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Cross-Cultural Connections in the ESL Classroom: Forging Respect and Shattering Societal Barriers

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Riley Diffenderfer

Empowering Learners


 The author responds to an earlier paper in this handbook, focused on transcending cross-cultural barriers in mentorship and teaching.


Cross-Cultural Connections in the ESL Classroom: Forging Respect and Shattering Societal Barriers

Grace Kung writes in her piece “The Ultimate Cross-Cultural Mentoring Challenge” (see this specific Handbook) that mentoring can make differences—in age, in race, in gender, in class—uncomfortably evident, adding to a feeling of initial disconnect between a mentor and a mentee within an unconventional learning environment (like a TLI pairing, in her experience). As Grace writes, while it may be idealistic to assume that racial, age, gender, or class differences are easily ignored in such a setting, it is, however, totally realistic to believe that there is a way to reconcile with these feelings of discomfort. A mentor who is “always cognizant of how race [and other societal barriers] frame the mentoring relationship while consistently looking past the issue[s]” can make a pluralistic partnership a learning and growing experience for both (Johnson-Bailey 18).

Much like Grace, I’ve experienced similar uncomfortable feelings as a tutor to adult ESL students at a local Hispanic community center. I admit that although I was initially attracted to the chance to grow as an educator through the unconventional environment of teaching older students who speak primarily Spanish, that didn’t stop me from being incredibly nervous going into the experience, despite how much these students came to mean to me. I learned that recognizing the discomfort is one step in the direction of making a cross-cultural partnership an invaluable experience. The “invisible knapsacks of privilege and disenfranchisement” we carry are intuitively felt by all in such a partnership, and accepting their presence is the first step to overcoming invisible societal boundaries (Johnson-Bailey 15).

In this essay, I plan to elaborate on Grace’s directions for how to reconcile the anxiety that accompanies a cross-cultural teaching experience, specifically in the context of having a language barrier as well as societal ones. Overcoming these has been an empowering experience that helped me understand that human connection is possible with the right mindset of empathy, openness, understanding, and genuine curiosity. Also, the concept of keeping a tutoring relationship (as opposed to a mentoring one) mutually beneficial is, I have found, a more difficult experience, because the traditional classroom setting of teacher and student hardly encourages exchange and appreciation among students and teacher. Furthermore, I’ll explain the difficulty of overcoming a language barrier, but how the commonality of human experience can surpass this—in my own experience, through music, specifically.

My students, a group of about fifteen women, are all Mexican immigrants, most less than ten years older than I am, with growing families and a desire to enter the English-speaking workforce. Martha*, the ESL teacher in the program, teaches classes every day from morning until mid-afternoon, and usually encourages me to take one or several students into another room for extra practice—either students at the lower tier who are struggling to keep up with the rest of the class, or students at the higher tier who Martha feels are held back in class and could benefit from extra practice.

To give a description of one student with which I worked extensively: Irene, a few years older than I am, struggles to understand even when asked basic questions such as, “What is your name?” She has one preschool aged child and has been in the U.S. for a few years at the most. When I tried to introduce myself to her, I asked her, because I was curious to learn more about the vibrant Mexican community in the area, “Where are you from?” “How long have you been in America?” and I think it made her uncomfortable, because as Martha later told me about the students, many are in the U.S. illegally, and are hesitant to share their origins with people they don’t know and trust; specifically, they are extremely frightened of anyone in law enforcement. I can now understand why these questions were perhaps too pointed, considering our unfamiliarity with each other and my nervousness at the time.

What I had to overcome, specifically, was my foolish anticipation of awkward moments in our partnership. I anticipated those moments when we would have misunderstandings, or when my students wouldn’t respond as well to activities I designed for them. While it is incredibly important to maintain a realistic point of view by recognizing the possibility of these moments to arise, it is not advisable to let it define encounters with students, constantly making an educator hyperaware of arising problems. I had to teach myself to relax—and when I did, when I considered our partnership to be more on a personal level than a more distant “educational” one, it became so much easier to forge personal connections with the students.

I tried again another day to have a conversation with Irene, with more of an emphasis on lightening the mood and making a personal connection than making small talk. I asked Irene to tell me about her family. She told me that she lives with her husband and daughter, but that her parents are still in Mexico and that she misses them very much. Here, I found some common ground with her—I pointed to my hometown of Pittsburgh on a map of the U.S. in the room, and explained that I’m living far away from my parents as well, and that I miss them. This was a beneficial lesson for me because I learned how much of teaching is thinking on my feet, and in terms of personal connection opportunities as well and how they can also be educational at the same time—it was a chance to practice vocabulary of family members, directional vocabulary, and some PA geography. But most importantly, it taught me that personal connection doesn’t have to be forced, and can be woven very seamlessly into any kind of lesson while also encouraging respect and appreciation within a partnership.

As Grace writes, most teachers are accustomed to teaching students who are younger than they are. A slightly different methodological approach to teaching has to be adopted by an educator who is teaching older students, though—especially when the educator is younger than her students. Teachers in a traditional setting command attention and respect from their students because they are older and evidently wiser, since they are in a position to teach, usually (unfortunately) without much opportunity for dialogue. However, an educator who is teaching older students must not assume this societal construction of inherent respect is present—because this is an unconventional learning environment, the educator must forge a mutual level of respect between students and teacher by remembering that these students have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

What is very exciting about teaching older students is that this concept of “reciprocal learning” is not a newfangled educational theoretical experiment, but really a necessity in these unconventional learning environments, since the need to forge respect and, above all, trust between students and a teacher is the backbone of making a cross-cultural partnership a growth experience for all.

How, though, does a cross-cultural teacher-student partnership transcend the awkwardness inherent in a partnership that brings to the surface these “invisible knapsacks of privilege and disenfranchisement”? Finding common grounds through experiences or “generational understandings of the world” is a good way to forge personal connections (Johnson-Bailey 15). Linking learning material with real life—providing a context for learning by talking about our families, our tastes, our opinions—makes personal connection a learning and growing opportunity that, I have found, is particularly well-suited to the language learning classroom, and is one reason I grew to love my middle and high school French and Spanish classes so much, and why I plan to teach languages. Personal connection opportunities are constantly available in the ESL classroom because of this, and it provided me with many chances to connect with my students by talking about our families and home life.

Of course, language barriers that are inherent in the ESL classroom give a whole new dimension to the concept of transcending barriers to triumph at a mutually appreciative, growth-inducing partnership. I have found that refraining from a condescending tone (which unfortunately occurs when misunderstandings occur between two different language speakers) while speaking with my lower-level students is important to maintaining a level of respect. I’ll usually say directions without considering potential lack of comprehension, such as, “We’re going to read a book now, and I’d like it if we could sit in a circle,” and then demonstrate by pointing to the book and arranging some seats in a circle, and repeating as necessary. I remember to speak clearly, and I write down in a notebook the words that they don’t understand, with the intention to use them more often to increase comprehension. When they respond to me in Spanish, I encourage them to say it in English as well, if they can. I made sure they know that I’m learning Spanish as they are learning English, so when I’m not sure of a Spanish equivalent for a word, I’ll ask them—this is another great opportunity to reciprocate learning in the classroom.

One common interest we can all decide on is music. In some of my language classes in the past, we would listen to French and Spanish songs, with the lyrics in front of us but missing some words, which we would have to listen for in the song when the teacher played it for everyone. I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice listening comprehension and vocabulary, so I picked out some songs I thought they would enjoy—one was “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, for example, because of the simple vocabulary and slower pace of singing—and I printed the lyrics with some words missing. The students loved it—we were laughing, singing, and dancing together, and at the end of class they were even suggesting their favorite Mexican singers and groups for me. This was definitely a milestone for me—a lot of this great moment has to do with the group’s openness, vibrancy, and friendliness, but I also think my attempts to reciprocate respect and establish trust led us to being able to enjoy each others’ company like we did during that activity.

While a cross-cultural mentoring or tutoring experience can make both sides of a partnership anxious and uneasy, the necessity of trust in a partnership is founded first by accepting and reconciling with feelings of uneasiness, and then by forging personal connections with students. While this is particularly well suited to a language learning or ESL classroom, the opportunities remain in any teaching environment, regardless of any societal barriers separating people in the classroom.


Works Cited

Johnson-Bailey, Juanita and Ronald M. Cervero. “Cross-Cultural Mentoring as a Context for Learning.” Text given in class.

Kung, Grace. “The Ultimate Cross-Cultural Mentoring Partnership Challenge.” 15 April


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