How a Teacher Can Damage an International Student’s Career in One Easy Step

Most educators understand that each student has his or her own individual learning style. Treating that student like a mass-produced cookie cutout can damage whatever potential for learning or growth was there in the first place.

This is pretty well understood.

However, teachers who work with international students have a greater challenge that in my opinion isn’t always met or even recognized.

For students who come from Asia especially, there is a whole set of academic expectations and learning behaviors that are incompatible with (if not directly opposed to) the way we do things here in the West.

This means that these students sometimes completely misunderstand or misinterpret what we’re trying to do, and the results can be disastrous.

Let me just give one recent example.

A Korean student of mine at Academy of Art last semester was faced with a dilemma that might have caused her to drop out or to repeat the semester at great cost. It also threatened to throw her into serious depression.

At the very least, it created a major conflict that a little more awareness on her teacher’s part might have helped avoid.

Her Graphic Design Midpoint Review class had a Study Group that met weekly to help students with their projects, clarify the assignments and give feedback. At least that was the idea.

However, because the teacher leading the Study Group didn’t account for the cultural background, she unwittingly placed my student in a double bind that nearly sent her degree path off the rails.

It all seemed pretty innocuous. The teacher simply offered a different way to implement one part of my student’s project. The problem was that it was a major part, and more importantly, the idea contradicted what my student had been advised to do by the main professor.

There’s the rub.

What this teacher apparently didn’t understand or consider was that in Korea, when a teacher recommends something, the student has to follow it. It’s not really optional. It’s a directive from your Wise Superior. The Confucian philosophy that still underlies the student/teacher relationships in Korea is pretty clear on this point.

A Western student would probably just have looked at the suggestion objectively as a potential pain in the a** or whatever and just gone with the original advice (or whichever one made more sense.)

For Koreans, it’s not that simple. My student felt that she had to follow what the Study Group teacher had told her, which meant starting the project again and likely not being able to finish it on time. And it contradicted what she had been told by another teacher.

It was an existential crisis.

The worst part is that teacher #2 probably wasn’t making a serious recommendation at all, just throwing ideas around.

Unfortunately, it was like some C4 on the train tracks.

At home, Koreans are not expected to view teachers’ utterances critically; in fact, quite the opposite.

My student went into a tailspin. Bewildered, distressed and having no idea what to do, she was seriously considering starting the project over, which would have meant not meeting the Midpoint Review deadline. THAT would have been catastrophic. Not to mention expensive (repeating the semester = tuition + living expenses in SF! Academy of Art wouldn’t have minded of course, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

Fortunately, I was able to explain to her that she didn’t have to follow what the teacher said – that it was just a suggestion, not a diktat. I’m still not sure she entirely believed me, but for whatever reason, she went along with it. (Thank god. I really wasn’t looking forward to re-doing the entire research and development phase of the project!)

The moral of the story is:

As teachers, tutors, counselors and guides, we have to work a lot harder to comprehend the worldview that students bring with them and how it affects their understanding of what we’re trying to do.

If we don’t do this effectively, our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, can end up being counter-productive or worse.

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