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The Impact of School Culture

From the series Cross-Cultural Education


Educational Cultures

We all have cultural assumptions about education.

  • What is the purpose of education?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • How should a student be trained?
  • What does a good student do?

Every culture will answer these questions slightly differently, and every school will operate according to the values of its administration.

Here are some very basic, one-dimensional examples:

School A puts a high value on independent thought, and therefore rewards students who ask questions during class.

School B puts a high value on respect for authority, expressed through quiet absorption of teacher-directed content.

School C puts a high value on conformity, and therefore expect students to dress, act in class, and produce work within narrow limits.

School D puts a high value on creativity, and therefore encourages students to express themselves with an individualistic style, both in personal and scholastic pursuits.

What happens when a child moves from one of these school cultures to another?

A student moving from School C to School D may feel overwhelmed, and incapable of succeeding.

A student moving from School D to School C may feel stifled and frustrated.

One story I have heard numerous times is that of a child moving from a School A culture to a School B culture.

In School A, the child was trained that the way to succeed at school is to ask questions of the teacher during class. When this child moved to School B, acting in this way resulted in the child being labelled a rebellious troublemaker. While asking questions is a sign of independent thought prized in School A, in School B it is a sign of questioning the teacher’s authority—which will not be tolerated!

This is bewildering and discouraging for the student. It is baffling and infuriating for the parents—if they even discover the root of the problem.

What is considered normal and acceptable discipline is different in different cultures. The character qualities prized in students differs.

Children learn to adapt, but these cultural misunderstandings and conflicts can leave a lasting impression.

I even had teachers make fun of my accent. When I was 15 the Spanish teacher in Colombia laughed at me when I answered her in my Argentine Spanish. So I hid my identity. I copied my classmates’ mannerisms, tone, and accent until nobody could tell I wasn’t Colombian. But I would speak Argentine Spanish at home.[1] 

Melody, 31 (Argentine/German passports, lived in Argentina, China, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, Uruguay, and the USA)

Supporting Students through Changing Educational Cultures

So what can parents do to support their children through a cross-cultural education experience? Here are some suggestions:

1. Investigate values.

Find out what the school feels is important. Arrange meetings with your child’s teacher and school administrators (such as a principal). Ask questions like those outlined above: what is the role of the school, the teacher, the parent, and the student, in the development of the child? How should a child be motivated, and disciplined? What does an excellent student do in order to excel?

Knowing what the school believes will give you a huge advantage in understanding and navigating the cultural waters. You may need to carefully frame the meeting and your questions, placing yourself as a learner and not a judge—you are not passing judgment on these values, you are trying to learn what they expect your child (and you) to do. If you need the support of a friend (whether for translation or courage—or both) then bring someone along with you.

2. Listen to your child.

If your child has difficulties, take time to listen closely to your child’s feelings about the situation. It may be that they know how to proceed, but need to blow off a little steam in a safe place. Ask them if they know how they want to respond to a problem, or if they would like to brainstorm ideas with you. Be a support to help them navigate their education.

3. Be a values-based advocate.

Sometimes you may need to step in and push the school administration to recognise and deal with a particular problem. Sometimes you will find it impossible to move a whole school culture, but will need to choose a way forward with/for your child. Whatever the situation, try to focus on values: what values are the school/teacher operating out of? What values of your own are being infringed on? Keeping a values-focus will help you build understanding instead of grudges—a big temptation when your child’s welfare is involved!

This is a very big topic, and can stir big emotions. And that’s okay! The wellbeing of children is something that is important to everyone—parents and teachers alike. We may have different ideas of what wellbeing looks like, and how to get there, which can be frustrating and even hurtful. Both teachers and parents may feel unheard or disrespected at times. But remember—you are on the same team, if not on the same page.

In a follow-up post, I will look at cross-cultural schooling in the Chinese context: how international schooling affects Chinese students (and their families) and how Chinese schooling affects international students (and their families).

Image credit: wave new from Pixabay
Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman is the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She is passionate about building bridges of understanding between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and those who care for them. She has mentored hundreds of teenage and young adult TCKs over the past... View Full Bio


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