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Peel Workshops Tackle Cultural Barriers

Vitusha Oberoi

Classroom noise, chit chat with superiors, students working in groups – these are among the challenges that teachers from other countries face when they step into a North American school.

“It basically boils down to the cultural differences between where our internationally trained mem- bers taught originally and the transition to teach- ing here,” says Shelly Jan, president of the Peel Elementary Occasional Teacher Local (PEOT).

The academic credentials of  the teachers are good: they have their certification from the Ontar- io College of Teachers, but they have been trained for the classrooms of their countries of origin and not Ontario. “That’s where the breakdown is,” Jan says. “They are capable of doing the job academi- cally but certain things need to be adjusted.”

To help bridge this gap the PEOT Local has launched a pilot project to help its internation- ally trained teacher members to adapt to Ontario classrooms.

The local is conducting workshops for teach- ers who are looking for guidance as they transfer their skills from their country of origin to Cana- da. Members hold monthly meetings, and in the presence of an experienced facilitator discuss the problems they face. They keep journals and share their experiences as they strive to come to grips with the cultural differences that challenge them in their profession here.

Jan decided to focus on the special needs of these teachers after she realized that their teach- ing credentials were being  questioned because of cultural issues. “I would get calls from principals about the classroom management abilities or communication skills of the teachers. I felt it was not fair to our members because what we needed to do was deal with these cultural issues.

“The board is not cutting enough slack for their adjustment and the teachers themselves don’t know what to expect when they come into the classrooms in Canada,” Jan says.

Veena Navgiri, a half-time ESL teacher, says that a crucial issue faced by inter- nationally trained teachers in the initial stages relates to the amount of freedom enjoyed by students in the class. Navgiri is from Gujarat, India and was a uni- versity professor before migrating to Canada. Her class of 80 students used to be focused, would never challenge her, and above all, was mostly quiet.

“In India, we always want our students to keep quiet while we do the teaching. I never had to think about discipline or classroom management. When I started teaching here, I would get anxious if the noise levels in my class rose,” she says.

Navgiri says with experience and discussing the problem with her colleagues, she has learned to adjust to her new classrooms. “These workshops have helped me realize that I am not alone and other teachers also face a similar problem.” “The concept of group work  in  the classroom was new to me,” says Charulata Joshi, originally from Mumbai. “How do I know any learning is going on? How do you monitor that the children are on task? The issue of who controls the classroom also baffled her. “In India, the  classes are teacher-oriented. Here, the classes are more interactive.”

While the English language in itself was not a problem, nuances and phrases peculiar to Canada definitely were. “I usually come across a num- ber of Indian children in my classroom. I find that they do not always pro- nounce their names the Indian way and correct me on this,” Joshi said.

The informality of North America is another stumbling block for the teachers, who have a culture of treating their superiors as authority figures – distant and aloof. They hesitate to be on first-name terms with their principal, won’t approach her on discipline issues  until and unless they are pushed to the wall, and won’t exchange small talk. “I see other teachers discussing the weather with the principal. I want to do the same but I don’t know how,” says one of the workshop members.

The problems are many but Jan and facilitator Prem Pillay, a retired teacher who taught in South Africa before moving to Canada, make sure that they do not overwhelm. They offer advice and encouragement. “It takes you wantingto learn and not isolate yourselves in your own little groups,” says Jan.