East and West in the Classroom

by Shannon Farlin1

Teaching at an international school is a unique and rewarding experience that brings many blessings, but it can also bring cultural stress as you relate with students and parents from countries all around the world. Preparing yourself by learning about some common pitfalls in relating to Eastern cultures will assist the Western teacher, increasing their likelihood of success. English language acquisition, differences in parental involvement, and clashing worldviews are three topics of many with which teachers at international schools should be familiar.


Typically, the first obstacle when teaching students from the East is English-language acquisition. Students come with many levels of English ability, both conversational and classroom skills. Pronunciation is one obstacle that Eastern students must overcome because the phonemes are different. A common example is the “R” sound being blurred with the “L,” making the words “poor” and “Paul” sound alike. Eastern languages often use a different script. Thus, each student must first learn a new alphabet. Many English words are rooted in Latin, Greek, and other European languages. Students who speak only Asian languages don’t have the advantage many non-English, but Western students have. Because of these large differences, English acquisition can be arduous, painful, and, on occasion, humorous. The Eastern value of diligent studying overcomes many of these challenges.

Parent Participation

Parental involvement in the education process is another contrasting issue. In many Eastern cultures, the mother is the primary parent responsible for the children’s education, thus the “tiger mom” with her cubs stereotype. In the elementary classroom, Eastern parents are very involved and appreciate communication from the teacher. However as the student grows older, each child becomes more responsible for their education and behavior. Thus, many Eastern parents won’t typically attend parent-teacher conferences for their high school children unless specifically invited. This, language barriers, and other parenting differences can lead to confusion and miscommunications. With some experience and patience, these obstacles can be overcome.


Differences in Eastern and Western cultural values and beliefs can also lead to confusion or miscommunication in the classroom with Eastern students. Tradition, harmony in relationships, and hierarchy can clash with critical thinking, individuality, and independence. These differences are uniquely represented in viral images created by Yang Liu and gathered in her book East Meets West. A savvy international teacher will familiarize themselves with these differences to avoid common pitfalls and to learn ways to value the rich culture in their classroom routines and lessons.

In general, one of the lessons of living overseas and cross culturally is that “different” is not always wrong, it’s just different. Delay judgment to be able to discern the advantages of the contrasting values. Approaching cultural differences at school and in the classroom with this mentality allows an international teacher to learn and benefit from the variety found in their classroom.

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Shannon is a TCK raised in Asia who has served for more than 15 years as a math and science teacher and an administrator in Asia.