Tips for TEFL / TESOL teachers, activity leaders and school staff who work with foreign students in English-speaking countries.

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

It is the dream of many EFL students to study in an English-speaking country; will they spot a celebrity, stand on platform 9 ¾ and eat English breakfast every day? Will they fall in love, see the latest i-phone launch and wave to the Queen? The question this article poses is: What happens when their expectations and the reality don’t match up? And is there anything we, as teachers/activity leaders/school staff can do about it?

Let’s start with a bit of imagination.

Close your eyes and imagine you are a 14-year-old girl who has grown up in a small town in a non-English speaking country. You are a bit of a dreamer. You love English pop music, especially Ed Sheeran (although your parents think he is a bad influence). You and half your friends have a crush on Harry Styles. What you know about English culture comes from films, the TV, what your parents have told you about when they went to England in 1992 (bad weather, bad food, strangely over-polite, impeccable manners) mixed with what your school’s well-used but misinformed textbooks have taught you about the culture (Mr Bean; men with bowler hats carrying newspapers and umbrellas to keep themselves safe from the cats and dogs which are raining out of the sky.) 

This all seems very exciting, albeit a bit strange, and when you get the chance to go and study in England for a week, you beg your parents to let you go. Eventually they say yes, remembering that although England is a very expensive country, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it will be a good cultural experience for you.

But let’s pause for a moment.

A good cultural experience

What does ‘a good cultural experience’ mean?

Is a ‘good cultural experience’ for the parents expecting the EFL school to show their child what they experienced all those years ago? (But hopefully with better food.)

Is a ‘good cultural experience’ intended to consolidate the students’ learning at school, by finding out mysteries such as if English people really do think Mr Bean is funny? (Unsure on this, ask my grandmother.)

Is a ‘good cultural experience’ supposed to be showing our foreign friends what life is actually like in 2021, in all its non-traditional, liberal and potentially shocking glory? (Yes, it is fine if men kiss other men in the street.)

And you thought they were just here to learn English.

No, my friend. Without wanting to put too much pressure on you, us British school staff are the gatekeepers to the cultural understanding of the young learners in our care. Expect to be confronted with these kinds of questions on a daily basis, and be prepared for disappointments, surprises, shock and controversy along the way. You may find that some of these cultural differences are endearing, some of them are frustrating and some of them are honestly just racist. But how do we handle them?

Three suggested ways to deal with cultural shock:

1). Put yourself in their shoes.

Ask yourself, how open-minded can our young foreign students be expected to be? Coming to liberal, westernized, multicultural Britain, could be a little bit like going on holiday to the moon for them. How would you feel if you went to their country? Hold on to that thought then multiply it by five because you are an international adult with foreign experience. They are not. 

2). Listen so they feel heard, then share a politically correct version of public opinion before your own.

This may sound a bit too PC. However, to your audience, you are the spokesperson for all British people. Due to lack of exposure to other opinions, students will very likely believe that whatever you, as the teacher / activity leader / person connected to the school says is true. Therefore, it is always advisable to say what ‘most people’ think, and to be politically correct, before giving your own view. Conversations like this are an important form of learning for them, and you wouldn’t want to be misquoted or to get into trouble for saying anything too controversial that may upset anyone’s friends, parents, group leaders, or even ruin the reputation of the school.

Here are some common concerns and possible PC responses based on my experience:

Note: There are many things that could be said, these are just a few ideas, based on my experience.

–          My host family isn’t even British (yes, they are actually, but no they are not white and yes, they do have an accent, and yes, they do eat a lot of curry, and no they haven’t made you English breakfast every day because usually British people eat toast or cereal. Yes, that’s right, I have cereal with banana on top in the summer but prefer porridge in the winter because it warms me up. Oh, I could never eat cake for breakfast! I’d get too fat!)

–          My teacher is Chinese (no, she isn’t actually, she is half Korean, half Irish and was born and bred in this country, which makes her British. This is why people call it ‘multicultural Britain’. We have many cultures living together and we are all British.)

–          The other students in my class don’t speak! (True, they are less chatty than you, however, their reading, writing and grammar are scores are very high and they have lots of knowledge which they can use by making friends and studying together with you. So be patient and try to make friends back.)

 3). If in doubt, tell your senior.

When you have multiple students in a cultural mixing-pot of a classroom or excursion, it is possible that things may get out-of-hand. Unfortunately, problems like bullying are an international phenomenon, and teachers need to be vigilant about the wellbeing of the children in their care. If you notice anything untoward in your class, it is always a good idea to flag it to someone who can support you to handle the situation. This may be a Senior Teacher, ADOS or DOS. They would be able to: suggest any classroom management techniques that could nip the problem in the bud; informally pop in to see how the class is getting on; give you extra staff (e.g. a Teaching Assistant); speak to the students involved; speak to the group leader or parent etc. Staff should also become informed about student welfare, and we recommend they take the Gallery Teachers Safeguarding Certificate to help them do so.

The Takeaway Message

Students may come to your school with their cultural eyes partially closed, but their interactions with you will certainly mean that they leave with them wider open. All members of British school staff form part of young learners’ British cultural experience and it is our job to help them to deal with culture shock and cultural differences, and not to judge or reprimand. There is a two-way cultural exchange happening, as you learn from the students and the students learn from you. Handling cultural differences can be shocking and difficult at first, but with empathy, tact and knowledge this will become easier and may even become one of the things you love most about the job.

If you have any comments about this, I would love to hear from you.

Please leave a message below.

Happy teaching and learning!

Emma x