As an EFL teacher, you will be teaching English students from diverse cultures: don’t assume that they will all be Spanish speakers. So what does cultural sensitivity mean? One useful definition is the following:
“Cultural sensitivity means being aware that cultural differences and similarities exist and have an effect on values, learning, and behavior.”
Stafford, Bowman, Ekking, Hanna & Lopoes-DeFede (1997)
How will this affect you, the novice EFL teacher, in the classroom?
Crudely put, it means that not all your students will have the same social and cultural values that you have. In view of this, you should definitely avoid talking about religion, politics, marriage, sex, punishment, government institutions, war, terrorism or any subject that is likely to cause your students distress or discontent. Am I being excessive?
If you think I am being excessive, consider the following scenario: you are teaching EFL to a class of Saudi Arabian students. A student brings up the subject of religion and in so doing praises the prophet Mohammed. In response to the student’s comments, you express the view that Mohammed was a fraud and that Islam is a merciless religion, but hey! – You’re just expressing your opinion and either way it doesn’t bother you what religion your students are. Congratulations! You’ve just lost your job!
People from some cultures are particularly sensitive about their religious beliefs. Whilst the majority of us in the west probably wouldn’t bat an eye lid if someone were to call Christ a fraud – the same is not necessarily true for non-western cultures.
Another dangerous tendency to be avoided is cultural stereotyping. For example, don’t assume that blacks are indolent and dumb and that somehow they are less intelligent than white people; don’t assume that all Arabs are crypto-terrorists, or that all Moslems are religious fanatics.
As it concerns females, be very careful of your proximity and bearing when you engage with females from non western cultures: they tend to be more sensitive in the presence of men outside of their family circles. Incidentally, if you have to speak to any female at the end of the lesson, make sure that there is also another student present.
Don’t get involved in arguments concerning culture differences that might develop among the students: always adopt a neutral position and make sure that the students understand that your sole role is to teach them English. In two words – zip it!