Custom & Cultural Nuance in the Classroom Setting

Karen-Burmese family at International Night, Place Bridge Academy, Denver. May 2016. Photo: Louise El Yaafouri. The following is an excerpt from   The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition   (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

Karen-Burmese family at International Night, Place Bridge Academy, Denver. May 2016. Photo: Louise El Yaafouri. The following is an excerpt from The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).


Authentic cultural tolerance and understanding is a fundamental basis for success in the Newcomer classroom. A willingness to maintain awareness and open-mindedness in culturally divergent settings can promote positive exchange and individual growth. When we are able to engage with our students from bases of respect, tolerance, and attempted understanding, we also foster reciprocation of these same traits back onto ourselves, and also toward classroom peers. If, on the other hand, we develop habits of projecting fear, misinterpretation, and bias onto our pupils, then we have also contaminated the entire sanctity of the learning environment.

We know that the ways in which we view and interact with our students can tremendously influence students’ classroom and learning success. With regard to tolerance and cultural respect, every lesson begins with ourselves. Our behaviors will be modeled long before, and long after, our words have an opportunity to make an impression.

Realistically, however, and despite our best efforts, it can still be difficult, confusing, or unsettling to come into contact with cultural tendencies that are unfamiliar to us. For example, acceptable distances of physical proximity, vocal volume norms, pleasantry tactics and privacy stipulations can dramatically swing from one cultural demographic to another. It is impossible to notice and make sense of all of our students’ culturally divergent tendencies.

We will face many challenges in recognizing, interpreting, and accepting our students’ many cultural qualities. No one approach to living or learning necessarily trumps another. Each is simply different. Indeed, our Newcomer students may prove among the richest, most experienced cultural guides that we will know.

In the end, it is not a student’s sole responsibility to change to suit the teacher’s needs. Unquestionably, our Newcomers will be required to learn and adopt many westernized customs in order to successfully integrate into our culture. As educators, we can also allow ourselves some room for adjustment. These small personal transformations are reflected in the positive and tolerant ways that we choose to interact with students and plan for their optimal learning in each school day.


One specific conundrum is the eye contact issue. In the Newcomer setting, it is very common to encounter students who stoutly refuse to look an adult in the eye when they are being spoken to. This behavior may be especially evident if a child is being pointed out or reprimanded. In the West, direct eye contact with an adult or elder is typically equated with respect and obedience. Therefore, a dismissive look signals defiance and disinterest. This is our truth.

However, direct eye contact between a child and an adult is considered atypical behavior in many of the world’s cultures. Throughout East and North Africa, for example, direct eye contact between a child and elder is considered a sign of intense disrespect on the part of the youth. Resettled persons from these regions will very likely instruct their own children to look down when speaking to anyone older or of greater perceived importance, as this is what is considered the honorable thing to do.

Aha! Our eye contact-avoiding students, whom we may have perceived as acting disrespectfully, have been demonstrating utmost respect all along. These individuals exhibit respect via their truths, and according to personal experiences and relative social norms. There you have it. The teacher is just not always right.


Other cultural nuances are also evidenced in the classroom. For instance, many East Asian and Arab students are noticeably consumed with the notion of losing face. That is, they strive to avoid even the slightest run-in with public humiliation, especially that which would bring shame to the greater family unit.

This phenomenon surrounding fear of failure typically prevents risk taking, volunteering, and sometimes even trying in the classroom. Educators who come from a background of outspoken Western idealism may experience frustration at recurrent student episodes of superfluous caution. We might expect or wish that our learners would simply take a chance; to speak out, speak up, and care just a little less about peer judgment and evaluation.

From a culturally mindful perspective, meanwhile, we see that for most Newcomers, family and community comprise the very heart of a meaningful life. To embarrass or shame the family name could result in shunning either of the individual by the family, or the family by the community. Both fates equate to social death. Excellence and recognition, on the other hand, can bring respect and glory to an entire family and community.

In terms of social cohesiveness and support in the post-resettlement con- text, there are certain advantages to the saving face mentality. This inherent code of honor serves as a binding agent for resettled ethnic populations -and it may also serve as a cohesive strand between culturally diverse ethnic populations.

In the classroom, students who had been taught to adhere to saving face principals are very frequently self-driven learners who diligently applied themselves to their studies in an extended effort to bring happiness and honor to the home. They are likely to hesitate in answering questions, unless they can be absolutely certain that they have the correct response, and they may strive to please the teacher in every possible way. We can guide these students toward classroom chance taking by providing a nurturing classroom environment and celebrating mistakes as opportunities for continued growth.


In many non-westernized cultures, the use of the left hand is considered unclean and is strictly avoided in any social setting. Eating, passing objects, hand holding, patting, or greeting with the left hand may be considered taboo.

It is wise to be cognizant of this when presenting children or parents with pencils, paper, or treats with the left hand; the act may be received as inauspicious or as an outright abomination. Also, children who may be naturally left-handed go to great lengths to avoid using this hand for writing or other activities in the classroom, and quality of work may be impacted as a result.


Asking for help is not encouraged in most East Asian school settings. This may occur for several reasons. The first has to do with the concept of saving face, in which an individual may feel personal shame or greater family shame for not understanding. Second, asking questions often denotes individualism, which is rarely a prized value in Eastern cultures. Finally, in many countries, the teacher is considered the expert and authority in all matters relating to education, and therefore, it may be perceived as disrespectful to ask a teacher for clarification on a subject. As a potential result of heritage customs, the concept of asking for aid may require explicit modeling in the host setting.


Many cultures place great emphasis on the need for children to learn through exploration and experience. Even the very young are encouraged to experiment, play, and seek answers in a very tangible sense, often apart from direct adult supervision. In some communities, practical education is regarded with as much or more reverence than structured book learning. The tools, ingenuity, and skill sets that children gather during this adventurous time often enable future work and survival success, thus serving as an asset to the community as a whole.4

This is in direct conflict with traditional Western Sit-Up-Straight-And-Tall methodology. As a result, students who are more accustomed to wander- and-explore learning may have a very challenging time adjusting to certain classroom norms in the host setting. We’re talking about that child who seems entirely allergic to a desk chair. The one who stands as he or she writes, whose shoes have a habit of magically evading his or her actual feet, and whose desk is a nesting place for pen caps, twigs, puffballs, marbles, and origami triangles—that just might be your Wander-And-Explore student.

And it’s ok. These students are still learning, after all! Typically, these harmless classroom behaviors will dissipate with time. Again, they are not wrong; they are just different than what we have been trained to be used to. Best practices call for us to provide explicit learning opportunities for wander-and-explore learners that accentuate their problem-solving strengths, such as manipulative learning techniques. Meanwhile, we can promote positive behaviors that will lend to their future success in westernized schooling environments.


In many countries and cultures, personal space is not valued as a commodity. In these settings, spatial boundaries may be nonexistent. It will be very natural for students from these regions to position themselves extremely close to other individuals throughout the school day. Custom may encourage students to push right up to another student while standing in line, or think little of physical contact such as touching elbows or knees at a desk. Talking may occur at close range.

These behaviors are a routine part of life in many African and Middle Eastern countries. They are, in their essence, innocent reflections of human nature, in contexts where many people share a limited space. However, privacy considerations can become problematic in the classroom when someone with contrasting personal space values encounters them. Spatial consideration may require explicit teaching and modeling within the classroom.


Time is not regarded with the same level of importance in all parts of the world. In the westernized sense, timeliness is considered a virtue, and adherence to time is the common norm. In many cultures, however, timeliness may be out-valued by social interaction and other obligations.

In most African countries and many regions of East Asia and Central and South America, for example, it is considered extremely rude to cut greetings or exchanges short in an effort to make an appointment deadline, or for any other reason. Thus, meetings and other professional or social engagements can run far behind schedule. Lateness, in most cases, is not considered rude or irresponsible. Loose adherence to time is merely a reflection of cultural values. Therefore, punctual behavior may need to be overtly encouraged in the Western setting.


Normative values for conversational volume can vary drastically between cultures. Vocal registers that may be customary to many Middle Eastern or African cultures may feel harsh or alarming, at least according to Western expectations. In many regions, verbal exchange is an animated and lively process, and volume considerations may not be as esteemed as they are in the host setting. Meanwhile, Latin American or East Asian volume norms may be seem diminutive in contrast to host values, as soft speech and inwardness are considered virtuous character traits. In the classroom context, we need to work with our learners in establishing volume norms that are conducive to social and learning success.


Individualism is a trend that is largely exclusive to Western cultures. Most other countries celebrate collectivism, which encourages viewing the self as inherently and wholly linked to surrounding bands of community, beginning with the family. This whole-group perspective serves to motivate decision making that will positively influence not only the self, but also the entire social dynamic.

Learners who are accustomed to uniformity value systems may find little appeal in standing out in the classroom setting. They may have limited desire to be the best, or to ask for help or clarification. Blending into the overall group dynamic is seen as a definitive honor and benefit to the family and cultural group.

We can guide our students and families to enjoy some of the benefits that individualism can provide in the new environment. Ultimately, we hope for a balance. Students will need to exercise some elements of independence in order to fully thrive in the twenty-first-century learning environment; and they may also be compelled to retain certain heritage values. We can do our best as educators by honoring both avenues, as well as all the gray areas in between!


In most non-Western cultures, educators are highly regarded as essential pillars of the community. The teacher, in these societies, is considered a sole authority in terms of all learners’ academic welfare. Thus, education is considered the singular responsibility of the teacher. As a matter of trust and respect, parents are socially deterred from interfering with this process. Newcomer parents who are accustomed to this scenario will be highly unlikely to question the role or actions of a teacher, as such infringements would be considered offensive and disrespectful.

Complications occur when this behavior, as viewed in the West, may resemble a “lack” of parental involvement or disinterest in a child’s learning. We may become frustrated or affronted. However, the families themselves probably believe they are doing the right thing. Indeed, the concept of parent involvement in education is almost exclusively a North American one.

In effort to counter this, and other misconceptions, we must share in the responsibility of opening healthy lines of communication between the home and the school. In doing so, we make room for understanding, cooperation, and collaboration. When we, as host educators, are better informed, we’re less likely to react out of confusion or insult. Instead, we might be more inclined to respond with compassion, understanding, and careful planning.

By cultivating our own mindfulness of the cultural distinctions that exist in our classrooms and schools, we can enjoy more meaningful and impacting relationships with our students and their families. As a holistic outcome of cultural tolerance, trust can be established. From a place of trust, we can wholly access our students’ learning capabilities. This is the place where magic happens.



Virtue, David C. (2009). Serving the Needs of Immigrant and Refugee Adolescents. Principal, VA. Vol. 89, No. 1, 64–65 S/O

Moore, Dennis (2004). Conceptual Policy Issues. In R. Hamilton & D. Moore (Eds.), Educational Interventions for Refugee Children (p. 93). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Loewen, Shawn (2004). Second Language Concerns for Refugee Children. In R. Hamilton & D. Moore (Eds.), Educational Interventions for Refugee Children (pp. 35–52). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Charny, Joel (2008). World Refugee Day: Where are the World’s Hidden Refugees? Refugees International. Located at refugee-day-where-are-the-worlds-hidden-refugees. Retrieved Feb. 2014.

Meyer, Erin (2014). The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Bound- aries of Global Business. PublicAffairs Publishing.

Morrison, Terry & Wayne A. Conaway (2006). Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, Adams Media.

Lustig, Myron W. & Jolene Koester (2009). International Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures (6th Edition). Pearson Publishing.

Lewis, Richard D. (2005). When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures (3rd Edition). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Storti, Craig (2007). The Art of Crossing Cultures (2nd Edition). International Press.