Working with Schools: Advice for Intercultural Professionals

A local high school was worried about a student from Korea who was not talking – a single problem that had metastasized into a systemic crisis. Because the school relied heavily on the Socratic Method, her lack of class participation meant her grades suffered. Because the school strove to instill a sense of individual responsibility in its students, it also had a policy that they had to initiate tutoring by directly asking for it themselves. (Thus her lack of speaking also prevented her from receiving help in less-verbal courses like math). And, because the school wanted to foster an engaged atmosphere, it established guidelines which viewed a lack of active, meaningful participation as a disciplinary issue.

The school hoped I could somehow fix the student and speed up her assimilation. She clearly needed cultural coaching, as it was not working for her to cling to Korean scripts in the U.S. But it takes two to tango. In viewing the student as the only one with any agency, the school disempowered itself and acquired a distorted view of cultural difference as being more threatening and incompatible than it truly was. A manageable cultural challenge had become an ordeal, rather than an opportunity. And yet, it was an opportunity. This student was the first whose cultural norms clashed dramatically with school expectations, but she would not be the last. How the school handled this situation would become a template for how it dealt with future cultural challenges. Thus, I advocated for a holistic approach that not only advanced the student’s cultural competence, but the school’s as well.

Best Practices for Working with Schools

Amid changing demographics, intercultural professionals are increasingly asked to consult in educational settings. For first-timers, it can be an unfamiliar and even perplexing terrain. I suggest starting with these best practices, and modifying them or adding to them as you gain experience.

First, get leadership buy-in

This is key, especially if you came in through a teacher request and were not initially invited by the principal or assistant principal. It can be tempting to get started as quickly as possible, but speaking from experience, it is futile to move forward until you have the leaders on board (although sometimes this does not become apparent until much later). This is also your chance to establish expectations, set boundaries, learn about any requirements for working on campus and discuss payment.

Listen

If they reached out to you, it is because you have more advanced intercultural skills. However, it is still their classroom, their school, and their student. Before you offer your advice, ask teachers and administrators what they have tried, how it worked, why they think it went the way it did, what they feel they need to know, and what else they want to try. Ultimately, they are the ones who need to take ownership of the process, so it is important that you not short-circuit it by providing easy answers.

Recognize the macro and micro factors

Faced with political meddling, high-stakes testing, decreased budgets, and unrealistic demands that schools fix all of society’s problems, many teachers feel under siege. True, they accepted the huge responsibility to guide the next generation, but they are still human beings with feelings, insecurities, and needs of their own. I’ve found that if you can give them space to work through how culture clash is affecting them (Personal Leadership is a good model), they can move past the resentment, guilt, and frustration to find creativity, flexibility, and resilience in working with their culturally-different students.

Set reasonable expectations

Don’t oversell and under-deliver. The school needs to understand that bringing a cultural expert into the mix will not deliver instantaneous results. A trainer can facilitate group workshops and a coach can provide support as teachers develop their intercultural competence and as the school plays with new strategies, but it is still a journey. I discuss their commitment level up front. If they are not willing to work on their own cultural awareness, there is a limit to what you can accomplish.

Establish boundaries

One challenge working with young people is that you really start to care, and it is easy to become so involved that you wonder if you have adopted the student. It is a delicate balance, but avoid doing the work that the student, the teachers, and the school need to do for themselves, remembering that you are not their savior. They need to know what they can and cannot expect from you, upfront.

Know when to say goodbye

As the intercultural professional, it is your job to let the school know when you feel they are graduating beyond your help or when you have done all you can within the circumstances. It is a good practice to schedule an official school year wrap-up with the department head or administrator. This is your chance to share what you have observed and suggest next steps. It is also their chance to offer feedback, and for both of you to discuss whether it is necessary or desirable to continue the relationship. If you will continue working together, it is the time to discuss any changes you would like to make in the relationship. If you will not continue working together, part professionally and on good terms. Thank them for the experience, and ask if you can include them as a reference. Be sure to keep the student informed of your plans, too.

Conclusion

Both my student and her school have come a long way. She is no less Korean, but she has developed a comfortable, authentic American self. She is passing most of her classes, jokes with friends at the lunch table and even went to prom. Her teachers continue to have high expectations, but they are more appreciative and less critical. No longer pointing fingers or withdrawing in angst, both sides are truly engaging in a sometimes awkward but sincere dance across cultures. The progress is sometimes slow and unsteady, but they are getting there. And I couldn’t be happier.

Note: These guidelines are based on my experience working with schools in Arizona. You may need to adapt them to your local cultural context. (If so, I would be very interested to see your modifications and to learn more!)

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