My career path started in English education for a variety of reasons, not least of which involved having teachers for parents and being a gold-star student myself. After completing my undergraduate teaching program and one exciting semester abroad in the UK, I pivoted my career trajectory from high school English to a more global focus. Fast forward 18 months and I have moved to Germany. I’m teaching English. And I’m stuck.
My students are adults, professionals in business, and they are set on acquiring accurate grammar and vocabulary skills. We do flash cards. We do workbooks. We roleplay phone calls and negotiations, write endless emails, and practice presenting. On paper, they’re doing well and progress is measurable. But there is a piece missing, and nearly a year and a half passed before someone (hint – another teacher) gave it light.
This light shone in the form of a hamburger, in three states of being. A bun-meat-bun, bun-bun, and meat only. I was attending a workshop, and the facilitator drew these on a white board and wrote “USA” under the first, “Japan” under the second, and “Germany” under the third. He then began to describe how each hamburger form represented the feedback styles of the respective country’s culture (bun for positives, meat for constructive criticism). In that moment I not only felt immense clarity around my own experiences with cultural differences in Germany, but I realized I could teach this to other people. Thus my career in intercultural education was born.
The incorporation of intercultural concepts, skills, etc. into my teaching was an absolute game changer, not just for me but also for my students. We still did the workbook exercises, but we could also talk about the greater context around why, in a cultural sense, small talk is important in the US, or seniority impacts communication in Indian business, or consensus is so strongly prioritized in the Netherlands. These concepts gave additional depth and purpose to the words and phrases my students practiced, and it opened up conversations we would not have had purely following the more standard TEFL workbook curriculum.
Building rapport has always been essential to how I teach, and introducing intercultural concepts to my courses gave these students and myself an opportunity to talk about our experience with one another as (minimum) two different cultures interacting in the same space. Using the hamburger model, for example, we practiced empathy in discussing how each culture may experience each other’s feedback styles. I could explain that in the US, we are accustomed to a “three positives for every negative” type approach (two positives, in the hamburger context) to soften more critical comments, and that I didn’t understand how it was different here; but once I understood, it was important to ask for both, rather than to just expect it.
Leaving a discussion like that meant not only did my students understand a concept with more depth and context, but we understood each other with more depth and context. It helped me remember that I didn’t become a teacher because punctuation and business vocabulary bring me joy, but because building good rapport lays the foundation of a meaningful and effective learning environment.
Intercultural skills, concepts, and education exponentially improved the quality of my work, and I strongly advocate for the integration of intercultural competencies in all workplaces, schools, and organizations. These competencies are game changers, aligned with increasing multicultural awareness, and are the key to keeping up with the times.
- For more about the hamburger feedback model, and others, see https://www.instructortoolkit.co.uk/instructing-skills/feedback-models/
- Hogan, M. (2016, November). The 10-step path to success with low-level business English learners. Workshop presented at the IATEFL BESIG Conference in Munich.
- For the three-to-one positivity ratio, see https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2020/10/16/10-ways-the-3-to-1-positivity-ratio-can-advance-your-career/?sh+2a036e7e70c4&sh=1caf4c6170c4
Elisabeth Hansen is a Learning and Development Specialist with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.