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Teaching across cultures: Being mindful of cultural differences in the international classroom

As a teacher abroad, being able to recognize cultural differences will not only help you form a safe and comfortable environment for open communication between you and, your students and their families. It will also help you implement culturally responsive teaching practices in your classroom to ensure every student learns to their full potential.

When teaching students from different cultural backgrounds, especially English language learners, it’s important to be aware of cultural differences in student behavior. Certain cultural behaviors can be easily misunderstood by new teachers – different cultures have different nonverbal messages when it comes to eye contact, body language, unspoken seniority, etc.

As an example of how each international teaching destination can differ to a teacher’s classroom experience in their home country, here are some of the cultural differences that you might notice in student behavior in the South Korean classroom.


1. Students may fear making mistakes.

South Korean students may appear to be shy and hesitant to speak up. This is not because they don’t have any ideas to contribute, but rather because they may be afraid of getting an answer wrong. In many cases, students in South Korea are under great pressure for academic success, and as a result tend to be especially averse to making mistakes publicly.


2. Students may come across as competitive.

South Korean society, in general, tends to be quite competitive and as a result, students may take tests very seriously – even simple quizzes. Many students in your classroom may be sensitive to losing points or getting bad marks. This tendency can be used as a great motivator – putting a team points system in place is a great way to motivate your students to encourage each other to perform better.


3. Students may avoid eye contact.

You will often see South Korean students looking down, especially when they are in trouble. Many students believe that direct eye contact with a teacher is considered disrespectful and a challenge to a teacher’s authority. If you’re not familiar with this cultural norm, this can be misinterpreted as a sign of disrespect or indifference, while in fact, it’s the other way around.


4. Students may avoid engaging in debates or discussions.

South Korean society is built on a seniority system based on age and social standing. Seniority can influence the classroom atmosphere if the class consists of different ages. Younger students may appear reluctant to engage in debates, especially when it involves directly challenging the views and ideas of seniors. Some students may feel uncomfortable challenging the teacher’s point of view for the same reason. As a result, one of the most common answers you might get from Korean students in your classroom is “I agree”.


Teachers looking to go abroad for the first time – wherever you decide to teach in the world, learning how to adapt your teaching practice to these different behaviors is likely to be the most challenging part of your teaching in an international classroom. Check out our blog on why teachers abroad need to make culturally responsive teaching a priority for more info on Teach Away’s online culturally responsive teaching course, designed with a leading diversity expert to help teachers abroad better relate to students and families from a broad range of cultural backgrounds.


Teachers who’ve taught abroad before – what were some cultural differences in behavior that you encountered, and most importantly, what were the culturally responsive teaching strategies that you used to better connect with your students? Let us know in the comments below!


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