Cultural Clashes Crumpling in the Classroom

It’s clear that I’m “not one of them.” The messages are subtle. Mumbled greetings. Ignoring me in the hallways. Grouping together in the classroom with disregard for what I have to say or present, heads bent on their phones or in huddled conversations between themselves. My 11th grade advisory students are all great kids but they clearly haven’t bought into the “advisory program” and they certainly do not see the purpose of my presence in their lives.

Through my current reading of the book, Understanding Arabs by Margaret K. Nydell (a must read for expats living in the Middle East) I learned that hospitality and the reception of hospitality is very important to Arabs. I asked my advisory students about Arabic hospitality and they went crazy explaining it to me. Using the expression “Welcome” itself is even important. It gave me an idea. If I could change their frame of reference when they entered my classroom maybe we could find a way to connect.

I decided to invite them into advisory as my guests. I brought in hand-made treats, chips, chocolate, fruit, sparkling juice and tea. I covered the table and arranged things nicely. Then I sent an email inviting them to come as my guests into my room for advisory.

 A couple of heads peek curiously into the room, surveying the scene. “Welcome!” I say and motion them into the room.  They spot the table and grins spread across their face. “"What is this?” they query as they begin seriously investigating the food on the table. “"It's a busy week and I think you need a break so I'm treating you like guests today” “This is so sweet.” “Wow, you did this for us?” Genuine expressions of gratitude erupt as they eagerly fill their plates.

 The second wave of students enter, my more skeptical ones. They are more hesitant, suspicious, perhaps expecting “"a catch”. They see the other students enjoying their munchies and they can’t resist. I emphasize my “welcome” and repeat the invitation to be my guest. Their proclivity towards disrespecting advisory is suddenly challenged by their ingrained cultural responsiveness and there is a pause as they are somewhat unsure how to proceed.

 However, they can't resist the draw of the food and drinks and they approach the table. Upon accepting the invitation to be my guest, their cultural reflexes surface and they don’t search for an excuse to leave advisory nor do they get on their phones and they do not ignore me. Instead, they press in, encircling me.

 Then, they start to talk. Really talk. Dreams are shared. Differences between what parents want and what they want are discussed. University hopes are expressed. And in a few minutes I learn more than I have in four months. 

 One even stays to help me clean up. He continues to talk about his fears and hopes for the future. 

 Two weeks have passed and every time I see my advisory students in the halls they call out to me by name. One student in particular comes to me at random times to update me on a project he’s started in an effort of pursuing his dreams. Even more importantly, I feel a connection to them and my care and concern for them has increased.

There is nothing new in this experience is there? It is just another example of the importance of bridging cultures and reaching out to our students in unique ways. It’s true, we didn’t get to the advisory lesson that day but what we did was so much more important and will hopefully lay the foundation for growth in our next year together.