Red, brown, yellow, black, and white

Children gather for an open-air class in Ireland

by Libby Turner, alumnus of Faith Builders Teacher Apprenticing Program

If you are a teacher, do not be surprised if someday you find yourself teaching in the context of a different culture.  Maybe it will be in Mexico where termites come out of the wall to nibble into your history book... or maybe it will be in Eastern Europe, where you shovel coal into your little furnace to keep warm in winter... or maybe it will be with students of Asian background right  in your own town.  The possibilities and the needs abound.  Someday, God might call you to engage with another culture.

What can a teacher do to get ready for this adventure?  How can one live and teach well in a foreign culture?  Gathered from the experiences of various teachers, here are pieces of advice which may help.

Ask God to help you become grounded in Jesus Christ.
When you enter another culture, everything familiar suddenly slides out from under you.  Culture shock is normal, so be patient as you adjust.  Realize that the Most Important One will not change, and He must be your anchor.  If you stick close to Him and to His Truth, it will do you and your students more good than anything else could.  As one teacher reflected, “The more stability I had in what I believed and lived, the more I could give.”

Do as much as you can to prepare ahead of time.
Every culture is multi-faceted, including language, traditions, dress, religion, and so on.  Make it your business to learn all you can beforehand about the culture you are entering.  This is an act of respect for your students and their background, and will also help you feel more comfortable.  Try to find out what is or is not acceptable, and how different situations are handled.  If you will be teaching among Muslims, what should you do during the ‘call to prayer’?  How should you address a person who is older than yourself?  Does this culture value directness or indirectness in communication?  A friend teaching in Indonesia discovered that it is impolite for her students to leave the classroom before she does.   Are there similar expectations of which you should be aware?  Study the history, geography, and government, gaining some context from which to teach the children who live in this culture.  Do you know anything about the Viking invasions, the Easter Uprising of 1916, or Cromwell’s Plantations?  Important events such as these have shaped the very thought and character of the people you will be serving.  Start studying the language—even if this is difficult, it is extremely important in respecting and connecting with the people who will be around you, and they will love you for trying.

Look into what resources will be available for you as a teacher.  Are there good libraries, or teacher supply stores?  Be prepared to use your creativity and thriftiness, and think about what essentials, including books, you should take along.  Is there access to a photocopier or computer, or will you be writing out your biology worksheets by hand?  If you plan to use a foreign curriculum, try to find out how it is set up and what to expect.

While you are there, respect and adapt to the culture. 
Though you will probably find aspects of the culture that you cannot conscientiously participate in, there will also be much for you to take part in and enjoy.  Be humble and teachable—there are many things to learn from other cultures.  Remember that you are the one that needs to adjust to the culture around you; do not expect them to adjust to your culture.  As a teacher, do your best to guide your students to live well in their own context, instead of trying to make them into “little Americans.”  If the people around you say “rubber” for eraser, and “zed” for the letter z, then you as a teacher should do likewise.  Of course, you will make mistakes and blunders—relax, and be willing to laugh at yourself and to learn for the next time.  Be flexible, flexible, and more flexible!

Take a great interest in your students’ lives.  Make yourself a slingshot and join the boys in hunting jackrabbits. . . or attend the Russian church service when a student is baptized.  Try to enter their world and become a part of it as much as you can.  Build relationships with school parents, and with others outside of school.  Go down to the harbor and talk to the fishermen.  Sit in the yard with the neighbor ladies during the hot part of the day, even if you still have trouble conjugating your verbs correctly.  Try the pickle soup or the empanadas that someone brought you.   You will find, like one teacher did, that “the more I immersed myself in their way of doing things, the better off I was in understanding and relating to them.” Though you are a teacher, you must also be a learner.

Accept your own culture and background.
In some parts of the world, the culture you come from may be idolized; while in other places, it is looked down on.  You will be most healthy if, in the middle of experiencing a foreign culture, you can gracefully accept your own culture with both its strengths and its weaknesses.  As a foreigner, you will always be “who you are,” even if you adapt to the new culture around you, and you should neither flaunt nor be ashamed of this.  Jesus loves the people of every time, place, and culture, and He can give this love to us.  As you accept your own culture and that of your students, you can both live and teach the truth of “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!”