Staffing from East and West
By Richard Mast

Bringing international curriculum and teachers to schools in non-Western countries populated predominantly by local students is a growing phenomenon. The equation looks simple and enticing. The local parents want their children to learn English and to begin a pathway to a wider world context. The curriculum is the vehicle and the Western teachers and administrators are the ‘experts’ in international education, so it makes sense to bring both into the learning institution.


As experts, the role of the foreign teachers is to demonstrate their skills and help the host country teachers to understand what to do. Under these circumstances, the host country teachers may feel that they are not responsible because they are unfamiliar with the curriculum, its pedagogy and assessment. Instead they may defer to the ‘experts’, neither challenging nor questioning. Although understandable and essentially appropriate, this scenario can cause a delineation of responsibility that is not helpful for students.


A learning model to bridge cultures

For local children, their perceptions, thinking processes, perspectives, beliefs, values and responses are all based upon their cultural experience, often entirely different to Western norms. It should be no surprise, therefore, when they are asked to learn according to the expectations of the international curriculum, that they are confused, stressed and unable to comprehend what they have to do. This issue is not about language; if a foreign teacher could speak fluently in the language of the host country and taught that way, the students would still not know what is expected of them. Rather it is about two cultures failing to come together for the benefit of the students. There has to be a bridging of the cultures.


Two approaches to teaching and learning in this scenario are possible. The first is to impose the model of international education and expect the host country students to fit the expectations that were created for children from a Western culture. The second is to build a teaching and learning model based upon the host country culture. If we accept that the students will always think and act in ways that are consistent with and built upon their culture, then the path to success must take this into account.


Valuing the other

To achieve this, the foreign teachers have to adapt their teaching strategies to respond to the learning styles of the students, guided by the host country teachers. The host country teachers have to act as the conduits of communication between the foreign teachers and the local students to avoid an inevitable ‘lost in translation’ situation, which goes beyond linguistics, and to present the reality of the student experience. This can only happen through open and confident dialogue. It can be challenging. Foreign teachers can have trouble accepting that they need to change their teaching, and that they can learn from the host country teachers. Most local teachers do not believe that they can or should teach the foreign teachers anything related to the international curriculum. There are, in reality, two distinct experts: the foreign teachers are the experts in the international curriculum, international teaching methods and the assessment processes; the host country teachers are the experts in their culture and the learning styles of the local students. Both have to accept that they are the learners as well as the teachers, and they have to see themselves as equals. Only then can they work together to find ways of effective communication with the students.


Both groups may need to reflect upon, and find pathways, to deal with the reasons for their thinking. These conversations must happen for the sake of the students, but they’re not easy, and a transition of mutual understanding is necessary. The role of administrators is to open up this discussion and ensure an exchange of ideas and continual dialogue.

Richard Mast is Director of Curriculum at Chenshan School, Huangshan, China and has been working in international schools and Chinese schools for the past 19 years. He is currently focusing on pedagogy that assists Chinese students in transitioning successfully to international education. Contact him on LinkedIn:

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