Intercultural teacher: the importance of knowing yourself to bridge differences

Have you ever wondered about the cultural diversity in schools and how to integrate in it effectively? Such questions arise when we work on developing intercultural competences (also known as global competences) in teachers and the educational community as a whole. In many countries it is not common to consider that these competences are essential for teachers, since the educational system has other needs that require immediate intervention. Nevertheless, experience shows us that when educational institutions implement programs to develop intercultural competences of teachers, they find a positive impact on students and the school in general.

By “intercultural competence” we mean “the effective and appropriate behaviour and communication in intercultural situations, the appropriate change of the reference framework and the adaptation of the behaviour according to the context” (see more in The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence from 2006, by Darla Deardoff, Executive Director of the Association of International Education Administrators and Research Scholar at Duke University). In short, intercultural competences build bridges between differences and cultures that coexist in our institutions.

Have you ever interacted with a culture you were familiar with, but you didn’t like the outcome of the interaction? In order to develop cultural competences, Janet Bennett, executive director of the Intercultural Communication Institute, (in Cultivating intercultural competence. A process perspective. published as Chapter 6 of The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence) suggested that cultural knowledge and cultural competence are not the same. That is, whatever we know about a culture may not be enough to efficiently interact with that very same culture. Even within our own culture there might be a gap between what we know and whether we can interact appropriately.

Self knowledge: the first step towards an intercultural world

Bennett compares our cultural positioning with a GPS. A GPS indicates where we are, where we are heading to and how to get there. In order to know how to relate with other cultures it is crucial to know where we start. We need to be aware of our own cultural positioning (where we are): our non-verbal communication styles, our values, how our history influences us, how we react to conflicts, what we consider right or wrong, what we consider important or not, etc. Knowing ourselves also means understanding our prejudices and preconceptions, being able to detect them and avoid being biased towards the other, who is culturally different.

We cannot expect this process to happen instantaneously. We have tools to measure and evaluate intercultural competence, and we can always use our own reflexive capabilities. In our teacher’s workshops AFS works with cultural identity and teachers’ identity, offering tools to get to know ourselves better, detect our prejudices and suspend judgement. It is not a short or simple path, but it certainly is very gratifying. If we want to develop an intercultural classroom with a group of students that can coexist and interact well with each other, the teacher has a key role. If we want an institution with peace and cooperation, we should start with ourselves: changing our world is in our hands.



This article was written by , Volunteer Development Director for AFS Argentina & Uruguay and an International Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program. It originally appeared in the AFS Argentina & Uruguay’s Newsletter for Educators (in Spanish).