The Unannounced Challenges Facing Cross-Cultural Teachers

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A short compact man with a beautiful, well-trimmed gray beard* spreading across his dark-skinned face walked into the classroom. Setting his bag down on the table in the front of the class, Dr. Sérgio da Silva began class with a broad smile and a Portuguese accent.

As college students in the 21st century, we are more than likely to have a foreign professor at some point or another throughout our education. While it may be entirely subconscious, most students from the get-go have a slight prejudice against non-native teachers. We sometimes seem to think that these professors don’t teach well, their accents are too hard to understand, or such professors don’t “get” the culture, and we generally have less respect for foreign professors (which is very dangerous because even this assumption can affect reality).

However, what we don’t consider is that the “American” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way. Additionally, the challenges that non-native professors have to face are factors that we ought to take into consideration before we decide the edict on the professor’s teaching skills and person as a whole. In order to help students form a more empathetic viewpoint, I intend to address some of the struggles which foreign teachers have to face that we American students rarely contemplate, encouraging American college students to be less judgmental of foreign professors right off the bat.

Let me introduce to you Dr. Sérgio da Silva, a professor at Cornerstone University who is originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil (S. da Silva, personal communication, February 24, 2017). He achieved his masters in Brazil, but wanted to study abroad. After graduating with his Ph. D. from Central Michigan, he and his family stayed in Michigan and he has since been teaching in the US. Since his time in the states, da Silva has started studying Cross-Cultural Psychology and has brought up some valuable nuggets of information regarding cross-cultural teaching.

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Teaching Expectations

In my conversation with Dr. da Silva, he introduced the fact that one of the major hurdles faced by teachers for whom the school in which they teach differs from the school in which they learned is understanding the student expectations of teachers (consider this article written by a foreign student explaining how different American professors’ expectations are from his own). One example of this is that students in the US expect the burden of learning to be on the professors. Students are paying big bucks to end up in college classes and if the students don’t accomplish the grades they expect, they blame the professors and their teaching styles. In Brazil, on the other hand, it is seen as the students’ job to learn the material–going to college is a privilege and it is up to the students to make as much out of it as they can (Kuhn, 1996**).

Dr. da Silva explains that where he grew up, “students assume that professors are competent in their areas, and it is the students’ responsibility to do the work of learning themselves, even if the professor does not present instructional content in a fun, engaging, or even “organized” way. Cultures where individual performance is valued above authority seem to place more emphasis on the ability of professors to “engage” the students, than on their depth of knowledge.” To a professor used to having students who take great initiative for their studies, presenting information to a more passive group proves to be a bit more challenging. da Silva concludes by saying, “From this perspective, student evaluations of teaching using adjectives such as ‘boring’ or ‘unengaging’ may be understood as ‘incompetent teacher’ creating problems for faculty who come from a different cultural background.”

Lesson Organization

Organization, too, is different. Students in the US expect clear landmarks, marked transitions, and strict organization. Professors who run off on rabbit trails are seen as easily distractible and in general gain less respect. In Brazil, distractions are “positively expected” as a way for the students’ questions to be fully addressed (Kuhn, 1996**). The students and the professor are free to let the lesson flow from whatever seems most appropriate in the given situation.

In addition, US students expect professors to be extremely clear with their outlines and obvious in their structure, distinctly marking their transitions and main points. Brazilian students, on the other hand, are accustomed to following the flow of presentation by their own attention. A professor who is used to having students catch on to the lesson organization on their own would struggle with feeling comfortable stating what he feels to be obvious. It may appear demeaning to the students to make the obvious so clear.

The importance given to what students perceived to be ‘well organized’ was greater [here in the US] than I was used to in my country,” stated Dr. da Silva. “In my academic experience as a student, organized teachers were those who had deep knowledge of their disciplines, and were able to communicate to the class, even if they did not give us any outlines to follow and told many stories.”

Therefore, Dr. da Silva found this aspect of American expectations for organization to be an especially challenging one so he put forth extra, sincere effort and has, in fact, proceeded to make his lessons out in extremely clear, short outline form which he puts up on the PowerPoint for the sake of his American students who expect strict organization.

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Authoritative Persona

Another obstacle that is certainly rarely considered is that of knowing how to effectively pull off the appropriate persona that is expected of an American professor. This consideration was brought forward by Dr. da Silva. Dr. da Silva encountered problems responding in the correct emotional response necessary for the variety of roles a teacher must play. For example, he had trouble being strict partly because he simply didn’t have the vocabulary. In learning English, da Silva had been taught the friendly ways to speak and friendly things to say. He didn’t have training in how to respond to a student who didn’t agree with da Silva’s grading or who was being disrespectful.

Along with this, not only does one have to know English, one has to know the expected and appropriate responses and common phrases for different situations. Because of cultural differences, when Dr. da Silva was talking to people, he would often feel disrespected, offended, or accused. In situations where the professor doesn’t have experience in the new culture, he/she will revert back to their original culture’s “cognitive scripts.”

Psychology professor Sergio da Silva in his officeThese cognitive scripts are likely to involve a number of facial expressions, body movements, and translated idiomatic expressions that, although were effective back in her cultural setting to establish authority in respectful way, may be interpreted in the culture of the students as weak and over-defensive,” Dr. da Silva explains. “Also, the very situation of having the students approaching her, and their expressions of discontent, may be interpreted by this professor as having a meaning or social value very different from what the students intended.”

What Now?

These differences cause tangible struggles for students and teachers who are from different cultures. It is important to realize that no matter how hard one tries, there can never be perfect harmony in communication across cultures. Dr. da Silva attempts to “embrace the mismatch”;  to “sit here in hurt, accepting and loving myself even when I realize I don’t fit perfectly.” He understands that it hurts, but understands that there is more than just the hurt.

Deborah Tannen said it well in her book That’s Not What I Meant; How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships when she stated, “What seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style.” We American college students are quick to dis professors who grew up in a different culture. And, while it is true that there are things that may make classes with such teachers an experience requiring more mental effort, this is something that is two-sided. The amount of work non-native professors have to struggle through is admirable. So as students it is essential that we withhold conclusions, embrace the mismatch, and try to see the world from their point of view.

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While foreign professors may not teach in the epitome of American-style teaching, who is to say that, just because we grew up with American expectations, that ours our the best way to be?

Please leave comments. Let me know of your experiences with foreign professors. Have you ever considered the struggles they face?

*The beard has since been removed.

**Link only works for students with access to JSTOR–which includes all Cornerstone students

Additional resources:

Examining different educational expectations

How different cultures approach student motivation

Kuhn, E. (1996). Cross cultural stumbling blocks for international teachers. College Teaching, 44(3), 96-99. 



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