Cultural sensitivity is a very important aspect of running any classroom, but especially so when one is working with a group of people from a different background. Mutual respect is the bedrock of successful classroom interaction, and cultural sensitivity is vital to ensure that all parties feel respected.
When I served on the executive committee of my graduate school's student organization, one of my duties was listening to student issues with professors and helping them to either resolve the issue or get the resources they needed to ensure that the university was aware of their problems.
One of the first issues that tested my ability to help my constituents was a problem between an American student and a professor from a country in southern Europe. The program was, generally speaking, rather informal, but this particular professor came from a program in his home country where the student-teacher
relationship was much more formal. Added to this was the fact that the professor believed in offering criticism in a forthright manner, as he was used to from his old program. Added to this were problems of gender; the American student was a younger woman, and the professor was an older man. This led the professor and the student to anticipate certain behaviors out of the other based on their cultural background, and when those expectations were not met, it led them to make assumptions as to why this was the case. This led to a great deal of friction in the classroom, as the student felt singled out, and the professor felt disrespected.
When I received the case, the two had already had a falling out in a semi-public place, and it seemed unlikely that they would be able to resolve their problems without outside assistance. I was asked to make the student aware of her options, and to attempt to resolve the problem, if possible. I began by talking to the student and the professor. When I did so, it became clear that the problems began because both parties were viewing the actions of the other through the lens of their own expectations, rather than by attempting to consider the motivations of the other person. This meant that actions that were not intended to inspire offense wound up being taken as designed to insult and disrespect. This in turn inspired responses which further escalated the problems.
In order to resolve the issue, I had to find a way to get both parties to consider the behaviors of the other from a perspective other than their own. I started by gently questioning their recollections of the event, gradually introducing more nuance into their retelling. Once they were thinking about what happened from other perspectives, I started them thinking about the possibility that the actions didn't result from malice, but rather from a misunderstanding. This got both parties to the point where they were able to hear the words of the other, and were willing to apologize for their part in the escalation of events. The problem was resolved, and while they were never really close, the two were able to finish out the last weeks of the course without any further difficulties.
This incident highlighted to me how vital it is for anyone in a position of authority to constantly consider how their actions are being taken by the people with whom they're interacting. Naturally, the people being led also need to consider their behavior, but the ability of the person in authority to exercise power makes it even more important for their actions to be above reproach. The teacher
must take steps to gain an understanding of the culture of their students, their concerns and possible trouble spots, and always take care both to make students as comfortable as possible and to treat everyone fairly. If students don't feel respected, they can't learn, and the classroom doesn't work. Thus, a teacher
must demonstrate that respect in every interaction they have.