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Starting the School Year Off Right: Cultural Awareness and Rapport Building for the Expatriate Teacher

Al Qasimi Foundation
September 24, 2017

 

Cultural awareness can be the key to fostering classroom engagement and building positive relationships with students, ultimately making teachers’ jobs easier. It also helps teachers build constructive, collaborative relationships with their colleagues, school administrators, and parents. For new educators in the UAE, the importance of cultural awareness cannot be underestimated.

“Some teachers come to the UAE without having a basic understanding of the values and beliefs that shape the Emirati society or the laws and regulations that govern it,” says Reham Zahran, a teacher trainer with the Ras Al Khaimah Teachers Network. The impact? Potential challenges in facilitating learning and needless frustration for everyone involved.

So what do expat teachers need to know? More importantly, how can expat teachers use cultural awareness to build rapport and improve student engagement, and ultimately, student success?

Here are some considerations, especially for new expat teachers in the UAE:

1. Learn Common Courtesies

Were you running late and didn’t stop to say hi to your fellow teachers in the teachers room? It’s important to make an effort to greet everyone in the morning, know their names, and personalize your interactions. Emirati culture highly values relationships and hospitality. It often is more important to ask how someone’s family is, building rapport, than to get straight down to business.

Did you receive a vague response yet again? Instead of becoming frustrated, realize the person may be trying to say no politely or to be non-committal in case the person may not be able to deliver. These are some of the many things that are considered common courtesies in the UAE. As a new expat teacher it is important to engage with locals to learn the do’s and don’ts of everyday interactions. This will help you build collaborative, constructive relationships with your students, their parents, your fellow teachers, and your administration.

2. Attend a Cultural Awareness Session

To that end, expat teachers can attend cultural awareness sessions, such as the one offered by the Ras Al Khaimah Teacher’s Network. These sessions help teachers integrate easily into their school and community. They also help to create a cohort of teachers; building a community of educators you can rely on for support.

If a formal training session isn’t an option, consider finding someone willing to serve as a cultural mentor. This could be a local you’ve managed to build a relationship with early on, or another expat teacher who has been in the country a few years.

3. Have Realistic Expectations

Whether of your administration or your students, it is important to have realistic expectations. Before you first start teaching make sure that your expectations of your administration match their understanding of their job role, and vice versa. Throughout the year, be pro active and ask open-ended, not value laden, questions to better understand why things work the way they do.

With your students, taking the time to have a realistic appraisal of the level of their discipline and their English language abilities will help you better understand your classroom engagement and management needs. This will help highlight any of your professional development and cultural awareness gaps. Being reflective, adaptable, and not hung-up on being ‘right’ are not only best practices, but they are important skills to model for your student.

4. Be Open about Your Challenges and Ask Questions

Have you identified some of your professional development and cultural awareness gaps that you think could be making your job harder than it has to be? Often new foreign teachers don’t know how to engage with their fellow local teachers. They may even have preconceived notions of their own expertise that could limit their understanding of just how valuable the experience of local teachers is. Don’t fret, Emirati’s are very helpful and would be more than happy to share their expertise and opinions with you. Besides, who else can you ask pointed questions such as what are legitimate cultural limitations versus just student excuses? Your fellow teachers are an invaluable resource.

5. Show Yourself Empathy

As a new expat teacher in the UAE, you are bound to make mistakes or unproductive assumptions, so give yourself a break. Be humble and learn from them. Especially if you are new to the UAE, you may be going through your own personal adjustments and culture shock.

This is especially true when you move someplace that seems similar, as culture shock can sneak up on you. It is a real thing, which can have serious impacts on your wellbeing. Culture shock has four main stages: the honeymoon stage, frustration stage, adjustment stage, and the acceptance stage. To better understand how you are being affected by culture shock, as well as how to cope with it, reach out to your support network and research it.

Remember, if you are feeling anxious, irritable, and overwhelmed to give yourself a break. It is important to reflect on the places you feel most challenged, as understanding triggers can open the door to new creative approaches on handling situations with students, colleagues, and parents.