By Ann Straub, CIS International Advisor
When 50% of your school’s staff are from a local eastern culture and 50% are from a western culture, how do you navigate the many associated cultural behaviours and inevitable misunderstandings to nurture a mutually respectful, collaborative, effective and happy working environment for all?
I recently worked with the Avenues World School, in Shenzhen, China. The school is an English and Mandarin language immersion school that primarily educates Chinese children. It offers the Chinese National Curriculum using an innovative approach to learning, beginning this year with the Small World program from nursery through kindergarten. The teaching and learning style is project-based and experiential, using teams of Western and Chinese teachers in the classrooms. Andrew Torris, the new Head of School, predicts that given the 50% Chinese and 50% Western staff that cultural misunderstandings would occur once the beginning of school “honeymoon” period ends. To prevent these, and to allow each member of the staff to contribute to Avenues, I worked on the competence with the leadership team and fifty new staff members over four days.
We first focused on understanding ourselves better, our own cultural behaviors and unconscious biases. The leadership team completed the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and focused on leading schools interculturally. The staff focused for two very full days on developing an understanding of their own culture, what their cultural core is and what they are able to flex when dealing with diversity. All staff completed the Intercultural Conflict Survey which indicates where each person lies within four conflict styles. It was an eye-opening exercise as almost everyone aligned with their predicted culture’s style.
We then looked at how they can take action. Within schools established by Westerners, a key challenge will be for the Western staff to adapt their behavior to the Chinese staff since it is more often the Chinese staff who are expected to be more adaptable to the Western ways of conducting business. Avenues Shenzhen strives to blend Chinese culture and aspects of education with a Western model, making it imperative for everyone to understand the two cultures and to be constantly aware of bridging the differences with colleagues, students and parents.
The culminating activity for teams of teachers and leaders was the discussion and recording of how all staff at Avenues Shenzhen will honor both cultures when holding meetings, making decisions, communicating, supervising, and giving feedback.
When interviewed by a member of the Avenues Communication Team, I was asked, “Why don’t more schools do this?” It is often a case of competing priorities and a lack of understanding about the impact that culture has on relationships in the workplace. For many, the training was a transformative experience in that a new awareness was built regarding the similarities and differences between the two predominant cultures at Avenues Shenzhen and how to bridge those differences in classrooms, in meeting with Chinese parents and when working collaboratively inside and outside of the classroom.
A few things I would do differently next time I work with a group with diverse English language capabilities are to have captions added to all videos, encourage the use of translation apps for the accompanying e-booklet, and ask participants to read the booklet prior to the training sessions.
It is always good to remind ourselves not to make assumptions regarding cultural affinity based on appearance since there was an enormous range of backgrounds, experiences and perceptions within the group among the teachers and leaders at Avenues.
Related events and resources:
- Blog: Leading schools interculturally
- Blog: Recommended books about intercultural leadership
- Symposia for CIS members: Join us at a 2020 CIS Symposia on Intercultural learning in Leiden, Netherlands or Singapore
- Online course for leaders at CIS member schools: Login to the CIS Community portal to find out more.
- Survey for CIS members: The CIS Culture and Learning Survey helps your leaders and teachers to support students from across cultures to engage in the educational programmes at your school. Members can contact Brian Bedrick for information.