How I teach - Celebrate the culture shock

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Use the diversity of your international school to enrich teaching and learning

Professional culture shock is a common topic of discussion in our staffroom. The general consensus is that no matter your prior teaching experience, the number of stamps in your passport or the number of languages in which you can greet someone, you can never be entirely prepared for your first job at an international school. You're in at the deep end.

So, how do you teach a class that includes children of 19 different nationalities? Try focusing on these three areas.

Talk, talk, talk

A single person cannot be expected to know about all the nationalities and cultures represented in an international classroom, but you will be expected to show an interest. Acknowledging the diversity in your class is as important as learning the names of your students.

In my classroom, we start every year by talking about where we're from and recognising that, although we don't know everything about each other, we're here to learn. Ask young children to count their peers at register time in their mother tongue (your students will be able to count to 25 in multiple languages by the end of the year). And get older students to add to a celebrations board when special events happen in their home country. Engage in discussions with parents and colleagues, too. These tactics will invariably lead to class debates that focus on similarities, rather than differences.

Accept that you will make mistakes

Even with the best of intentions, it is inevitable that at some stage you will make mistakes: demanding eye contact from the child whose cultural experience tells them that avoiding eye contact is the ultimate symbol of respect; trying to shake hands with the parent whose cultural comfort zone doesn't extend to physical contact with a relative stranger.

Reflect on your mistakes and talk to colleagues - sharing experiences is key to building a community of culturally competent teachers. Speak to more experienced members of staff before a parents' evening and find out the dos and don'ts.

Start with flags and food

Of course, nationality and culture go far beyond flags, national dress and traditional food, but in a culturally diverse classroom these elements are a good starting point for open discussion and deeper learning. The diversity of your classroom should be reflected in the content of your lessons and in the resources you use. By engaging the school community as experts in their own cultures, you can inspire intercultural understanding and the growth of respect.

Focusing on these three areas will encourage students to ask questions about, show respect towards and express interest in each other's nationalities and cultures within the safe environment of their classroom. This can support their development into open and reflective lifelong learners who are better equipped to contribute effectively to our increasingly diverse societies.

Jennifer Murray teaches at the Deira International School in Dubai


1 Teaching tips

Read these guides from England's schools inspectorate Ofsted on teaching English as an additional language (EAL).


2 Picture clue

Don't let language be a barrier to good behaviour - use these visual prompts for class rules.


3 Language fan

Build your students a "word fan" with this template, which features vocabulary and pictures for common English terms that students may need to use.


4 Word search

This resource provides the component parts for your students to build a picture dictionary of key words, from "apple" to "zebra".

bit.lyDictionary ForEAL

5 Class act

If you are one of the many teachers with non-English speakers in your class, this video offers practical advice to make your life easier and improve their learning.

bit.lyClass Strategies

6 Name the days

Get everyone on the same timetable with this guide to the days of the week in a number of languages, from Polish and Lithuanian to Urdu and Bengali.


7 Skills stretch

Take your advanced English speakers to the next level with this checklist of areas to help extend their writing skills.


8 Active vocabulary

A worksheet containing a series of mini-tasks, including a crossword and word search, to help EAL students learn school-related vocabulary.


9 Training day

This series of training documents will set you on the path to becoming an expert in supporting EAL students before you can say "Do you speak English?"


10 Needs must

Explore language development and barriers to learning with this presentation about EAL needs.


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today