Expanding My Horizons: Why Cultural Awareness Is So Important to Education
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela
I grew up in a small, conservative town in Southern Illinois with a population of 7,000, a town where hardly anyone owns a passport and it is rare to see an international traveler passing through — a place that people rarely leave and always return to. Most people who grow up there stay for university, begin their careers, start families, and have children, that in turn stay there, go to university, begin careers, and have children. I was on that path until education opened windows to the world that I eventually climbed out of.
I fell in love with education at an early age from the influence of my 2nd Grade teacher and was extremely lucky to find and keep my passion for teaching and learning over the years. It was in 2010, when I was first involved with teaching and learning abroad. Since then, I have gained experiences as an international educator turned leader, and I am extremely grateful for the 12 years of cultural experiences that have made an impact on the person I am today. While teaching lessons, some of the most important teachings I have received is the experiences from the countries I have taught and lived in.
Cultural awareness is an understanding of how people acquire their cultures and the important role that culture plays in personal identities, ways of life, and the mental and physical health of individuals and communities. Individuals should be conscious of one’s own culturally shaped values, beliefs, perceptions, and biases. I have been lucky enough to experience, grow and incorporate this practice of the promotion of awareness into teaching and education during three major parts of my lifetime. Developing an understanding of culture is a foundation of effective teaching and learning.
2010 – Yachana
It was 2010 and the first time I had been on an airplane, used a passport, and saw an endless body of ocean water sprawled out beneath me. I was flying from my small town to Miami, then to Quito, and then to my final stop a few days later (to adjust to the country’s elevation) in Yachana. Fifteen fellow educators were making their own way to Yachana, which means “a place for learning” in the indigenous Kichwa language. I was going there with hopes to have a positive influence but left with an impact on me that has endured until the present day.
Over the first week, I quickly adapted to their way of life. Half the day was taken up with teaching, and the other half was spent learning from one another (the Mestizo youth from the Amazon region). We spent afternoons and evenings in the rainforest supporting sustainable agriculture and creating handicrafts to make a profit to support the school in Yachana. I visited with Shamans, lived off the land, and never once turned on the TV. Inspired by what I saw there, I brought the Sustainable Development Goals to my school when I returned to the U.S., long before they became a mainstream staple of progressive education. This small rainforest village off the Napo River was doing far more to promote sustainability than we were at home; it was integral to their culture. While some of the ideas, practices, and people were unfamiliar to me, it was evident that the more open I was to their culture, the more I would be able to give back with understanding. Twelve years later have passed, and I am still connected to Yachana and its people.
2011–2013 – Eastern Bhutan
I returned to the states inspired and motivated to continue this journey of teaching abroad. My next adventure took me to a little-known Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan. The country is uncharted to most people due to the 250USD a day tourist tax you have to pay to visit. It’s an intentional, strategic policy designed to preserve the culture, the sacred mountain ranges, and the wider environment.
Between 2011 and 2013, I spent my days immersed in the local culture in a remote village in Eastern Bhutan in a place called Trashigang. Classroom sizes regularly exceeded 30 students. Single desks often accommodated three students. Some students traveled by foot up to 10km or more a day to travel to school as they knew education could potentially be their pathway to more than the remote village life. In my first year, I learned more about water conservation and resilience than I ever imagined possible.
In my second year, a Bhutanese family adopted me as their own, and I still feel a part of that family today. The experience of learning their cultural traditions and attending festive gatherings with my Bhutanese brothers and sisters gave me invaluable insights that truly helped me to understand the students and their way of life. Building relationships with students is the foundation of my teaching practice. It didn’t take long to understand that some students may be forced to drop out of school before they reached teen years to work on the farm, as that lifestyle was more of an expectation than school at the time. I knew that in order to reach them, I needed to be with them and learn from them. It was going to take more than me spreading reading and writing knowledge, and I needed to embrace every moment and lesson if I was going to teach and influence the children in this village. Getting to know my students meant challenging issues that would arise, and I had a choice to either experience them or run from them. I chose the experience and, in turn, was able to do much more than just teach them English.
During my first year, I developed a Sexual Education program to ensure the local women and students could create and use reusable sanitary napkins and had the information needed to prevent infection. I was inspired to do this when one of my students dropped out of school, and countless other female students were regularly missing school during menstruation. I wrote grant applications to the U.S.A. to improve water supplies in our school bathroom and in some neighboring homes. I secured two grants, both of which facilitated pipes for running water from the hillside, sanitation supplies, and paint to give the bathroom a makeover. It was in my last few months that I realized the impact and opportunity I was providing. At the time, I was the only African American in the entire country. I was well known in Eastern Bhutan for my appearance as much as my dedication to my work in the primary school. In my final month, a student approached me and said, “Madame, your skin has gotten lighter since you have been here.” I looked at her innocent, genuine eyes and replied, “No, it has not, but you are seeing me in a different light.” She knew exactly what I meant, and I felt that in that moment, something changed for both of us. During my time there, I learned more about the people of Bhutan and myself than I thought possible. Educating remote village children was more than just reading and writing; it required connection and promoted understanding.
2014–Present – United Arab Emirates
Four months after returning to the U.S.A. from Bhutan, I grew restless, and an opportunity in Abu Dhabi and Dubai presented itself to me. When I look back on the reasons I came to the U.A.E. in 2014, the one motivation that consistently stays in my mind was a desire to be part of this progressive country that supports Emirati women. The U.A.E. felt like a good fit for me, this progressive nation actively pursuing an agenda for female empowerment. I have seen my previous students become nurses, travel and study abroad, and succeed in ways they never thought possible. Many people back home were skeptical of my choice. I later came to see that this was the fear of the unknown manifesting, and I was determined to prove that this was a progressive Middle Eastern country on the verge of something big.
Eight years later, I am still here in one of the world’s safest countries, a place that has more women cabinet members than the U.S., one of which is the world’s youngest minister. Adjusting to the norms here wasn’t easy, but it has been worth it. I read the Quran in my first year as I knew that it would be essential to having an understanding of my students’ perspectives. I wore their Jalabya and Abaya and learned the national anthem, and I visited them in their homes. As it was in Bhutan, the time spent out of the school environment was the most rewarding in terms of getting to know the students and bringing understanding to the classroom. I learned more about patience than I ever thought possible (Inshallah), and I also learned just how important it is to bridge the culture gap with communication skills. I ask questions. I invite questions. We learn from each other.
Over the past eleven years of teaching and developing my career into leadership in an international setting, I have become convinced that intercultural awareness should sit at the heart of teaching and learning, and I celebrate diversity in the classroom. The more intimately you know your students, the greater the chance of successful outcomes. I recognize that everyone, regardless of background, skills, or expertise, brings something unique to the table, and I believe that every teacher should go out of their way to reach into the culture that their students grew out of in order to better serve them in the classroom. If an educator or any person living abroad can collectively harness that and bring everyone’s skills together, the group can be better than the sum of its parts. That is why I believe that cultural awareness paired with education is by far the most powerful weapon in the world, and moving into year 12, I know I have much more to see and much more to do.
Ashley Huffmon is a Secondary English teacher who has worked in Ecuador, Bhutan, and the U.A.E. as an English teacher, head of English department and volunteer and is currently serving as Head of Secondary at American Academy for Girls in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She is an avid traveler in her spare time and has solo traveled to over 25 countries and counting.
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