Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Contextualizing the Journey

Whether you’re teaching in your home country or another, the English language classroom always includes some element of crossing cultures. Even if you and your students come from the same culture, society, and education tradition, individual differences influence views of the classroom and world. How can you develop professionally and your (peer) mentor support you without a good understanding of your teaching context? In order to illustrate how this works, let’s talk about a proverb and an example.

A Proverb

A teacher is talking about her oral English course which is organized around intercultural communication. When she asks students to describe their local culture, they mention food, clothing, and famous sites. When you and your mentor explore your teaching context, going beneath the surface is important. Culture is more than food, and an education system is more than the sum of its exam scores. I’ve found that investigating proverbs or metaphors with local teachers is one enlightening way to gain a deeper understanding of my teaching context.

Last week when we talked about destinations, I described how my students and I negotiated our fourth essential question for Teaching Methodology: What does 教书育人 (Teach books; cultivate human beings) mean to you? When I asked participants in my teacher support group to analyze this proverb, they talked about their responsibility for both the academic and moral development of their students. Some of my Chinese university colleagues have gone to great lengths in order to fulfill their responsibilities: forgiving students for worrying offenses (even violent ones); tracking them down in their dorm rooms and tempting them back to class with a gentle scolding and a gift of food; celebrating when troublesome students become contributing members of society.

Where do expat teachers and followers of the Master Teacher fit into this societal and education context?

An Example

Whether you’re in your home country or an adopted one, there’s a lot to learn. You and your mentor may need to become “researchers” of your teaching context. If your mentor is an “outsider,” you will be her/his primary informant. Then, together you can figure out how culture and society, education systems, and individual differences influence the way students and teachers think and behave in the classroom.

One of the mentors I’ve worked with is a good example of how this research plays out. Some of “Sarah’s” mentees are in the Middle East teaching refugees awaiting placement in other countries. Since at the outset Sarah and her mentees were all new to the region and the education setting, they’ve taken a variety of approaches in order to gain a deeper understanding of their classroom contexts, including: [2]

  • exploring Geert Hofstede’s Country Comparison page[1]
  • reading books and articles about cultural differences, religious practices, and the effects of trauma on language learning
  • observing and interviewing local and expat teachers currently working in the context
  • interviewing (by email) teachers and administrators from the students’ target contexts (ESL programs for refugees in the countries where they may be placed)

Contextualizing your journey toward professional development likely means you and your mentor will need to ask some difficult questions, made harder by the fact that your conversations may cross cultures. However, “questions about culture and even personal ones can produce a healing balm, for questioner and questioned, when they come from a humble, caring heart rather than out of judgment or accusation.”[3]

[1]   “Country Comparison,” Geert Hofstede, accessed October 9, 2017,
[2]   Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring, (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).
[3]   Melissa K. Smith, “Crossing Streets and Oceans,” Master Teaching (blog), January 21, 2015,

Further exploration

  • All of the posts in this professional development series draw from a forthcoming book:  Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring by Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, (New York: Routledge). We’ll let you know here on Master Teaching when it’s available for purchase. (Both paper and e-versions will be published at the same time.)
  • For more on crossing cultures in the classroom: intercultural communication.

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • What aspects of culture, society, or the local education system characterize your teaching context
  • What individual differences between you and your students characterize your context?
  • How could you and your (peer) mentor investigate your context?
  • How could your questions produce a healing balm for you and those you ask?

Try it out

1. With your (peer) mentor, investigate an aspect of your teaching context. You could:

  • interview some local teachers about proverbs or metaphors related to teaching, teachers, or learning.
  • explore Geert Hofstede’s Country Comparison page and compare your culture and your students’.
  • read an article about an aspect of your teaching context.

2. With your new ideas in mind, go back and look at your outcomes/essential questions from last week. Do they need to be revised in any way to reflect what you’ve learned about your teaching context?

3. Make a list of characteristics of your teaching context that you may need to keep in mind as you work toward your outcomes/essential questions over the next few weeks.

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

One comment on “Contextualizing the Journey

  1. Marilyn Lewis
    October 12, 2017

    YEAH. How pertinent: “in your own country or another.”

    Thanks my friend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on October 11, 2017 by in intercultural communication, learning teaching, Melissa K. Smith, professional development.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
%d bloggers like this: