As classrooms become more culturally diverse, it is absolutely essential that educators consider the importance of cultural sensitivity, become more culturally aware, and continuously build their cultural knowledge. Not understanding the unique experiences and cultural differences of students in your classroom can lead to unintended anxiety, miscommunication, and bad experiences for both the student and the teacher. In most cases, avoiding cultural misunderstandings only requires having an open mind, a willingness to learn, the ability to learn from your failures, and a sense of adventure.
In preparation for this article, I came across several definitions of cultural sensitivity, cultural awareness and cultural knowledge. One article that was most interesting was prepared by an organisation called Big Sisters in British Columbia, Canada. I liked their definition of cultural sensitivity as being the recognition that cultural differences exist and that people who care about cultural sensitivity simply place importance on the value of this diversity. Cultural knowledge is described as something that we might eventually strive for and includes taking the time to familiarise one’s self with selected cultural characteristics, history, values, belief systems, and behaviours of the members of another ethic group. While cultural knowledge might be something that we strive for, it is simply impossible to know everything that there is to know about your students’ cultural backgrounds. In fact, even within cultures, there are inconsistencies in beliefs and traditions. How could you possibly be an expert on every single tradition or belief as it relates to your classroom?
My journey as a professor has allowed me to meet students from many parts of the world, and it is from those experiences that I have learned the most. Even as a travel and tourism professor, I do not pretend to be a cultural expert. I absolutely love having a classroom with students from diverse backgrounds and always try to learn from my students so that I can in turn, find ways to inspire them that are meaningful to their own lives.
I will never forget one of my first teaching experiences with refugees from Kosovo many years ago. I almost laugh now at the endless training I had from the Red Cross about cultural sensitivity and diversity. I was told to wear pants (not shorts) or long skirts and never wear shirts with sleeves that went above my elbow. Guess what my students showed up wearing on the first day of class? Tank tops and short shorts! What I didn’t know is that they also went through rigorous training about Canadian culture.
I was told not to close the door so that people felt comfortable coming and going from the classroom, which was particularly important since they had just survived war torn conditions. You can imagine why I was horrified on the first day of class when the power went out and we were left in total darkness. On that same day, I had insisted that they call me by my first name, but they in turn insisted that it would be disrespectful, so we settled on “Mësues Jan”- a combination of their culture and mine.
Months after teaching, I received notes and letters from students thanking me for helping them through that time in their lives and for volunteering to teach them for the summer. They didn’t comment so much on the lessons, but that they felt welcomed, comfortable and valued in my classroom.
I drew on those examples in my career in a bid to remind teachers just arriving in the UAE that being culturally aware could mean the difference between a rewarding and fulfilling experience for you and your new students and a negative one. Take time to learn as much as you can about the cultural norms of the UAE. Be sure to read as much as you can and also speak to people who have been here before you. I assure you they will have some cultural gems to share with you.
In summary, I encourage educators to think of cultural sensitivity and gaining cultural knowledge as a journey where you build and learn from your experiences with diverse groups of students by having an open mind, willingness to learn and the maturity to accept that sometimes you might make mistakes.
By Jan L. Jones