Instructors with multicultural backgrounds: We have so much to offer!

07 May 2019 6:00 PM | Anonymous

By Maria S. Wong, Ph.D., Stevenson University

Growing up in Hong Kong, I immigrated to Canada with my family at the age of 17. I vividly remember my first day of class as a senior in a public high school. It was a big surprise for me to find that no student really seemed to care when the instructor stepped into the classroom. It was not until the instructor started speaking that the students slowly quieted down and got ready for class. Similar to the experience of many international students, I was used to standing up and greeting the instructor in unison with the rest of the class. Another surprise came when it was time for class discussion. My education in Hong Kong has taught me that instructors often have the right answer in mind when they posed a question. However, my classmates were used to entertaining different points of view. Most of them also felt comfortable speaking their mind and were ready to defend their view.

Instructors with international backgrounds have probably experienced similar culture shocks. Research on individualism and collectivism (Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 2001) could explain some of these cultural differences, with people from individualistic cultures (e.g., European Americans) tending to value individual uniqueness, and people from collectivistic cultures (e.g., East Asians) tending to value social hierarchy and group harmony (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002; Triandis, 1995). Indeed, it took me a few years to process and realize how my cultural background has influenced my own learning and teaching. With this blog post, I hope to share “three don’ts and do’s” with fellow instructors who are also thinking about similar issues related to their teaching.

Three Don’ts

1. Don’t assume disrespect right away

For instructors who came from cultures that emphasize hierarchy and authority, they may have a harder time interpreting the casual demeanor of college students in the U.S. From emails that read like text messages (LOL) to in-person exchanges, instructors may automatically assume that the students are being disrespectful. While it is possible that the students are behaving in a disrespectful way, their behavior may reflect possible cohort or cultural differences. From my own experiences, students sometimes engage in unprofessional or immature behaviors without any bad intentions, and these can be turned into teachable moments that can ultimately benefit the students.

2. Don’t get bogged down by ESL (English as a Second Language)

For a long time, I was very self-conscious and insecure of my spoken English. Over time, I have come to realize that my accent has no implications for how well I teach. I am now more focused on whether I am communicating information to my students clearly, and how else I could support my students’ learning, than the proficiency of my spoken English. Interestingly, for the past few years, I have been teaching a course on Writing in Psychology for our majors. Students seemed relieved when I shared with them that English is my second language and that I also struggled with writing in college. They explained to me that finally there was an instructor who could understand their struggles. It was a beautiful moment when I felt connected with my students by sharing my vulnerabilities.

3. Don’t get fixated on negative feedback

I have to confess that I still have a hard time with this: I tend to focus on the one single negative comment and ignore the rest of the positive comments from my student course evaluations. While we are hardwired to pay attention to threats (e.g., Shoemaker, 1996), I think it is important to put everything in context. For me, it means that I can never process student feedback the first time I read them. I have to remind myself not to put too much weight on a single negative comment, unless it is something that has been raised by multiple students.

On a related but separate note, you may receive negative comments from students because of your race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. Do not feel that you have to process those comments alone. Share them with a trusted colleague. Nasty comments reflect nothing about you, but only the person who was making those comments.

Three Do’s

1. Do use your multicultural experience as an asset

One class that I consistently teach is Human Growth and Development. To this end, I have found that my multicultural experiences have enriched the stories that I share with my students. For example, I usually begin the first class by sharing my own story: how I grew up as an only child living in a 600-square-feet apartment with my parents, maternal grandparents, and my aunt in Hong Kong. I am convinced that personal stories are a powerful tool to build rapport with students and encourage them to think about the role of culture in their own development.

2. Do seek a trusted person as a teaching mentor

I am a strong advocate for junior instructors to seek out teaching mentors. I have had the privilege of working closely with a mentor for the past four years. My mentor has offered me great help in processing my thoughts and emotions related to challenging teaching moments. There were also times when I was not sure whether I was overreacting because of my own biases, so it was good to have a trusted person to help me understand and interpret the situation from a different perspective. I am now serving as a mentor for a junior faculty member in Brazil and I hope to take on a supportive mentoring role through our regular Skype meetings.

3. Do have a growth mindset toward teaching

Stemming from Confucianism, my education experience in Hong Kong emphasized the mastery of material, which was often achieved through deliberate practice and memorization. In contrast, stemming from Greek philosophy, my education experience in North America was Socratic, which emphasized learning through the process of self-discovery (Tweed & Lehman, 2002). For my teaching to be effective in the North American context, I have learned the importance of designing and incorporating engaging class activities that help students come to knowledge via critical thinking, which is something that I have not experienced much in Hong Kong. For me, having a growth mindset—believing that my teaching ability can be developed through practice—really motivates me to reflect on my experiences and helps me strive to become a better instructor every day.

Taken together, my multicultural experiences have become a core part of my identity. While there are certainly difficult moments when I navigate between different cultures, culture is ultimately what makes my classes come to life. To this end, there are countless moments when my teaching is enriched as I incorporate elements of culture and diversity. While all instructors can certainly bring these elements into their teaching, I do think that those of us with multicultural backgrounds tend to be more inclined to understanding the nuances of cultural differences, which can become a great asset for our teaching. We have so much to offer!


Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Oyserman, D., Coon, H. M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). Rethinking individualism and collectivism: Evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 3–72.

Shoemaker, P. J. (1996). Hardwired for news: Using biological and cultural evolution to explain the surveillance function. Journal of Communication, 46, 32-47.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Triandis, H. C. (2001). Individualism-collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69, 907–924.

Tweed, R. G., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic approaches. American Psychologist, 57, 89-99.

Maria S. Wong is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stevenson University. She teaches courses such as Writing for Psychology, Human Growth and Development, Introduction to Psychology, Statistics for Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Parenting. To her students, Dr. Wong is known for her energy, enthusiasm, supportive guidance, and the use of creative learning activities. As a developmental psychologist (Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Dr. Wong has an active research program focusing on children’s social-emotional development within the family context. Her work has been published in journals such as Child Development and the Journal of Family Psychology. Dr. Wong is a member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) and serves as an Associate Editor for the STP E-book series. She also serves on the teaching committee of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and was a Co-Chair of the SRCD 2019 Teaching Institute.

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