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Education & Development

In with the lions: Teaching in a foreign classroom

Updated Thursday, 23rd July 2015

This article looks at the challenges experienced by those teaching in a foreign classroom. 

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lioness in her den Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Keith Livingston | Take five Chinese teachers to a school in Hampshire. Put them in a classroom with 50 British teenagers under strict instructions to teach them ‘the Chinese way’, and leave them to it for 4 weeks.  This ‘experiment’, which was featured in BBC programme Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school, proved especially challenging for the Chinese teachers involved. 

Clash of cultures

Not too surprisingly, cultural differences caused a fair amount of friction between teachers and students, especially during the first half of the project.  Respect to parents and teachers is at the core of Chinese society, and therefore class discipline is never an issue in China. This means that Chinese teachers were not prepared to handle bad classroom behaviour.  Lack of respect came as a shock to them, and their emotional response was quickly picked up by the students, who spotted a weakness and used it to push boundaries further than they would have done in normal circumstances.

The situation of Chinese teachers was not unlike that of trainees and supply teachers, who often find themselves in a vulnerable position because they are unfamiliar with the teaching environment in which they are suddenly immersed.  For the Chinese teachers cultural values only made matters worse, as they seemed to assume that poor class discipline was down to their own inadequacy. In Chinese culture failure tends to be seen as a result of not trying ‘hard enough’. 

Students, on the other hand, found strength in numbers, but also in cultural complicity with their peers, relishing the effect of their bad behaviour on the ‘outsider’ and becoming bolder from mutual approval. In a more collaborative setup, local staff would have offered support to the visiting teachers to help them establish their authority from the beginning. However this experiment was set as a competitive ‘battle of the teachers’, so local support was only used as a last resort when the situation got out of hand.

Language and power

Another challenge all too easily forgotten is the fact that the Chinese teachers had to teach their subjects in a foreign language.  Teachers who can deliver their classes in English are held in high esteem by both students and parents in China.  Not only do Mr Zou’s Chinese students achieve outstanding results in mathematics, they also study the subject in a foreign language. They all know what it takes to learn a language and fully appreciate the value of language skills in the job market.

The five Chinese teachers who took part in the programme are very fluent in English, but despite their excellent command of the language they sound obviously foreign. In a cooperative environment this is not a problem. Native speakers are happy to overlook minor errors and oddities as they appreciate the merit of expressing yourself fluently in a language that is not your own. In a less cooperative situation however, even the slightest trace of a foreign accent, a peculiar intonation or the use of over-formal expressions may compromise the speaker’s authority. Telling people off is particularly difficult in such circumstances: It only works if your tone is just right, and that is very difficult to achieve in a foreign language, especially when you are under stress.

Any situation involving a native speaker and a non-native speaker of the language being used has the potential to alter the balance of power to the native speaker’s advantage. In this respect the Mandarin Chinese teacher Miss Zhao, was in a slightly easier position than her colleagues as she taught her own language. Interestingly, Mrs Li Aiyun, who taught students their native language, did not seem to be perceived as an impostor as one might have feared. In fact, her teaching did reveal the students’ poor command of English grammar. For example, few of them were aware that ‘swum’ is one of the forms of the verb ‘to swim’, but they still dismissed English grammar as irrelevant to them as native speakers.

Beyond the comfort zone

In order to function in an increasingly competitive world, today’s professionals need to deploy a range of intercultural competencies, or the ‘knowledge, skills and attitudes that comprise a person’s ability to get along with, work and learn with people from diverse cultures.’ (The Higher Education Academy, 2014). Taking part in the Chinese School experiment is a start, but the best way to gain those competences is through total immersion in another culture. Unfortunately student mobility figures show that Britain still has a long way to go in that respect. According to the European Commission, only 14,572 UK students participated in the Erasmus scheme in 2012-13, an EU programme offering student placements to study or work abroad.  In comparison Spain sent 39,249 students abroad, France 35,311 and Germany 34,891. While the UK received almost twice the number of students it sent abroad, France sent 6,018 more students than it received, closely followed by Italy (5,841), Germany (4,523) and Poland (5,449).

By throwing themselves into the deep end and facing the challenge of teaching in a foreign country, the Chinese teachers are excellent role models for Bohunt students. The fact that parents agreed to their children taking part in the project shows that they too appreciate the value of intercultural competence.  Furthermore, Bohunt school has been offering Mandarin Chinese for several years, and even teaching year 7 PE, RE and IT in Mandarin. The next step would be for Bohunt staff to become intercultural role models themselves.  The Headmaster Mr Strowger mentions returning the visit, which is indeed an excellent idea. We look forward to hear Bohunt teachers’ experiences in China.


The Higher Education Academy (2014) Intercultural Competencies [Online]. Available at  (Accessed 6 March 2014).





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