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by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator, Communication Across the Curriculum

You never truly understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960, p. 60)

Yes, we knew the world was shrinking, figuratively, and that we needed intercultural listening and speaking skills to succeed as teachers at a diverse campus.  But September 11 certainly shined a bright light on the issue.  Since then many of our students have had many new worries, including whether they can feel safe outside their "group" and whether it will become harder for international students to study in the U.S. and still travel back and forth to their homes.

We've all found issues to arouse our defensiveness in the past months; perhaps now is a good time to ponder what it takes to model intercultural empathy for our students. Empathy in Cross-Cultural Communication, an article by Colleen Mullavey-O'Bryne, offers a list that is hard to perform, but highly applicable to the classroom.  I've added questions for teachers to consider:

Observational skills:

Am I taking note of how my students are holding up, whether they seem troubled, or at odds with each other?

Ability to react appropriately, sensitively, and with reasonable accuracy to cross-cultural stimuli:

Can I show support and seek information in positive ways, without putting students on the spot?

Capacity to project a genuine interest in others:

Can I model curiosity about opinions, even when they aren't aligned with mine?

Acceptance of others:

Can I accept attitudes that offend me? Can I be careful to align myself with all of my students?

Perceptual acuity:

Can I use my observations to see what needs assistance/mediation from me?

Open- mindedness:

Can I encourage others' points of view, even when they conflict with my own beliefs?

Nonjudgmental and noncritical attitude:

Can I model careful listening to alternative viewpoints? Can I filter loaded terms from my classroom language?

Ability to suspend judgment:

Can I model postponing judgment and show willingness to hear the full story?

Ability to discriminate and select appropriate strategies:

Am I helping students see the uniqueness of different perspectives?  Can I offer supportive ways to validate others and address their differences?

Flexibility to try different strategies as required:

Am I willing to acknowledge when an approach isn't working and then try something else?

Persistence to overcome setbacks:

Do I recognize and acknowledge the struggles which many of our students face?

Am I willing to address situations that don't go well, and work to improve them?

Interest in and knowledge of intercultural communications:

Do I model being a curious and motivated listener and reader of multiple perspectives?

In the uncertainties of the year 2002, we can offer to our students a safe haven in the classroom, a place to express, process, and understand our conflicting and challenging feelings.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 2

Fall 2001