Co-creating professional relationships across cultural and language barriers

The roles and responsibilities of intercultural relationships are as creative, dynamic and expansive as the people in them. As a traveller in any country, the onus is on us to learn the local language, develop relationships and adapt to a society which may be welcoming at times and mind-boggling at others. However, as time passes and tensions are ignored, patience and respect can wear thin. Those romantic notions about foreign adventures can rapidly become daily frustrations and excuses for mediocre personal conduct. With the context of prejudice and racism becoming a dominant conversation topic in recent months, it also raises a discussion that needs to happen within the TEFL industry and classrooms across the globe.  


Full disclosure; I was born and raised in New Zealand, English is my first language and I have the luxury of being self-employed while enjoying the white privilege of living abroad with my Irish husband. And just like that, you have probably already made several assumptions about me. Prejudices, one might even call them. What you wouldn’t see at first glance is my Thai mother who immigrated to New Zealand in the ’80s with her own biases, perspective and stories. You also wouldn’t see the invisible language barrier that exists between us, filling the cracks of her broken English. And you also wouldn’t see the courage she inspired in me to move back to Asia to teach English as a Foreign Language as a solo woman with little more than a dream to change the world.

 

The truth is that having a white face which houses a native speaking tongue doesn’t qualify anyone to teach.  


Within the TEFL industry, there is an abundance of prejudices and presuppositions. However, I know these prejudices exist outside of TEFL classrooms because even in native English classrooms, we all either learned or learnt about them in our own education. So, instead of focusing on the problem, which is perpetuated by you still thinking about what you learned (or learnt), we need to look at the holders of such attitudes. Because it’s either us or them, and it’s obviously them. Right? Wrong. This “us versus them” mentality is exactly what both causes and deteriorates the situation further. 

 

A more beneficial alternative is to co-create equal partnerships in professional relationships. Empathy, patience and respect are universally expected traits in every professional relationship, irrespective of culture or language. No matter what job, which industry or who you work for, developing these traits will only ever serve your career. As we discussed previously in this series, every human has the potential to be nice and smart. And as humans, we all want to help the nice person and learn from the smart person. We can choose to co-create relationships where we feel safe enough to suggest new ideas, be respected for our own abilities and experience patience when listening. That is the kind of working environment everyone wants.  

The only way to create that kind of environment is through open, honest and reciprocated dialogue. We can never hope to fully control a conversation, but we do have control over our own responses. When we choose to respond rather than react to a situation, we show leadership qualities that encourage further reciprocation. Sometimes the most influential person in the room is the loudest, but usually, the most powerful person in the room is actually the one who calmly observes and listens. Of course, that is also subject to context. What might be seen as passion from one person could easily be seen as aggression by another; supporting sports teams for example. In the workplace or classroom, that same passion has been known to arise over who sits where, who used which mug, and even why someone would not choose a particular meal or beverage. And I am not even talking about students! 


When dialogue is not mutually reciprocated, it can and frequently does, create conflict. In situations where there is much at stake, tensions are often quick to rise. This can damage the patience and respect in the relationship. Naturally, this can be restored, but both parties must be committed to coming back to neutral ground and maintaining open, honest and reciprocated dialogue. One common scenario within the context of educators is a disagreement with a TA or partner teacher. Different values might hold different weights for the different parties involved. This is likely to create a conflict.


However, not all conflict is damaging. In this scenario Teacher A sharing their ideas about how to make the lesson more efficient might be something Teacher B hadn’t considered previously. If Teacher A observes the tension in Teacher B and chooses to use neutral, simple vocabulary, conflict can be resolved before it even begins. By using the FeedForward thinking previously described, Teacher B would not take Teacher A’s sharing as a negative, personal attack. Therefore, both parties would be able to learn something from this and together they could continue to create an even better plan.  


Conflict can also occur during the lesson when the teacher and their TA are not in sync. When teachers model appropriate and dialogue during the conflict, it can be very quickly resolved. This can then lead to students picking up on these conflict resolution skills and repeating the behaviours amongst themselves. I have even observed students willing to question and argue with the teacher using this open dialogue, simply stating “I don’t like it when you do ABC because XYZ”.


Personally, I think that any student willing to begin that conversation has an abundance of courage and an ability to see beyond the cultural or language barriers. Perhaps even more than their teachers at times. The possibility which such a simple sentence creates is exactly what Coaching in Education is all about. 


Pam