evening and find out the dos and don’ts. And if you’re working outside of your own culture, make sure that when you goof, you know how to apologise in a way that makes it clear your intentions were good.

Start with flags and food

Of course, nationality and culture go far beyond flags, national dress and traditional food, but in a culturally diverse classroom these elements are a good starting point for open discussion and deeper learning. The diversity of your classroom should be reflected in the content of your lessons and in the resources you use, like reading from authors from beyond the Western canon or decorating your classroom with inspirational quotes from global leaders. By engaging the school community as experts in their own cultures, you can inspire intercultural understanding and the growth of respect.

Focusing on these three areas will encourage students to ask questions about, show respect towards and express interest in each other’s nationalities and cultures within the safe environment of their classroom. This can support their development into open and reflective lifelong learners who are better equipped to contribute effectively to our increasingly diverse societies.

Jennifer Murray teaches at the Deira International School in Dubai. This post first appeared in TES magazine on 7 February, 2014. Read the original here.