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Ten Tips for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language Abroad

An Experienced Expert Offers Time-Tested Advice

Here are some tips to help you avoid classroom culture clash in those heady first months of teaching abroad:

1. Dress right.

Jeans, sneakers, and just-out-of-bed hair may be okay for teachers in the U.S., but in many parts of the world, a neat appearance counts far more than credentials. In Korea dark clothes lend an air of authority. Red is to be avoided at all costs. In Morocco female teachers don’t wear pants, sleeveless blouses, or short skirts.

2. Behave appropriately.

When Judith Johnson asked 250 students at the Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages in China what they liked and disliked about native speaker English teachers, the students’ main gripe was the informality of foreign teachers, who often seem to undermine their own authority by acting in undignified ways. In the U.S. teachers go on a first-name basis with students, sit on their desks, sip coffee, and even bounce off the walls without causing student discomfort or losing prestige. But these behaviors don’t export well.

3. Don’t worry if students seem unresponsive at first.

Americans are used to participatory classrooms with plenty of teacher-student dialogue. Elsewhere, students are often trained to be silent, good listeners, and memorizers. In my classes in Poland, the Balkans, and Mongolia, students wore impassive classroom masks the first few weeks of class. It’s disconcerting to stand in front of a sea of blank faces, but expecting it reduces the shock. Introduce new concepts, such as discussion and role-play gradually. You’ll be surprised at how students will come to embrace the change.

4. Choose topics carefully.

In the 1980s, in then-totalitarian Yugoslavia, I made the mistake of asking students to debate the pros and cons of capital punishment. A painful silence fell over the room. What discussion was possible, someone pointed out to me later, when the government’s position was clear? There are still many countries in the world where people are hesitant to voice opinions because of a fear of reprisal. If you’re conducting a classroom debate, remember that there’s a distaste for Western-style argumentation in Middle-Eastern societies, and in Japan it’s offensive for an individual to urge others to accept his opinion.

Certain topics may be taboo for cultural reasons: Most Americans don’t want to discuss their salaries or religious beliefs; Japanese may be disinclined to talk about their inner feelings; the French think questions about their family life are rude.

5. Don’t ask, “Do you understand?”

In China and Japan, students will nod yes, even if they’re totally lost, in an attempt to save face for the teacher. Even in a country as far west as Turkey, yes often means no.

Nor should you expect students to ask questions in class if they don’t understand something. A former student of mine told me: “In China, a student who asks questions is considered a pain in the neck.” Check understanding by asking students to paraphrase or write questions they have in groups.

6. Avoid singling students out.

Our society fosters a competitive individualism which is clearly manifested in our classrooms. American students are not shy about displaying their knowledge. In classrooms outside the U.S., however, showing solidarity with classmates and conforming to the status quo is often more important than looking good for the teacher. In Turkey and Montenegro students told me they disliked volunteering answers too often because it made them look like show-offs and attracted the evil eye of envy. This holds true in Japan and China, too, where proverbs express the cultural idea in a nutshell: “The clever hawk hides its claws” and “The nail that stands up must be pounded down.”

If you want to play a game, make the competition among groups rather than among individuals. If you need to discipline a student, do so in private.

7. Be aware of cross-cultural communication styles.

French students generally appreciate wit. Venezuelan students generally like boisterous rapid-fire exchanges. In Japan, where debate is not as valued as in the U.S., students generally appreciate long pauses in discussions and silent “think time” after you ask a question. “Hollow drums make the most noise” goes a Japanese proverb, and Japanese students are uncomfortable blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. American teachers, who are uncomfortable with silence, tend to anticipate the student’s words or repeat their original question—both irritating interruptions for the Japanese student.

8. Present a rationale for what you do in class.

Your pedagogy is going to be very different from what students are used to. They’ll conform much more eagerly to new classroom content and procedures if they understand the benefits.

9. Expect the best of your students.

They’ll be serious about learning English because their economic advancement often depends upon mastering it.

10. Relax and enjoy yourself.

Happiness in the classroom is contagious.

JANN HUIZENGA has taught EFL and trained EFL teachers in over 20 countries since 1978. She has held three Fulbright grants to the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Italy.

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