Secondary Secondary Sociology

Teaching Sociology to International students

As an international teacher of Sociology, I am often asked what the biggest differences are when teaching the subject to non-British students. To a large degree, the challenges are the same, teenagers are teenagers the world over and the creativity, surliness, wit and an obsession with looking at their phone differs not, no matter where you are teaching. The biggest challenge however, comes in the verbal feedback and cultural references we often make as teachers.

5 years ago I was teaching in the UK at a college in Sussex that had made a connection with a school in Kyoto, around 15 students a year came to the UK to take AS Sociology as one of their subjects. I made a conscious effort for students to be well integrated into the class with British students but I soon realised how often I made casual references to the likes of ´Eastenders´ when discussing Social class or ´The Inbetweeners´ in the discussion on education, references that were obviously lost on my Japanese students.

Even in a globalised and increasingly homogenised world I soon realised that Dot Cotton is not quite as iconic in the far East as she is in East London. What was noticeable however was that American culture seemed to be common ground and bridge the gap between cultures, a reference to a Hollywood film or Beyonce in the discussion on Feminism seemed to tick the boxes for both British and international students. Of course, if you want to go British then you cannot go wrong with David Beckham, Golden Balls is the perfect reference point for metrosexuality no matter who you are teaching.

In terms of verbal feedback, I became most aware of our odd British phrasing when I taught in Nairobi to amazing Sociology students who were largely East African, Indian or Pakistani. Telling a student that their work was ´quite good´ or ´not bad at all´ could certainly be misconstrued, of course in British linguistics both these expressions actually mean very good albeit it in a understated and modest delivery. Likewise, informing a student that their work is a ´little brief´ often means that it is far too short in diplomatic English, the classic ´room for improvement´ as we all know actually translates to ´sort yourself out and do some work!´.

It must be very confusing for a student when you describe the situation in the Middle East as ´pretty bad´ but the situation with the broken photocopier as ´an absolute nightmare´. Indeed I learnt to be a lot more direct in Nairobi in terms of saying what I meant. One such example of this was when I started each week by saying ´Some of you still need to complete your homework essays´ to which one girl raised her hand and said ´Why not just name those who have not done it´. She had a point! British language often has a subtext and hidden narrative whereby the listener is meant to read between the lines, however, in many cultures there is a definite ´say what you mean´ policy.

My nomadic existence as a Sociology teacher currently takes me to Madrid working with Spanish students in a British international school, the biggest challenge here is getting a word in edgeways! The students here love to talk, at a volume and with interruption levels that us Brits would consider uncouth. What is amazing is that a student here will appear to be talking to their friend and not listening to my instructions but when I challenge them to ´What have I just said?´ they rather irritatingly repeat back the instructions to me without hesitation or error.

I have also learnt that it is worth learning some basics of local dialect and when I say basics, I mean the swear words. My Swahili and Spanish are very far from perfect but I certainly learnt to pick up an expression or two that a student will shout when they get a bad grade or miss an open goal playing football on the playground. Never underestimate the power of telling a student ´I know what that means´ when they drop an expletive in their mother tongue.

So what are my overall evaluations? As an international teacher, it can be frustrating when your Japanese students say nothing and sit in silence staring at you and equally frustrating when your Spanish students will talk non-stop at 100 miles per hour, but what is important is that we as teachers cannot judge what we may consider rude by our own British values.

To reflect on the behaviour of the student it is important to first consider cultural differences, expectations, mannerisms and alternative cultural values before applying our own British expectations of rules and regulations…apart from mobile phones, I do not care what nationality I am teaching, put the phone away!


Matthew Wilkin

 Matthew has been teaching Sociology for 14 years and has taught in the UK, Kenya and is currently in an international school in Madrid. Matthew runs the website and the Socio-Zone iphone app.

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