How far should you go?

A while back I set up an activity in the classroom and waited for students to respond.

Nothing happened.

I double checked understanding and asked students to move.

Nothing happened.

At this stage I wondered if the students had really understood the activity. They were after all a very low level group (low A1ish). Then someone pipes up “You have to respect our culture”.  “Do I? You are in fact in the UK, not your own country” – Is what I thought, but didn’t say! OK, deep breaths! I asked the student if they were going to move, to which they replied negatively. So I calmly told them to take out their notebooks and write a passage on living abroad. This was followed by a deadly silence. I  motioned that they should start writing and wrote a title on the board. I then sat down and started marking. I could see looks of confusion and disbelief on their faces, but I again asked them to start writing. I left them to consider what was happening for about 20 minutes, after which time I thought they’d had enough time to think. I then asked if they would like to continue classes in the same manner. They said no (surprisingly!), so I asked why and they said they needed my help and support. We then talked about different cultures and expectations in the UK and decided, as a class, that there should be compromise (which was what the original activity did, but hey!) and that we should work together.

Despite remaining outwardly calm, my heart was doing overtime during the whole ‘critical moment’. Why? What could I have done to prevent it? How can it be prevented in future classes? Why did the student say it after 4 weeks of similar class activities? What does the student think will happen at university?

There’s a fine line between being aware of other cultures in the classroom and ‘over-compensating’ activities and exercises so that cultures are respected (or at the least not insulted), particularly in the UK context where you may have a class with 6 different (and seemingly opposing) cultures. So – how far do you go in taking other cultures into account? How can students be (politely) reminded that they are, in fact, visiting a country whose culture they should respect?


About sarahali

I am linguist working in the EFL field. I started my teaching career in East Germany in 1997, continuing for a while (7 years) in Austria before settling back in the UK, where I am now based. I have taught English in various forms (ESP, ESOL, Business English, EFL (general) and EAP) to students ranging from 3 years of age to 80. I have written, developed and edited teaching material and curricular for the Arabic speaking world, as well as African countries. I have also written materials and teacher's books for 3-year olds learning in multi-lingual schools in Spain and have worked on translating and adapting Early Readers for the international market. I'm currently a senior tutor for EAP, a TEL coordinator and an academic proofreader. I also work as a freelance materials writer and developer. I speak English, German and French, with a basic knowledge of Arabic and Spanish.
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