The Culture of Teaching

“A Tanzanian, teaching at a British University in Malaysia, what could be more ideal?”

I had asked myself that question – or variations of it, depending on my geographical location – almost every single day for the last decade or so of my life. I had never really acknowledged my (unique) background, however, in the way my boss did when I volunteered to take over teaching a module that centred on the dichotomies of culture. Those were his exact words to me, and that question was what had me thinking, ‘sold!’ My big break had arrived.

It is my firm belief, and I do not know of any other professional who would disagree with me, that teaching encompasses passion, thirst for educational challenges, and a love of all that is diverse. We have all heard of -and had- conversations about culture at one time or another, but seldom has one looked at the actual culture of teaching. The way we instruct is greatly influenced by where we are from, where we have drawn our experiences, and what we want future generations to take away from their learning journeys. Even though it is something you know to be true deep within yourself, the marriage of culture and teaching is one of those concepts that is more often than not taken for granted.

What I have learned from teaching (and being!) in a multitude of places, in seas of different faces, against the backdrop of a myriad of the colourful infusions of culture, is this:

1. Fully embracing your own background, in whatever form or shape it takes, allows you to be – by default – open to seeing and appreciating other cultures through your students’ eyes. It creates an almost instant rapport, building up to a solid relationship that will not only go beyond one’s teaching scope, but also one that will last a lot longer than many academic years.

2. Explore and consciously learn – as much as possible, taking into account time restraints! – about the people you are teaching. Learn about the cultural aspects of their lives (their lives back home if they’re not native to the land you’re instructing in). Open doors to what makes them who they are. This goes beyond superficial aspects (‘how do you greet people in your country/culture?’) to a little under the tip of the iceberg (‘how are women viewed?/What can you tell me about gender dynamics in your town?’).

3. Listen to how they respond. And I mean attentively, and emotionally. You will ‘hear’, in the recesses of your mind, away from the buzzing of reality, doors opening. You may even find an untapped source of motivation being released.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, teaching culturally in its most basic form, is preparing to open yourself up to your students, and having them open up to you, regardless of societal norms, ethnic obstacles and language barriers.

I am fortunate to have had it all.

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