Cultural Ambassadorship in the Classroom

As an inexperienced teacher, I have not written much about my teaching ideology, nor have I shared much beyond some of the successful lessons that I have had. As students prepare for final exams and I finish creating my last few lessons, I’d like to discuss my take on what it means to be a cultural ambassador in the classroom and how I have used my English lessons to fulfill this role.

My role as a cultural ambassador has changed a lot over the year. In my first semester, I used a textbook for most of my lessons, and my moments of “cultural ambassadorship” were few and far between.  Sometimes I could do a lesson about my country (USA bingo), its culture (music) and its customs (holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving), but this wasn’t the focus of my class. I found that students were generally very interested in lessons that went beyond “the script,” but I had fairly few opportunities for true cultural exchange with my students in the classroom. It was only when I spoke with students one-on-one during lunch periods that I could really learn more about them, share my own perspectives and culture, and offer genuine teachable moments.

This semester, the situation has been reversed. I don’t have many one-on-one discussions with students anymore, but I have so much more freedom in the classroom to teach what I want. At the beginning of the new semester, I was faced with a difficult question: what and how can I teach so that my students benefit from me and my cultural background as much as possible? How do I become a better cultural ambassador in the classroom?

Though many foreign teachers, including some of my friends, serve as cultural ambassadors by incorporating discussions of politics and social issues (sexism, racism, beauty standards) into their classes, I have chosen not to do so overtly for a few reasons. The first is that I am an outsider to Korean culture, and I do not want to impose my own opinions or cultural viewpoints on my students. I call students out when they use disrespectful language and explain why it is not okay, but that’s it when I’m standing in front of the classroom. Instead, I let the students who want to engage in serious social or political discussions speak with me personally, outside of the classroom and in a setting where they do not feel they have to “save face” in front of other teachers or their classmates. I’ve had some of my best “cultural exchange” moments when students have spoken to me this way, and I know that these students can share new perspectives with their friends.

The second reason is that, based on discussions I have had with my co-workers during our discussion group last semester, many of them would not be supportive of lessons that might challenge their personal beliefs and opinions (not true for all of my co-workers, but a number that is significant enough to make it difficult to do a successful lesson). Most of my students are not at a high English level, and if a co-teacher is unwilling to translate difficult topics, the lesson will fail. Support is key when teaching difficult or controversial topics in a foreign language.

The third reason is that my primary job here is to teach English writing, not social issues. As one of my high school English teachers told me, writing should help you think, articulate your own thoughts, and engage critically with the thoughts of others. I decided that this was the approach to use in my own classes in order to teach English and serve as an ambassador. In designing my own curriculum this semester, I focused each lesson on teaching a writing skill and a critical thinking skill. For example, in my persuasive writing lesson, I taught students how to write counterarguments and thus understand another person’s viewpoint. In my lesson on how to write a summary, I taught transition words, as well as how to determine the most important parts of a story without the extraneous details. In my poetry lessons, I taught poetic forms and encouraged students to think creatively, without a dialogue that they must commit to memory. My hope is that by encouraging these skills, which are often not a focus in this test-obsessed education system, my students will be able to think more critically about the world around them, especially when they encounter people and opinions that are different from them.

All this having been said, many ESL teachers do successfully discuss social issues from their home countries and their host countries, especially if they have their co-workers’ support or if their students have high English ability and a high maturity level. Sometimes when I see the lessons that the other foreign teachers are doing, I’ve wondered if by not overtly doing a lesson on stereotypes or gender equality, I’m not living up to the “cultural ambassadorship” that Fulbright stands for.

But I’ve realized that cultural ambassadorship is much more subtle than that.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a clear shift in my students’ writing. From writing the dull, template-based assignments from a textbook, students in my class now write about their emotions–fears for the future, pain from a breakup, hope for happiness after school ends.  They express more creativity in their writing, as well as a willingness to share opinions that seem contrary to what they are “expected” to have (especially in regard to sexual orientation, political views, and discontent about the school system). Their work is genuinely a pleasure to read, and it offers me so much insight into the complexity of their lives, and perhaps by extension, their generation in Korea.

Reading their assignments, I have wondered if speaking to a foreigner or in a foreign language gives them the freedom to speak more honestly, without concern for repercussions or shame. In some ways, simply being a foreigner, and a young one at that, means that my students will react differently to me. I often feel like I am more of a friend than a scary teacher. This friendship is a form of ambassadorship, too.

By giving students the opportunity to write what they think and feel and teaching them the English skills to express these thoughts and feelings, I have earned their respect and equipped them, in a small way, with skills that will be relevant outside of their English classes and the big college entrance test. I doubt that they will remember the English word “thesis” or that Maine is known for lobster, but they will remember the freedom and creativity they were able to use in their writing.

I think, finally, I am the teacher and cultural ambassador I wanted to be.




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