From Teaching TEFL to Teaching Culture

Many moons ago I began my professional career as a TEFL teacher. I ended up teaching and living in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Malaysia and Thailand. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was carving myself out a new career.

I went on to become a cross-cultural trainer and today I help professionals understand how to work more effectively with other cultures.

Many of the skills I use within the training room and a lot of the knowledge I have to draw on is rooted in my time a TEFL teacher.

So, TEFL teachers, what I am saying is that you need to be aware that your teaching experience, especially abroad, is giving you some great options in terms of your future careers.

If you love teaching and you love culture, then cross-cultural training is something to really consider.

What is Cross Cultural Training?

Cross-cultural training essentially helps people work and communicate more effectively with people from other cultures, whether a specific culture, or different cultures in general.

For example, cross-cultural training on China is going to specifically be about Chinese culture whereas a course on negotiating is going to be more general in focus.

For many multinational companies there is a real need to teach their employees about working in or with other cultures. A US company, for example, may have customers in Japan and have their sales or leadership team on understanding Japanese culture. This would cover topics like communication, understanding hierarchy, decision-making, team-work and management.

The whole point of such training is to minimise misunderstandings between cultures and to help people work more openly with one another. Cross-cultural trainers are the people who deliver these courses.

What Types of Cross-Cultural Trainers are there?

Depending on levels of expertise, age and a number of other factors there are several roles within the cross-cultural training industry.

  • Trainer – full-time freelancers who specialise in the design, development and delivery of cross-cultural training and most commonly known as ‘trainers’.
  • Consultant – ‘consultants’ are usually more senior trainers who specialise in specific areas such as sales, negotiation, teaching or strategy. They do less training and give more advice.
  • Relocation trainer – these are freelance trainers whose focus is on cross-cultural training for people moving to a new country and wanting information and insights on how to reduce culture shock.
  • Resource specialist – this is more the role of a junior trainer who may work with a trainer in delivering specific information about a country or culture, for example, about education and learning in South Korea.
  • Internal trainer – same as a trainer but working full-time within an organisation to design and deliver cross-cultural training.

The beauty of cross-cultural training is that most trainers are freelance – meaning you can offer this training at the same time as being a teacher! Even better is the fact that a lot of training now takes place online, meaning zero travel!

What Skills Do You Need?

Becoming a cross-cultural trainer takes time. You need experience which doesn’t happen very quickly.

However, over time TEFL teachers have an advantage in terms of the skills and knowledge they acquire when teaching, namely, how to teach and first-hand information about a country or culture.

Being a teacher gives you lots of experience in handling a room of learners, how to hold yourself, project your voice, elicit answers and manage difficult learners. Lesson planning, using exercises, thinking on your feet and motivating students again are all further examples of skills you naturally pick up as a TEFL teacher. All of these skills are transferable to the corporate training room.

Next to training skills, you need cultural knowledge. For TEFL teachers with experience abroad, this comes naturally as long as you have spent a decent amount of time living in a country, travelling around it, learning its ways and understanding its mentality. As well as time spent living in a country, teaching its people also gives you incredible insights into their communication style and cultural traits.

What Steps Can I Take to Becoming a Trainer?

Becoming a cross-cultural trainer takes time. However, if you’re serious about building up your expertise then here are some steps you can take.

  • Read Books – there are 100s of books on the topic of cross-cultural and intercultural communication. Explore the topic at an academic and practical level.
  • Join SIETAR – find your local Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research and join up. Find out if they have any events coming up and attend them.
  • Pay Attention – if you are teaching in another country then start paying attention to it. Start to understand the roots behind their behaviours, why they think like they think and start scratching beneath the surface to understand the culture.
  • Take a Course – if you feel you are ready to become a trainer there are now train-the-trainer courses specifically aimed at those wanting to get into this kind of training.
  • Get Experience – get whatever experience you can and wherever you can get it. If that means offering some cultural training for free to a local company, do it. You’ll learn a lot.
Written by Neil Payne for TEFL.net February 2020
Neil Payne loves teaching people about culture through his business Commisceo Global.

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