Research Spotlight- Cross-cultural transition: International teachers’ experience of ‘culture shock’

My first night in Taiwan was awful. (The details are irrelevant)

But let’s just say culture shock hit me hard, and it took about 4-6 months before I settled in and “adjusted”.

I use quotation marks purposely on “adjusted” because I wonder if any of us really adjust.

Is culture shock just about the food, language, etc.? Or is there more to it?

And what about international teachers? Is their culture shock experience unique?

Donna Roskell attempted to answer those questions with her study Cross-cultural transition: International teachers’ experience of ‘culture shock’.

About the Study

Roskell’s study documents the culture shock of international teachers in a British owned international school in South East Asia over the period of one school year. Twelve teachers were interviewed and observed during the study. The teachers are all British nationals with an average of 6.1 years of teaching experience, and their ages ranged from 27-41. Some of the teachers had as many as 2 previous overseas jobs while for others, this was their first overseas assignment. At the end of this school year, 7 terminated their contract.

Roskell’s findings are encompassed by three categories: host culture characteristics, relationships, and work characteristics. For host culture characteristics, the study reports that teachers struggled with the weather, transport, food, health, and noise.

The teachers struggled with relationships, particularly with their local teaching assistant. They found difficulty communicating and reported being in disagreement with the way local teachers handled the students, often characterizing the style as “too lax.” However, after 7 months the teachers seemed to adjust and develop both good working and personal relationships with locals.

The teachers expected to be working at a school with a British curriculum, and therefore, did not consider that culture shock may also affect their teaching life. While teachers initially were happy about the small class size and ample amount of planning time, their work satisfaction dissolved after 4 months. Teachers reported feeling frustrated in what they perceived as a lack of standards/assessment and role ambiguity. There was also much discontent with the perceived lack of leadership. The result is that many teachers felt deflated and lacked motivation.


The Culture Shock of Teaching Abroad

Roskell suggests that her study shows ‘double culture shock’ with one being related to the host culture and another related to work. I’d like to focus on the work side.

What I found most interesting about this study is how similar it is to feelings I have experienced and those shared by many of my international colleagues in Taiwan. Even for colleagues who have been in Taiwan for 10+ years, culture shock still seems to be present for them inside of local schools. Similar themes include difficulty relating to local staff, a perception of lack of leadership, a sense of disorganization, role ambiguity, and the absence of standards and assessment.

Lax Behavior Management

Similar to the study, many of my colleagues have observed a lax attitude toward student behavior outside of class time. Generally, the Taiwanese seem pretty strict during class, but between classes, they seem to turn a blind eye. For me and my colleagues, this has been most present with running in the hallway, something that drives us crazy but gets little response from local teachers. In my conversations with locals, they do not seem to view the running and playing between classes as a problem. Their attitude seems to be “kids should be kids.” This is clearly a point in which a culture gap exists.

Leadership and Disorganization

The topic of leadership in schools is an interesting one for me. Teachers in the study reported, “nobody was prepared to make a decision or to offer advice or support” (Raskell, 2013, p. 161). This topic came up in a cultural intelligence book club I ran one semester. The teachers in the club made a similar observation to the study about the lack of decision making in our school. It was reasoned that perhaps local staff did not make decisions because decision-making presents risks. If their decision is wrong, they both lose face and our on the hook to be blamed. Therefore, it is safer to not make any decision at all unless specifically directed to from above. The lack of decision making often may result in a perception by international teachers that the school is disorganized as nothing seems to be solved. There seems to be cultural differences in risk taking and motivation to solve problems.

Role Ambiguity

What does an “international teacher” job entail? What tasks are we allowed to participate in and which are reserved for locals? How do we deal with discipline in another culture? Are we allowed to talk to parents? Are we allowed to talk to the principal? Are we “real” teachers?

I have found that many of us as international teachers constantly question our roles and identities in foreign schools. And these questions do not come with easy answers. Sometimes, the answers can often be painful for some teachers. The reality is that the job “teacher” back home is not the same as “teacher” in a foreign country. As with the study, my colleagues and I have found difficulty pinpointing exactly what the job is.

Standards and Assessment

If you asked me the biggest difference between U.S. and Taiwan schools, it would be the view of what a curriculum is. In the U.S., the curriculum is dictated by a list of standards and these are assessed by formal assessments, usually standardized. What materials you use to teach those standards are often decided on a local level. As long as the students can demonstrate mastery of the standard, the materials used to teach it are irrelevant.

In Taiwan, however, it seems that the textbook dictates what is learned. These textbooks are designed with standards in mind, but teachers use the textbook as a guide to what to teach, rather than a standards list. (NOTE: Someone should fact check me on this because I am largely speculating.)

The problem with this difference is the mindset toward textbooks. The textbooks used for Chinese classes in Taiwan are designed to fit neatly in the semester, and it is expected that everything is covered. If you will allow me to speculate again, my bet is that there are generally a manageable amount of standards. Unfortunately, Western textbooks often cover a lot of topics. A teacher could adequately teach standards without going cover to cover or even using the textbook much at all.

 The problem becomes that standards are not necessarily something thought about by local staff and schools because the textbooks take care of it. However, if these are never considered for Western textbooks, what results is that teachers may be focusing on many different topics which they find important and different classes will learn very different things, perhaps resulting in skill deficiency for some students. Why? Because it would be impossible to adequately teach a Western textbook cover to cover in a school year (Or at least that’s my opinion).
Curriculum planning is handled by different countries. Teachers coming from a standards system can be frustrated by the lack of adherence to a standards list. Foreign schools may think choosing a textbook is enough since that’s how it works in their country. Unfortunately, this is an often unrecognized cultural difference and causes international teachers to make comments like “this is not a real school.”

My Criticism of the Study

Before I conclude, I feel it necessary to briefly note an observation I made about the potential of this study to be affected by author bias.

The author of the study discloses that she was an administrator at the school at the time the study was taking place. This is not a problem in itself, and it should be encouraged that more teachers and administrators carry out research studies to add to the field. However, I do not feel the author does enough to report the findings in a partial manner. An example:

[The teachers] complained incessantly, and the insufferable heat, humidity and mosquitoes were the bane of everyone’s lives.

(Roskell, 2013, p. 160)

The author’s excessive use of extreme language causes me to pause and wonder if she is injecting her own thoughts and feelings. Words such as “incessantly” and “insufferable” strike me as a bit inappropriate for academic journal writing. The phrase “bane of everyone’s lives” also seems a bit loaded.

That’s just one sentence. I could pull countless examples, but that isn’t necessarily the point of this post. I just want to put a disclaimer out there for anyone looking to generalize this study that a question exists about author bias.


I found this study on international teacher culture shock incredibly fascinating, possibly because it reflected a lot of the experiences of me and my international teaching colleagues.

Unfortunately, as I tried to dig in further, I have found that this is an incredibly under-studied area of research. With more and more migrant teachers, it is important for schools and teachers to recognize the cultural differences between educational systems. While a multi-national teaching staff can create a diverse learning environment for students, having frustrated and unmotivated international teachers can hurt the school climate and possibly (probably) affect student learning.

What are your experiences with teacher culture shock? Share in the comments below.

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