Why is intercultural competence important?
12 year old Valeria starts school in the Netherlands. She is the only migrant student in her class, recently arriving from Venezuela. After about a month of special attention from the teacher, she is now expected to do her tasks within a small working group.
Valeria: Yesterday we were asked to make a presentation about animals. We had to sit in small groups and I was excited at first: “Nice! What animal does the teacher want us to talk about?” But then, she didn’t say anything! The children in my group shouted. “My dog!,” says one, “No, my cat!” said another, and one of the girls wanted to talk about her beautiful pony. I looked at the teacher but she was doing something else. Why didn’t she just tell us what to do? These children seemed to think they know, but I was afraid they didn’t. I felt lonely and I missed my cat Luna that is still in Venezuela.
Teacher: Valeria is starting to catch up, she’s a nice girl. Yesterday I asked them to make a presentation about animals. It was good to see that the children started to contribute ideas in their groups. I’ve let them talk to each other and sort themselves out. Valeria was a bit quiet though, and she seemed to be absent. Maybe they don’t have any pets back in Venezuela.
Valeria sees a teacher as an expert and leader. She is used to a teacher giving explanations and specifically telling her what to do. Valeria’s Dutch teacher, however, prefers her students to take the initiative, work in a group and contribute their individual work to a group assignment, so they learn to express their opinions and take decisions independently. The teacher seems to sit around, but she will react to questions.
Where lies the connection?
Valeria could try to overcome her anxiety, mingle with the group and share her own views. She can also approach the teacher and ask her guidance. The teacher could consider agreeing on specific signals Valeria can give her if she has questions.
The teacher, after giving Valeria extra attention, could give her a leaflet describing the expected behavior, which she could then discuss with her parents. The teacher could also write a note to the parents and invite them for a meeting. Another possibility could be to set up weekly meetings with Valeria and give her feedback on her classroom experience..
The Netherlands has a low power distance culture (low PDI). Valeria is from a high power distance (more hierarchy) culture. In Valeria’s culture, many people rely on a leader who looks after them in exchange for loyalty. In the classroom, Valeria experiences an egalitarian culture with the teacher being more a facilitator than a leader. The teacher expects the students to take the initiative and to have discussions in the group. Each student has his or her own opinion and is encouraged to speak up and share it.
Important to know
This anecdote is based on stories that have been shared with us. Connect2Us aims to illuminate the dilemma from both sides and not to label people or suggest that one or the other should behave differently. We see in our daily intercultural work that awareness is enough for those involved to move towards each other without denying themselves. Connect2Us wants to help readers recognise and avoid prejudice.