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Cultural competencies of a teacher

Do teachers need special competencies when facilitating a multicultural classroom?


Surabhi Bhuskute

senior lecturer
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Maria Haukka

lehtori, HR ja johtaminen
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 03.06.2024

Sometimes we teachers wonder, why students do not follow the instructions given. Are we too ambiguous, were the instructions unclear or do students lack in responsibility?

We tend to personalise problems. It is human to blame someone’s level of responsibility or understanding when instructions are not followed. However, in a multicultural classroom, we should consider that there is no real problem at all and the root cause is simply the teacher’s lack of intercultural competence.

Manifestation of a culture

Trompenaars and Woolliams (2020) illustrate culture as an onion that aims to characterize the manifestations of the culture. At the outermost layer of the model are symbols, such as gestures and words. The next layer includes heroes and they refer to individuals who possess traits highly valued in a specific culture. The following layer is rituals as collective actions. At the core of the onion model are values.

The outermost layer is easiest to see and to understand. We all know the difference in how we understand timeframes or schedules differently, how other cultures show respect different than we do, and we are aware of the main gestures in main cultures. Also, it is fairly easy to get to know the religious rituals and habits. Cultural core values are deeper and often require reading between the lines, otherwise one can disrespect them by accident.

A teacher needs to read non-verbal cues. In many cultures, the actual message is conveyed through non-verbal communication like always greeting, smiling and remembering names. The communication consists of micro-messages: gazes, words, and sighs. This all may seem insignificant, but the significance should not be underestimated.

Attitudes and genuine emotions are being read via non-verbal communication. Bias and stereotypes are often seen in a hidden way. If a teacher holds unconscious beliefs or assumptions about certain cultural groups, it can be seen in the behavior and expectations. All may affect both direct teacher-student interaction and classroom dynamics.

Teachers as intercultural interpreters

A successful teacher acts as a cultural interpreter between all the students in a classroom. The teacher enhances cultural sensitivity within the whole class.

A culturally sensitive teacher is able to build and maintain an atmosphere where everyone’s cultural habits and values are respected and valued. To be able to create the atmosphere requires a lot of respect for diversity and genuine curiosity to understand diversity. An open-minded attitude and willingness to listen and learn from others is needed. And it requires gestures to show that no one is treated more superior to another.

Toivanen et al. (2018) researched multiculturalism in the workplace and the results can be considered also in classroom situations. According to the research, some employees found it difficult to fulfill their colleague’s requests because they assumed that only the supervisor should address requests or commands. In a classroom this situation would ask for additional guidance so that all students understand each others.

Teachers need to know how to make students feel valued and respected so that a supportive learning environment can be created. Also, in all classrooms flexibility is needed and a teacher must be capable of adapting and changing according to the situation.

As the main skill, we would choose empathy. Teachers teaching multicultural classes should be able to empathize with their students and understand the challenges they may face due to cultural differences. To imagine what the other person may feel, fear or value the most in a situation brings real understanding between the cultures.


Toivanen, M., Väänänen, A., Kurki, A-L., Bergbom, B. & Airila, A. 2018. Moni osaa!: työpaikkaosaaminen monikulttuurisilla työpaikoilla. Työterveyslaitos.

Trompenaars, F. & Woolliams, P. 2020. Riding the Waves of Culture. McGraw Hill. New York.

Picture: Shutterstock